jerusalem

The first time I was in Jerusalem I thought it was a magical place, like something from an old history book or an Indiana Jones movie : Old Arabs riding donkeys beneath ancient walls built by the Turks and the Romans, black-clad ultra-orthodox Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, Christian pilgrims going to the Church of the Sepulchre where the body of Jesus was taken after crucifixion.

The city was a tumult of ancient smells and spices, with a golden light in desert air. That all these believers take their religions very literally gave the place its fervent but also feverish air. It was a contested space, as is the land around it.

The Wailing Wall is regarded as the last remnant of the Second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, which led to the global dispersal of the Jews. Right above it, is the Temple Mount area, and the Al Aqsa mosque, from where muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven.

It is the third most holy site in Islam (the others, Medina and Mecca, are in Saudi Arabia). Such is the tight proximity, that muslims on the Mount allegedly once threw coins down at the praying Jews below.

However, for decades, most of the city learned to work around each other. In the Six Day War of 1967 (pictured below) the Israelis captured east Jerusalem from neighbouring Jordan, and thus got the old city with all of these ancient sites. Arabs everywhere seethed, but most of the West tolerated the ‘re-integration’ of this ancient city and foreign tourists flocked to see the Christian sites.

So when I first went in 1982, it was a laid-back, even hippyish place with lots of Christian eccentrics and backpackers mixing it in hostels. However, all that changed in 1987 with the Palestinian Intifada (Uprising) against the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank.

The street revolt of 1987 gave way to an armed Intifada of 2000, and since then it has been complete stalemate and tension. The Palestinians have a nominal Statelet in the West Bank and muslims also obviously have custody of the Islamic sites. Obviously, as otherwise there would be worldwide outrage.

However, successive Israeli governments has availed of this political standoff to increased their hold on the West Bank and especially Jerusalem, encircling the city with settlements, infrastructure and all of their Government institutions : they see the ancient city as their capital, full stop. But the international community doesn’t and still holds to the notion that Jerusalem should be a shared capital, also serving a future full Palestinian State.

Even the United States, Israel’s biggest supporter, has supported this – until now. Trump changes everything. Fuelled by an American right which sees Israel as a Western outpost against militant Islam but also by Christian evangelicals who see Israel as an actual biblical prophecy, the US President now supports Jerusalem, and not the larger coastal Tel Aviv, as being Israel’s capital.

 

six-days-war-1967-2017

But Trump must know how inflammatory this is. There is absolutely no gain in it for the US, and even many Israelis would not support it and would see the move as stoking up needless conflict. There is also no chance of any other country following suit, and certainly not Ireland which has been the most critical of Israel among EU states and strongly supports Palestinian statehood, with Jerusalem as its capital. The EU reiterated this policy on this week.

In fairness, Trump is probably only recognising the de facto situation but his gesture will only inflame the situation and removes any pretence that the US can be an honest broker in finding a solution to this most intractable of conflicts. Not that this peace process was going anywhere. But Trump presumably doesn’t care and disruption, provocation and even further conflict with Islam seems to be his trademark, in itself. Veteran US diplomats will despair.

Interestingly, Ireland’s wariness about Israel first arose with controversy over the welfare of holy sites in Jerusalem. A devoutly Catholic country, and its Government, was worried about future access to, and possible construction near, the sacred Christian ruins – an echo of wider international tensions. But it was the subsequent issue of displaced Palestinians and their right to land and a State of their own that really seized Irish policymakers.

Ironically, it was 100 years this week, that the 10th Irish Division captured Jerusalem from the Turks for the Allies, with Ulster and Southern soldiers bonded together by the sense that they were in a special place. In the light of Brexit and the border, this is an interesting unity. But it is undoubtedly a rare moment of unexpected unity in a place that has otherwise epitomised division and conflict. And President Trump has probably just added to that division.

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