The Policy and Conflicts Resolution Studies Center at the Arab American University concluded the first international conference entitled “In Light of the Local, Regional and International Changes… Palestine Where To?”
“Jerusalem between Religion and Politics”
The first session of the final day was entitled “Jerusalem between Religion and Politics”, which was moderated by Dr. Nahid Habiballah from Arab American University, where the French Consul General Pierre Kochar talked about “Jerusalem in Light of Regional Alliances.” He reviewed the French status on the Palestinian issue, Jerusalem especially, France considers Jerusalem city to be a center of the interfaith rivalry since it is not biased to any party. Also its commitment to UN Resolution 181 on the city independence. Stressing, having the French consulate based in Jerusalem doesn’t mean the recognition of it as Israel’s capital, its presence related to old history. He added France is a secular state, thus, provide protection to the clergy in the city of Jerusalem and offer the chance to choice religions without obligations. Emphasizing, France is decisive in Jerusalem’s status and it’s in the city to help.
Professor Salim Tamari, a researcher at the Institute for Palestine Studies, presented a paper entitled “Jerusalem and the Intolerance of Religious Thought under the Current American Administration”, in which he discussed the American position to transfer the embassy to Jerusalem and declaring the latter capital of Israel. Pointing, this blows any possibility of US mediation in the peace process, opening new horizons to overcome Oslo framework, and heading to international legitimacy of another kind that resolute in division and internationalization of Jerusalem. He explained, Trump's last decision made three results, namely; he brought back Jerusalem’s importance to the world after it shrank due to the situation, trimmed America’s role in the peace process in the future, and other regional parties such as France have emerged.
As for the Historian of Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Illinois, Dr. Esam Nassar presented his paper entitled “Jerusalem: Lessons and History”. He pointed out, the city of Jerusalem has two concepts: a spatial concept as a sacred place connected as a whole to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The second is civil as the city has a long history of more than five thousand years through the Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid and Mameluke era. Moreover, its modern history began during the Ottoman Empire's control. He also reviewed the implemented statistics in the Ottoman era to emphasize Jerusalem's civilization, saying “The population of Jerusalem city reached 16 thousand, the majority of whom were Arab Muslims, the minority were Arab Christians and Jews and some Africans and other races lived there.”
He pointed, linking religious with the political project is an essential part of the Zionist idea. Since the 1980s, Palestinian speeches started with a Zionist essence. Jerusalem was confined to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, that shouldn’t be the case as it’s like any occupied Palestinian city. “Jerusalem’s case is based on historical and national right, we won’t give out Al-Aqsa, but we do not link Jerusalem to religion only because if we do, then the Jerusalem issue is lost,” he added.
Director General of Mada Al-Carmel – Haifa Dr. Muhannad Mustafa presented a paper entitled “The Holy Mosque in the Zionist Discourse”. Where he said, “Israel is trying to separate worship of authority, and in recent years the Zionist discourse merged the national issue with religion to enter an important stage in the Zionist project started in 1967 and has been strengthened recently.” He continued, “Regarding the mosque, Jewish have 3 old parties; the secular Zionist, the Zionist Salafi, the religious Zionist party. After Oslo and handing part of the Israeli territory, these religious parties have let go Al-Aqsa subject because they dealt with Jerusalem politically not religiously; the Zionist Salafi stayed away from it physically because the entry to Al-Aqsa is religiously prohibited and it still is until the moment, but the religious one moved away from the idea of controlling the Temple because it believes Israel’s land is the center of salvation and imposing control over land and belief in the Torah of Israel, and so on.”
Dr. Mustafa continued, “All these parties moved away from control Al-Aqsa, but the ones that emerged from these called comic movements like the Sons of the Temple and others because it seeks to control Al-Aqsa.” He explained, since the mid-nineties we saw a major shift in the Zionist discourse towards Al-Aqsa and the reason is transferring the act of strengthening the concept of controlling Al-Aqsa from individual to institutional work supported by Israel, adding the temple subject into the Israeli educational curricula and taking Jewish students to Israeli museums that addresses the temple, conducting educational trips to the so-called Holy Basin, and in recent years the Knesset held dozens of meetings with its various committees with the motto “Jewish Religious Freedom in Al-Aqsa” to facilitate settlers entry to Al-Aqsa. Stressing, the need to link the Al-Aqsa issue religiously and politically and separating it is a severe threat to the issue.
