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Understanding the Historical Significance of Trump's Jerusalem Move

To understand why the move is so contentious, we need to review the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict says Shabbir Lakha

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'What is crucial to understand is that as far as international law is concerned, East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory. For the US to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would therefore be a violation of international law.'


Today, Trump plans to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and subsequently move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The plan has been criticised by all but Netanyahu and widespread protest is expected. But why is it such a big deal?

To understand why the move is so contentious, we need to review the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict as well as understand the contemporary forces at play.

Jerusalem: history and international law

70 years ago to the week, the United Nations passed resolution 181(II), also known as the Partition Plan which sought to resolve “The Palestine Question”. It divided Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, but designated the City of Jerusalem as corpus separatum – an independent city with a Special International Regime. Despite this, Israel has maintained that Jerusalem is its “united and eternal” capital since its inception but largely without international recognition.

After the adoption of the Partition Plan, civil war broke out in Palestine and on 15th May 1948 Israel declared itself a state a day after Britain packed up shop and left as soon as their Mandate expired. This prompted the First Arab-Israeli War.

By the time an armistice between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries was signed in 1949, over 750,000 Palestinians had been expelled, over 500 Palestinian villages had been demolished and Israel had laid claim to 60% of the territory that had been designated to be an Arab state under the Partition Plan – as well as that of a Jewish state. This included half of Jerusalem.

The 1949 Armistice Line, or Green Line, split Jerusalem into East and West. West Jerusalem was incorporated into Israel, while East Jerusalem remained Palestinian territory and was put under the control of Jordan as part of the Armistice Agreement. During the 1967 war, Israel captured the remainder of Palestine, including East Jerusalem, as well as the Syrian Golan Heights that it still occupies illegally till today and the Sinai Peninsula which was returned to Egypt after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem to fulfil its goal of a united and eternal Israeli capital. In response, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242 which emphasises the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories recently occupied in the recent conflict.” There have been numerous resolutions since condemning the occupation of Palestinian territory and at least 7 UNSC resolutions specifically refusing recognition of East Jerusalem as part of Israel.

In particular, the UNSC passed Resolution 478 in 1980 in response to the Israeli Knesset passing the Jerusalem Law which formalised the annexation of East Jerusalem by defining Israel’s jurisdiction over the whole of Jerusalem and declaring it as Israel’s capital. The Resolution:

“1. Censures in the strongest terms the enactment by Israel of the "basic law" on Jerusalem and the refusal to comply with relevant Security Council resolutions;

2. Affirms that the enactment of the "basic law" by Israel constitutes a violation of international law and does not affect the continued application of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 12 August 1949, in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since June 1967, including Jerusalem;

3. Determines that all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the recent "basic law" on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith;”

It went on to call on “those States that have established diplomatic missions at Jerusalem to withdraw such missions from the Holy City”.

What is crucial to understand is that as far as international law is concerned, East Jerusalem is occupied Palestinian territory. For the US to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would therefore be a violation of international law.

But equally dire in consequence is the legitimisation it gives Israel to continue breaching international law and violating Palestinian human rights. Since the “reunification” of Jerusalem, Israel has explicitly carried out a policy of containing the “demographic threat” posed by Palestinians through house demolitions of Palestinian homes, building illegal settlements, revoking Palestinian permits to live or work in Jerusalem, refusing access to the Al Aqsa mosque to Palestinians, the separation barrier (Apartheid Wall) and a vast network of checkpoints separating Palestinian villages in and around East Jerusalem.

The Deal of the Century

For the reasons outlined above, Jerusalem has always been a major point of contention in any attempts at a peace process. Throughout the Oslo Peace Process and subsequent attempts at peacemaking, Israel has consistently deferred the status of Jerusalem to “final status” negotiations. By Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he allows Netanyahu to claim that negotiations have to start from Jerusalem already being part of Israel.

But this may be far more calculated than reckless. During his campaign, Trump said he would broker “the deal of the century” to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Earlier this year leaked documents and details of secret meetings suggested that Trump’s plan involved killing off the two state solution. The supposed plan involves putting Gaza under Egyptian control, and putting areas of the West Bank under Jordanian control. It would be going back to the arrangement between 1949 and 1967, but with Israeli settlements taking up huge chunks of the West Bank, of Jerusalem being in Israel, and importantly refusing the right to self determination for Palestinians.

If this really is the plan, then the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel fits right in. Palestinians recognise that Trump’s move is a part of making the status quo permanent, and in doing so a permanent erasure of their rights. Anyone who shares any solidarity with the Palestinian people and wants any semblance of justice for them should be opposed to this course of action.

Stand up to Trump

There has been a sustained attack on Palestine solidarity in the UK. Any criticism of Israel and opposing its occupation of Palestine is deemed denying the right for Israel to exist which in turn is described as antisemitic. Well, Israel’s intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, today proclaimed that “Whoever does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel does not recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.” So will people like Emily Thornberry now claim that anyone who upholds international law and does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is antisemitic?

What we do know is that today’s announcement is a further encroachment of Palestinian rights, is a step in the direction of making the refusal of Palestinian self determination a permanent reality and that there is a sustained attack against Palestine solidarity activism. We cannot just sit on the sidelines, we must act.

We have to stand up to Trump, for Palestine and against war. We cannot let Trump normalise hate and racism, nor the oppression of Palestinians. The urgency of organising and mobilising cannot be overstated.

Tags: palestine

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