Jerusalem: heart of conflict, beginning of reconciliation

The Kairos document reaffirms that Jerusalem should be a city for everyone. (Oren Ziv/ActiveStills)

For me — as for most Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian — Jerusalem is the city I love the most and visit the least. As a boy, I remember traveling to Jerusalem with my late father along the old road — a trip that took many hours due to the “no-man’s zone” that forbade us from directly accessing the city. Despite the obstacles that existed even then, I remember going to Jerusalem as a deeply happy event. It meant eating the sweets we couldn’t find in our village, and visiting the holy places we’d only heard about in school and church. Or else it meant going to the doctor, since most doctors were based in Jerusalem at that time. In any case, my sentimental relationship with the city is strong.

During the 1980s, I worked at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in Jerusalem, and I drove to the office by car every morning. However, when the first Palestinian intifada broke out in 1987, Jerusalem was sealed off to those of us who lived in the occupied West Bank, and we had to obtain special permits in order to enter the city. Legally visiting Jerusalem became impossible for me. Due to my past as a political prisoner, I was put on some kind of state blacklist, and so the Israeli authorities wouldn’t grant me a permit. For some years, I did manage to enter from time to time — until, that is, Israel began construction of the “separation wall,” at which point all entrances were closed to me. Since 2002, I have not returned. My 25-year-old son, Dafer, has never been to Jerusalem at all, although he has probably traveled half the world. Being barred from Jerusalem is a great loss to me and to my family.

While I must invariably address my relationship with Jerusalem in these ways — in the voice of the child I was, the father I am — I also wish to address Jerusalem’s many symbolic meanings for myself and for others: for Palestinian Christians in our struggle for religious freedom. For Palestinians in general, in our struggle for political self-determination. And for Christians and Muslims and Jews, so often locked in conflict over a place that should in fact be a model of reconciliation.

For Palestinian Christians, Jerusalem is full not only of symbolic richness, but also of symbolic tensions. First of all, although Jerusalem is considered universally sacred for Christians all over the world — the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the birthplace of Christianity itself, the site of the first churches, the historical destination of pilgrimages — it is in many ways a normal city for us Palestinians. It is our political capital, and has traditionally been an economic hub, a center of tourism, health services and education. In this sense, then, my relation to Jerusalem as a Palestinian Christian is twofold: it is, for me, both the universal sacred place where people go to pray and connect to the holy sites and the capital of my country, Palestine, even when the occupying state doesn’t acknowledge it as such. Even more powerfully, however, Jerusalem is the universal sacred place I cannot go to practice my faith, and the capital city I cannot visit.

Yet Jerusalem is also a focal point of the Palestinian struggle, the place where our struggle began and where it will end.

According to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory, as are the parts of the West Bank that Israel unilaterally annexed to the district of Jerusalem. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Hague Regulations of 1907 forbid occupying powers from altering the ways of life of occupied citizens; they likewise prohibit members of the occupying state from settling in the occupied territory.

Israel’s actions in East Jerusalem, throughout history as well as today, constitute gross violations of international law. The violations themselves are copious and ongoing: historical expropriation (since 1967 and through the present day) of private Palestinian-owned land, paving the way for illegal Israeli settlements (referred to as “neighborhoods” in Israeli discourse); demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem (in 2009 alone 47 houses were destroyed, leaving 256 people homeless); discriminatory housing permit policies, in the sense that nearly 10 times as many building permits are issued to Jews in West Jerusalem than to Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem; Israel’s “quiet transfer” policy, revoking the residency of East Jerusalemites who moved from municipal borders (1,363 revocations in 2006, a 300 percent increase from the previous year); and countless others.

What transpires in Jerusalem, then, is a shocking abuse of power, a systematic, ongoing and flagrantly illegal usurpation of Palestinian property and autonomye. When we speak of Jerusalem, we must speak not only of the Old City and the sacred sites, but also of the Jerusalemites themselves. The streets and houses are synonymous with the people who live and work and raise their children there. The holy places are synonymous with the people praying within them. The city itself is also synonymous with all the people who are forcibly prevented from doing so.

In this way, the physical Jerusalem — from land to houses to holy sites — becomes the grounds on which both practical and symbolic struggles are carried out. Israel is not simply trying to find its place in Jerusalem; rather, it is trying to monopolize Jerusalem (again, on both quotidian levels and on universal, sacred ones) and exclude Palestinian Christians and Muslims from the city. For us Palestinians, Jerusalem is a city for all three faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Its preciousness should not be stifled, and its holiest symbols — like the al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims, or the Wailing Wall for Jews — all deserve their existence in this universal city. Any attempt to monopolize them is an attempt to monopolize that universality, and this is an effort we (meaning all peoples) must resist.

These beliefs are articulated in the Kairos document, the Christian Palestinians’ statement to the world about the occupation of Palestine and a call for support in opposing it. The document’s position on Jerusalem and its significance to Christians echoes the statement issued by the Heads of Churches published in 1994 and the second one in 2006. Many tend to think that Jerusalem is only important for Muslims and Jews; the document stresses its equal importance for Christians. The Kairos document addresses Jerusalem both from a specifically Palestinian Christian perspective and from a universal human perspective. We state very clearly that Jerusalem, and particularly East Jerusalem, is an occupied city; that the occupation of Jerusalem is a sin against God and humanity; that it constitutes a defiance of His will as well as that of the international community.

In the Kairos Document, we also stress that Jerusalem should be the place of and model for reconciliation, while in actuality it’s the locus of and reason for our conflict. Thus, we believe that the issue of Jerusalem should be the beginning of our reconciliation, and should absolutely not be left to the so-called “final” items on the negotiation agenda. Resolving the conflict over Jerusalem first will establish a model for the two nations themselves, as well as for resolving other conflicts between them; it will also encourage the growth and development of a just peace in our region.

The document highlights many other central concerns that help us illustrate and expand our discussion of Jerusalem. For one thing, we address (and condemn) the many theological justifications of the Israeli occupation that appear in some theologies. We believe that these justifications are nothing short of hearsay, and that they distort the true Christian teachings; we reject the arguments of those who attach Biblical legitimacy to the violation of our rights. We also emphasize the right of the oppressed to resist oppression — on our independent terms and in our local context. The Kairos Document calls on Palestinian Christians (both here in Palestine and all around the world) to change the current reality, and calls on Israel to stop its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Jerusalem by means of house demolitions and land confiscation.

The Kairos document reminds Jews, Muslims and Christians alike that Jerusalem should be the place where God reconciles with his people and where the creatures of God reconcile with each other. And it affirms the equal importance of Jerusalem for the Palestinian people, whether Christian or Muslim. This affirmation, this unity of vision — not in the sense that everyone must share the same beliefs, but in the sense that the freedom to believe must always be shared — is the document’s greatest strength.

The fate of Jerusalem is the fate of the conflict itself. No matter the shape of a final resolution, Palestinians must have the right to exert their sovereignty in East Jerusalem. And as the Kairos Document urges, the very nature of Jerusalem — universal, sacred and embracing — must be honored as we proceed.

Rifat Kassis is International President of Defence for Children International (DCI) and General Director of its section in Palestine. He is also Coordinator and Spokesperson of Kairos Palestine - A Moment of Truth.