Opinion guest column

Not-so-Merry Christmas in Jerusalem

Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.

There was no Christmas tree put up in Jerusalem this holiday season. In fact, it has been some time since a Christmas tree was put up in Jerusalem. The Christian population of Jerusalem — as old as Christianity itself, and the Palestinian population itself — is not permitted by the Israeli Occupation authorities to put up Christmas decorations in the Old City because they refuse to recognize Israel’s occupation of the city. Instead, Christians put up their tree on private property and decorate the few pockets of the city where they still live. One thing is certain: there was, and will be, no Christmas joy this year in Jerusalem.

In fact, Palestinian Christians have been leaving the city for quite some time now; as a minority, they have been the most affected segment of Jerusalem’s population, dropping from 20 percent pre-Israel to under two percent today due to the harsh conditions all Palestinians live under in the occupied city of Jerusalem. Several times, extremist Zionist settlers have taken over homes in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, either by outright force (backed by the Israeli Army) or legal skullduggery by Zionist settler organizations, such as Ateret Cohanim (see B’Tselem for more information on settler violence). Unfortunately, this, seldom comes to light in western media, which presents the occupation as a conflict between the Israeli Judeo-Christian side and the Palestinian Muslim side, in an effort to gain support for its ongoing human rights violations.

In reality, all Palestinians — Christians and Muslims alike — have suffered from Zionist aggressions since before 1948, the year in which the state of Israel was created and the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe”, took place (over 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed and around half of the Palestinian population was forced to flee from their homes and not allowed to return to this day; see Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine). They are subjected to a different set of laws entirely from Israelis and treated as worse than second-class citizens, since some are not even citizens. Many scholars and policymakers, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have noted that the realities on the ground in Palestine reflect those of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Palestinians live under similar systems of control and oppression, face similar types of legislative and legal discrimination, and experience violence at the hands of US-equipped and backed Israeli occupying forces.

Visualizing Palestine is an excellent resource for quantifying the conflict. Palestinians constitute about 40 percent of Jerusalem’s population but receive only 10 percent of the city’s public funds, resulting in poor living conditions. Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem do not even hold legal status; the path to residency (to simply continue living in Jerusalem) is arduous and gaining citizenship requires a pledge of loyalty to the occupying Israeli state.

On the other hand, Israeli settlers — even if born outside of the region — are given citizenship, protection, and social welfare. At present, a population of 200,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem, built in the place of demolished Palestinian homes. The Israeli demolition of nearly 700 Palestinian homes in Jerusalem since 2012, combined with an Israeli restriction on Palestinian construction in 87 percent of East Jerusalem’s land, has led to loss of residency by over 14,000 Palestinians. These constitute not only severe violations of international law, but war crimes under the Rome Statute of the ICC and serious breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

It is clear, after 70 years of expelling Palestinians and 50 years of internationally-condemned military occupation, that hope for a peaceful and harmonious Jerusalem is delusional as a result of the ongoing Zionist project. Yet many have envisioned Jerusalem as a home for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live and worship in peace. This vision was shared by the pre-1948 Jewish community in Jerusalem and Palestinians alike.

For example, Yosef tzvi Dushinsky, the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Orthodox community in Jerusalem and a staunch opponent of Zionism, wrote a letter in 1947 pleading with the UN to maintain Jerusalem as an internationally autonomous zone that was not part of the new Jewish state that was to be created. The Chief Rabbi envisioned a Jerusalem that permitted all citizens to live and practice their religions freely. Likewise, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the sole representative of the Palestinian people, expressed similar views as early as in 1969 when it declared its desire "to establish a free and democratic society in [historic] Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews."

The primary opponent to realizing such a vision is the Israeli Zionist project which asserts that all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel, undermining international resolutions and negotiated agreements. In 1980, the Israeli “Basic Law” (or “Jerusalem law”) declares that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” In a similar move, the ruling party voted to annex the remainder of Palestinian land. In both cases, the Israelis have claimed ownership over Palestinian lands but denied Palestinians citizenship or rights, instead placing them under a brutal military occupation, severely violating international law.

Despite these claims by Israel, and despite the recent American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (with a promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem), Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel.

The status of Jerusalem is crucial to peace negotiations. A set of agreements signed in 1993 between the Palestinians and Israelis, known as the Oslo Accords, clearly relegated the status of Jerusalem to future negotiations. By attempting to decide the outcome of one of the most crucial components of negotiations, the Israelis and Americans are delegitimizing their position as negotiators of peace.

Moreover, aside from some factions in Israel and the current U.S. administration, there has been no international support for such a claim. In a 14–1 vote, the UN Security Council supported rescinding the U.S. declaration that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. However, the U.S. was the sole vote against the resolution, and since it has veto power, the vote failed. A vote in the UN general assembly was thus undertaken three days later. In a 128–9 vote, the member states of the United Nations resoundingly condemned the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, even in the face of U.S. threats to cut off aid to them. Despite the United States’ regular assertions about its position as a world leader, it has absolutely no right or authority under international law — or any code of authority, legal or moral — to do so.

As Harvard’s Palestine Solidarity Committee put it, “Trump’s statement is not a ‘recognition of reality,’ but rather a tacit approval of attempts to delay and stall the peace process while illegally changing the facts on the ground to make peace impossible. It is a recognition and legitimization of war crimes and illegal occupation. It is a recognition and normalization of systematic oppression and institutionalized apartheid against the Palestinians.”

Naturally, the Palestinian uproar in response to the U.S. Administration's announcement is not simply over the status of Jerusalem in the abstract. It is very concrete and rooted in occupation, oppression, destruction of livelihood, and intentional denigration of Palestinian dignity.

Since the announcement, Palestinians have participated in non-violent protests. The result has been devastating: 16 Palestinians have been killed, including a man with disabilities and, most recently, a 17-year-old boy named Musab al-Tamimi. There have been nearly 3,000 injuries, some of which are not treated as a result of Israeli limitations on travel. Around 700 individuals have been arrested for protesting, including at least 77 children. One was 16-year-old Fawzi al-Junaidi, who was dragged off, blindfolded, by 22 Israeli soldiers in a picture that went viral. Another was 16-year-old Ahed al-Tamimi, who has made international headlines for slapping an Israeli soldier after they shot her 15-year-old cousin, severely and permanently damaging his head and face.

This is the face of the Israeli occupation. Given the realities on the ground and the recent announcement by the U.S. regarding Jerusalem’s status, two options remain. Israel can make a choice to include Jerusalem’s status in peace negotiations and thus, abide by agreements, it has already signed onto as well as the international consensus. Alternatively, it can make its goal to control all of historic Palestine, including an undivided Jerusalem, and make it clear to the world that it is not interested in any negotiated settlement. The former option provides a reasonable and peaceful way forward. The latter can only ensure instability in an already-destabilized Middle East.

The Israeli occupation is made possible by the staunch military and diplomatic support of the United States. Militarily, it provides Israel with around $4 billion annually to build its army. Diplomatically, it has consistently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that condemn Israeli violations of international law. Because the United States has given Israel the green light to continue with its illegal practices, it seems unlikely that the U.S. government and policymakers will be able to broker peace. It is incumbent upon Americans that have a genuine interest in peace in the Holy Land to do what they did in South Africa beginning in the 1960s: support boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and ends the occupation of Palestine.


Fayed Ali is a member of the MIT Class of 2019 and is a member of Palestine@MIT.

Nasir Almasri is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science and is a member of Palestine@MIT.