He referred to some of the data on settlers entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque under the framework of “Jewish settlement believes in the idea of building the temple,” he pointed, in 2009 approximately 5600 settlers entered, but now 25,000 entered Al-Aqsa. Stressing, the reason for the Zionist discourse shift is Oslo agreement which saved the Israeli right party from its ideology failure and enabled it to achieve three things: the Palestinian territories classification, the handover of power, and separation Gaza from the West Ban.
Mr. Jonathan Kattab, a specialist in international law, presented a paper entitled “International Law Role in Jerusalem”, in which he addressed the relationship between international law and the Jerusalem issue. Also, he discussed the Palestinian Christians status towards Jerusalem and their attitude of the Zionism-Christian phenomena that led to transferring the US embassy to the city, where Palestinian Christians saw this phenomenon as untrue and resisted it through their contact with American churches.
Palestinians between the Local, Regional and International
The conference last session was moderated by Prof. Dr. Ayman Yousef from the Arab American University, where the managing editor of Al Sharq 21 Online Journal for Middle East affairs, Alain Gresh, presented a paper entitled “Palestine and a Torn Middle East” in which he addressed the Palestinian issue in the context of the Middle East dismantling and whether Palestine still important especially with the West participation in the war against terrorism.
He said, “Palestine is an important issue, but because of the Middle East wars, it becomes a secondary issue for some especially America and Israel. However, from what I noticed, if it wasn’t important then why are the Americans making an effort to find a solution to the Palestinian issue with some Arab countries support?” Stressing, it’s still essential for the Arabs despite the wars, based on a study by a research center in Doha which indicated that three-quarters of the Arab respondents assert that Palestine is crucial for them, 80% of them were Saudis.
Gresh pointed, in his paper, that more than 90% of the Arabs believe that Israel is a significant threat to the Arabs security, while 66% believe that Iran is threatening to them, 78% oppose the recognition of Israel and 8% of the Arab respondents accept diplomatic relations with Israel on the condition of having an independent Palestinian state. He stressed the importance of these results because they help to know what the Arab community thinks in the light of the Arab World changes, mainly the century deal.
In turn, the Secretary-General of the Palestinian National Initiative Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi presented a paper entitled “Arab normalization with Israel.” Where he said, “The century deal was found for normalization with the Arabs at the expense of the Palestinian issue according to; normalization without solving the cause, economic peace in place of political solution, and evicting the Palestinian issue elements; remove Jerusalem from the issue, neglect and end the refugees rights, establish a state in Gaza and create emirates in the West Bank, and to succeed the Palestinians must be negotiating”.
Barghouthi mentioned the possible ways for applying this deal “Forcing the Palestinian to negotiate the Israeli, using the state of division, and improving the Palestinian people circumstances to deceive them. So we must respond to this deal, in my opinion, with decisive and absolute rejection, refuse to negotiate, and escalate public resistance”. He wondered why they want normalization. “To impose Israeli economic hegemony domination in the region after they imposed the military hegemony, strengthening Israel's ability to compete in the regional arena, and unite the Sunni with Israel against the Shiite,” he answered. Stressing, normalization won’t happen as long as Palestinians refuse to do so.
The political analyst and lecturer at Al-Azhar University in Gaza Dr. Ibrahim Abrash presented his paper “Palestinian Reconciliation and the Closed Horizon” through video conference, where he addressed the division concept, in his opinion, it is an Israeli and regional mater in which the Palestinian differences been used to achieve the equation that exceeded the ability of Palestinians. He said, “Before Hamas controlled Gaza the words division or reconciliation themselves weren’t used. Hamas control over Gaza isn’t internal Palestinian matter, but an Israeli one linked to regional changes that began with the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and join the Islamic parties in authority and the Palestinians political regime," he said.
Director of the Konrad Adenauer Organization office Mark Fring presented a paper on “European Union and regional alliances.” He pointed out that the EU is preoccupied with many domestic issues and their policy priorities are the situation in the Middle East. As for the Palestinian issue, it’s not important to them, their situation towards Palestine is ambiguous, mentioning the European Union is committed to the United Nations resolutions, including the 181 resolution.
