Free Press Journal

Jerusalem: Coming to terms with the past

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Once upon a time, India would have erupted in protest. Now, as the world’s biggest importer of major arms and the largest buyer of Israeli military equipment, India is in a stronger position to do so if only Narendra Modi uses his influence with Benjamin Netanyahu instead of being so awestruck by an ethnic European leader’s cordiality.

Sadly, it was Arab hyperbole when a senior official of Hamas, the militant Palestinian organisation that rules the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, declared that the protests over Jerusalem, dubbed the “March of Return,” would continue. “This blood will keep boiling until the occupation leaves forever.” The only protest outside the region was when more than 10,000 Moroccans chanting “Death to Israel” took to the streets of Casablanca while King Mohammed VI suspended a twinning plan between his capital Rabat and Guatemala City after the central American republic followed the United States in moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Nothing succeeds like success, as the old adage has it. Israel is an unacknowledged nuclear power with West Asia’s strongest military. Its economy is booming. It has always been an American protégé, but now enjoys the special favour of the president, Donald Trump, whose son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, is a devout practising Jew. Mr Kushner and his wife, Ivanka, the president’s favourite child, attended the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem reversing decades of US policy. It delighted Israel and infuriated Palestinians who call Jerusalem Al Quds, the Holy One, and want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day war, as their capital.


Jerusalem’s status is said to be one of the thorniest obstacles to an Israel-Palestinian peace deal. Possessive even about what it didn’t possess, Israel proclaimed in 1950 that “Jerusalem was, and had always been, the capital of Israel.” Mr Netanyahu recently reiterated that fiction, calling Jerusalem the “eternal undivided capital”. True, it was King David’s capital in 1010 BC but not since. Modern Israel wasn’t born until 1948. After the Pharaohs, Persians, Greeks and other conquerors, Jerusalem was ruled by Arabs and Ottomans from 638 AD to 1918, with brief Christian interventions. The Allied powers recognised Jerusalem as “a sacred trust of civilisation” after World War I, stipulating that international guarantees should safeguard its holy sites — sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews alike — in perpetuity.

The British mandate of Palestine placed Jerusalem “under an International Trusteeship System”. Britain didn’t recognise King Abdullah of Jordan’s incorporation of East Jerusalem in the Hashemite kingdom. The US also reaffirmed the need for an international regime after Israel seized East Jerusalem, together with Syria’s Golan Heights, Egypt’s Gaza Strip and the Jordanian West Bank. Although, Bob Dole’s Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, three presidents, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, avoided implementing the law with waivers. So did Mr Trump. He could have done so again. If he wanted the American embassy transferred from Tel Aviv, he could have recognised East Jerusalem as the capital of a sovereign Palestine. Creating a condominium would have skirted the legal hurdle of the 1995 Act’s call for an undivided Jerusalem. Instead, by activating the Act, he aggravated the root cause of West Asian violence and Islamic terrorism.

Ironically, Muslim rulers were kindest to Jews. Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab allowed Jews back into Jerusalem to work and worship as they chose after 400 years of exile and harsh discrimination under Roman rule. Another Muslim ruler, the Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II, sent a fleet of ships to Spain to rescue Jews when Emir Muhammad XII of Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, surrendered to Spain in 1492. Ottoman Turkey welcomed Jews 150 years before they were allowed to set foot in Britain, having been expelled in 1290.

It’s unrealistic to expect historical memory to generate gratitude. The only reason for mentioning the past is that Israel constantly flaunts what happened 2,000 years ago as its raison d’être. The alternative would be to admit Israel was born in the terrorism of armed Zionist militias which were quite as ruthless as today’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. David Ben-Gurion’s insistence on the “compulsory transfer” (read ethnic cleansing) of Palestinians killed hundreds of innocent villagers. “The Haganah, which became the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces), was responsible for at least 24 deliberate massacres of unarmed civilians; the number of victims in each operation ranged from single figures to several hundred” writes Henry Siegman, president emeritus of the US/Middle East Project, in a recent London Review of Books. King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia could not understand why Palestinians should be penalised for Hitler’s crimes. Told how European Jews had suffered, he said, “Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who oppressed them”.

All this was forgotten when Israeli soldiers gunned down 60 Gaza protesters. Over 5,000 were wounded. Such sequences of death and destruction have been re-enacted every few years ever since what Arabs call naqba, catastrophe. More compelling themes like overthrowing Syria’s president or regime change in Tehran grab attention so that the plight of millions of homeless Palestinians loses its poignancy and no one remembers the cause and effect of the deadly Islamic State or localised militants like Hamas and Hezbollah.

The future offers little hope. Thanks to the American veto, the Security Council will continue to condone barbaric injustice. Israel will never allow the inquiry that the general assembly and human rights organisations demand. The International Criminal Court is hamstrung since the US, Israel and Russia are not members. Past negotiations and agreements — Camp David, Oslo, Madrid — confirm that Israel never took the “two-state” solution to which the world still pays lip service seriously. Even the benevolent prime minister and president, Shimon Peres, the least hawkish Israeli politician, was categorical on two points. First, a Palestinian was just another Arab who used a fancy label for political purposes. Second, the region called Palestine can accommodate only two states — Israel and Jordan — with no room for a third. Peres generously agreed to extend economic help to Palestinians but independence, never.

This is where India might have a role. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute calculates Israel is India’s third-largest defence supplier accounting for 11 per cent of India’s imports. The military business between the two nations was worth around $9 billion between 1999 and 2009. It’s much more now. Mr Modi should be able to use this leverage to convince Mr Netanyahu that although a sovereign Palestine may not mean the immediate end of Islamic terrorism, it would make militancy less attractive in overcrowded and unlivable Gaza where terrorists are recruited. The world will sleep more peacefully if young Palestinians have a future to look forward to.

Sunanda K Datta – Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.