Director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Researches Dr. Khalil Shikaki presented a paper entitled “Public Opinion Perceptions of the Palestinians Future Intentions.” He pointed, Palestinians reject the status quo because the priorities he wants to handle are getting worse and they are; ending the occupation, fix the economy and end poverty yet they’re becoming worse, unite the West Bank and Gaza even though they believe this won’t happen after the repeated setbacks between Fatah and Hamas. The public believes the political system is full of corruption and authoritarianism and wants to change it, but they know it will not.
He added, “What about negotiations why haven’t I mentioned it among the things the Palestinian people want? The answer, negotiations is not an option for them unless one of these conditions is met; there is no Israeli partner, America is not an absolute partner, the settlement is stopped, and strengthening confidence in Palestinian diplomacy”. He said, Palestinians do not believe in armed struggle and do not accept the PA dissolution because they fear the security chaos return. Also, he doesn’t support the single state solution because he refuses to live with Israelis under one roof, refuses publics resistance because he does not believe in it or power, and they support investing the international support because it’s less expensive to the people.
Pierre Kochar Speach
The issue of Jerusalem. A French perspective
“Jerusalem in light of the recently forming regional alliances” is certainly an attractive subject, but not the one I will focus on. I will rather try to give you a French perspective on the issue of Jerusalem.
Allow me nevertheless to start with a few general considerations that, to some extent, are in line with the broad subject of Jerusalem.
First, while the issue of Jerusalem has been consistently postponed in the peace negotiations for the last 30 years, it is now in the forefront: far from being off the table, it is perceived and rightly so to be the precondition of any restart of the negotiation.
The issue is also critical in the positioning of regional partners. While we all feel that the Palestinian file may no longer be at the top of the agenda of Arab leaders, the sensitivity of Jerusalem remains very high for the leaders, their legitimacy and their public opinion.
We clearly see the impact that any step on this issue may have on the arm wrestling between Sunni Arab countries and Iran or Turkey. Jerusalem is and could become even more a stake in the fierce competition they are engaged in.
And from an EU perspective, Jerusalem is the case study of International Law : the israeli-palestinian conflict in itself has a long record of resolutions, but Jerusalem is probably where the position of the International community has been the clearest. Shaking this consensus as it is the case now, is one more threat, and an obvious one, to multilateralism on which EU relies more than anyone else.
Starting from there, I am going to the French perspective on Jerusalem.
France's involvement in the region and in Jerusalem in particular is very old, historically guided by geopolitical and religious considerations. It stems today from the conviction that without satisfactory solution to this issue, a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even a genuine peace in the Middle East will remain out of reach.
I will look at the issue from three angles, each time pointing out the French position: the challenge for international law and the Corpus separatum, the religious dimension, the social and societal challenge.
I / France and the “Corpus separatum”
Corpus separatum is a notion many have rediscovered after the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel last December.
What is it about? On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into two independent states, as well as the demilitarization and internationalization of Jerusalem and its surroundings. The text specifies that the city "will be constituted in corpus separatum under a special international regime and will be administered by the United Nations".
From the outset, France has shown strong support for this idea. While in the Conciliation Commission for Palestine, some countries advocated an internationalization limited to the Holy Places (or functional internationalization), France supported a territorial internationalization that was finally adopted.
Of course, the corpus separatum has, in many respects, remained ineffective.
Because of its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly, it has been considered by some to have only the value of a recommendation or even a project.
But, above all, the notion was deeply questioned by the facts on the ground and by the assertion of successive sovereignties : as early as 1949, the Armistice Agreement of Rhodes organized the sharing of Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan. After the 1967 conflict, Israel taking advantage of its military occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, expanded the boundaries of Jerusalem. Since then, the adoption by the Knesset of the "Jerusalem Law" in 1980, the construction of the separation wall in 2002, the acceleration of colonization have deeply affected the landscape of Jerusalem and made the concept of Corpus separatum even more theoretical.
Most States have accepted the de facto application of Israeli legislation in its western part. Without moving embassies, the international community has been meeting officials of the State of Israel in West Jerusalem. Even though the European Union has repeatedly reaffirmed its support for the principle of internationalization of the city, it applies a differentiated treatment to the different zones that make it up, thus weakening even more the corpus separatum concept : while practically accepting Israel's presence in the West, the Union regards East Jerusalem as an occupied territory.
This distinction could be interpreted as an implicit recognition of West Jerusalem as an integral part of the State of Israel, as Russia explicitly admitted on 6 April 2017.
The concept of corpus separatum nevertheless remains key.
First, except of course the case of the United States since the Trump announcements of December 6, 2018, no State formally recognizes the sovereignty of Israel on the city. That’s a shaky consensus but that is nevertheless a consensus and the US remains isolated.
Second, this concept exemplifies the commitment of the international community to a negotiated settlement of the status of Jerusalem as a whole: it does not belong to us, even on the ground of taking into account "reality" or "practice" to legalize a de facto situation. It is obvious that West Jerusalem is called to become the capital of Israel, everything in its geography and in its sociology leads in that direction but there is no need to admit it before the result of the negotiation encompassing the whole city.
Third, it is line with the principle of non-admission of the acquisition of territory by force. The unity of Jerusalem may have been proclaimed by Israeli law but it is the result of a forceful seizure of territory. Speaking about a city, about contiguous neighborhoods and urban development projects or infrastructure, the distinction between the occupied part of the city and the part where the Israeli presence would be fully legitimate raises many legal and practical issues.
Finally, not recognizing any sovereignty over the city or any modification of its status while awaiting a negotiated settlement is a coherent and sustainable position. It allows us to condemn all ongoing efforts to alter the sociology and demography of the city through colonization but also through redrawing municipal boundaries.
Today the CG of France in Jerusalem but also the 8 other Consulates in this city, are, by their very existence and by their rules of operation, the incarnation of the corpus separatum. The consuls general do not request accreditation or exequatur of local authorities. Their contacts with these authorities are limited to the strict minimum, with the Israeli MOFA protocol and the services of the municipality for their daily operation. In particular, they abstain from any official contact being in East or in West Jerusalem with Israeli officials. These rules of behavior may be considered, even by you, to be excessive legalism. I must confess that sometimes we have to explain their meaning to our own authorities who tend to lose sight of them. They are nevertheless the sign of steadfastness of France and of the other countries concerned.
In the context of a U-turn of the US policy on Jerusalem, the tolerance these consulates benefited until now from Israeli authorities may disappear. France is preparing for it with the firm intention of remaining faithful to its principled position.
II / France and the religious dimension in Jerusalem
Allow me to begin with a reminder of the place held by religious questions in the history of France's relations with Jerusalem.
The interest, one could even say the attraction of France for Jerusalem is an ancient one and cannot be separated from our religious history. In 1535 Soliman the magnificent extended to Francois the First a role of protector of catholic places in the Holy land. This role of protector of the holy places evolves and gradually narrowed to become a more limited role of protector of Catholic communities of French origin. A narrower field, therefore, but not to be underestimated for several reasons:
- first, because France's historical role, which in fact focused on the protection of the pilgrims and their free access to the holy places, takes on a whole new dimension with the installation in the Holy Land and in particular in Jerusalem of an impressive number of French religious congregations in a fierce competition with Germany and Russia especially, which took place between 1870 and the first world war. There are now 43 of them in more than 100 places in the Holy Land,
- second, because this particular role has been recognized in international law since the treaties of Constantinople (1901) and Mytilene (1913) with the Ottoman Empire. This role has been recognized by the mandatory power and subsequently by the State of Israel (exchange of letters Chauvel Fisher 1948-49) and the Palestinian authority (Agreement Laboulaye-Middein in 1997)
- finally because In the late 19th century, France's special duty in defending the status quo in the Holy Sepulcher and in the Nativity Church according to the Berlin Treaty of 1878 was added to this ancient role.
There is of course an apparent paradox : France invented the concept of “laïcité” very difficult to make it understood outside its borders (and sometimes even inside). It means much more than its translation in English of "secularism" suggests. And the same country assumes in Jerusalem a mission of protection of religious communities.
But this paradox is only apparent to the extent that this mission:
- is in fact perfectly in line with the spirit of “laïcité” which is for the State not to ignore religions but to keep them in their right place ensuring that everyone can freely choose to believe or not believe and therefore leave in peace among others.
- and this mission is also coherent with our political positions supporting this city as a shared capital.
Some contend that the question of Jerusalem is becoming more and more important because of the growing religious dimension of the conflict. I believe rather that Jerusalem remains first and foremost at the center of a competition between national identities but indeed with a clearly growing element of religious complexity.
Anyway, these religious issues deserve our attention. For sure, they will have to be taken into account in any diplomatic solution for Jerusalem.
But can we expect that religions and interreligious dialogue will be the way to settle the question of Jerusalem?
I could be the temptation of some countries including Arab neighbors to focus on freedom of worship or control over the holy sites and consider that an agreement on such elements could be the starting point, letting aside the city and its population as a living body and a national symbol.
I think it would be unrealistic and potentially dangerous to go along that path. Even though there are of course remarkable peacemakers among the faithful and religious people present in Jerusalem, I am not sure that starting with the religious issue and trying to build a solution for Jerusalem or even for the Holy places based on a balance between religious communities and worshipers would be helpful.
Not least because we are confronted more and more with exclusive claims from religious authorities that are interlinked with national claims and do not help make them rational.
III / How to position ourselves in front of the rapid changes affecting Jerusalem?
We have three main challenges : first to stand firm on our principles concerning the status of Jerusalem, second to be more present, through our assistance and our projects in this city, third to make the status of Palestinians leaving in Jerusalem an issue emblematic of the discriminations Palestinian are enduring.
First and foremost, we must remain more firm than ever on our positions of principle. Calls "to take note of the reality" will probably be stronger and stronger as well as pressures from Israelis to normalize our relations with “their” capital.
The experience - we have all in mind the Orient House- shows that it will be a difficult and long-term struggle. The report of the EU Heads of Mission to Jerusalem and Ramallah, sent to Brussels last December, contains very specific recommendations. They relate to the reaffirmation of our political positions on Jerusalem, but also on the means of preserving the Palestinian presence and identity in East Jerusalem and of effectively condemning colonization. They also recall the imperative for all our EU missions, especially of course those based in Jerusalem, to respect the agreed code of conduct by which we demonstrate our commitment to UNSC resolutions and the corpus separatum. In this context, safeguarding EU unity around our agreed joint positions is of course essential. It is today a challenge we, as France, are willing to concentrate on.
The Palestinian Authority's repeated commitment to strengthen its support for the Palestinian population in Jerusalem is unfortunately not completely translated on the ground. It certainly should be a stronger priority at a time when the separation wall and the closure of Palestinian institutions in the city have weaken the links between Jerusalemites and West Bankers or Gazans. There is a willingness of France and the EU to increase their assistance and their projects in Jerusalem which remains for example a clear priority for our development agency. But, beyond the hospitals of East Jerusalem and Al Quds University, it is sometimes difficult to identify partners with whom to work. Working effectively together with the PA on an agenda for Jerusalem is urgent.
The international community paid undoubtedly not enough attention to discriminations and violations resulting from occupation, partly because the prospect of a Palestinian state was there and considered close enough. But the horizon receded as time passed. We must now admit that this perspective becomes uncertain, and we have therefore to put the subject of human rights and their violation at the center of our action. Jerusalem where some 350,000 Palestinians live with a precarious and revocable status of residents is not really known abroad. While around 500 Palestinians are denied their status every year and while beyond the status issue, the right to family reunification, the right to housing, access to basic public services are affected, we should bring this issue more strongly in the debate.
Let me conclude by saying that we are probably approaching the end of post-Oslo period, a transitional period during which, among other things, the question of Jerusalem was supposedly kept for future discussions.
The facts on the ground, being demographic dynamism on one side, further colonization and discrimination on the other, can no longer be ignored. That is certainly one of the key challenges for our diplomacy in the region.
And it will be for sure a test. In the fight for a law based international order, multilateralism and peace, Europe and France are confronted to unprecedented challenges and threats in front of which they will require unity, steadfastness and perhaps, at the end of the day, the kind of “Sumud” you have displayed for years.