One of the biggest stories in the world right now is US President Donald Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Many Australians may not understand the significance of this, so Michael Brull explains the context.
A guide to the status of Jerusalem
In 1947, the United Nations General Assembly proposed to partition Palestine. Israel’s supporters constantly cite this resolution now as legitimising the creation of Israel, though they generally ignore the hundreds of UNGA Resolutions since condemning Israeli actions, including many which recognise East Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territory.
The partition resolution didn’t allocate Jerusalem to Israel, or to the Palestinians, but suggested it become a “corpus separatum” under an international regime administered by the United Nations.
When war broke out in 1948, Israel conquered some 78 percent of historic Palestine – rather than the approximately 55 percent allocated under the partition resolution. Egypt conquered Gaza, and Jordan conquered the West Bank. Israel and Jordan divided Jerusalem among themselves, with Israel taking West Jerusalem and Jordan taking East Jerusalem.
No other country recognised either state as having a legitimate claim to Jerusalem, let alone a sole claim to all of Jerusalem.
In June 1967, Israel successfully conquered the rest of Palestine, including East Jerusalem. Almost immediately, Israel acted to annexe East Jerusalem. As Israeli-Oxford historian Avi Raz observed, “On 11 June, less than 24 hours after the final ceasefire had taken effect, the cabinet agreed to annexe the Arab part of Jerusalem. The decision was carried out on 27 June by swift passage in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) of three laws which deliberately did not mention Jerusalem or use the term ‘annexation’. But this was annexation in all but name”.
Israeli government officials recognised that their actions contravened international law. The “Justice Minister Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira, who stated in the Knesset that ‘the eastern part of Jerusalem’ had been ‘liberated’ from foreign rule by the Israeli armed forces, said in the cabinet: ‘We set about Jerusalem with our eyes open and contravened the Geneva Conventions in the most blatant way.”
Shapira went on to observe in September that settlements in occupied territories were illegal, and shortly afterward so did the legal counsel to the Foreign Ministry, Theodor Meron. That ruling applied to settlements in the Golan Heights, and in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Palestinian scholar Mouin Rabbani observed that “in 1980 the Knesset passed a law claiming that ‘Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.’ Security Council Resolution 478 declared the measure ‘null and void’.”
That is, the status of Jerusalem under international law isn’t actually controversial. No country recognised Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, until now.
In 2004, this was among the issues considered by the International Court of Justice in its advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the wall built in the West Bank by Israel. 14 of 15 Justices recognised East Jerusalem as occupied territory, like the rest of the West Bank and Gaza (the remaining justice didn’t explicitly comment on this point).
The 14 justices recognised that the wall being constructed in the West Bank was “an attempt to annex the territory contrary to international law” and “a violation of the legal principle prohibiting the acquisition of territory by the use of force” and that “the de facto annexation of land interferes with the territorial sovereignty and consequently with the right of the Palestinians to self-determination”.
Put simply, states do not have the right to gain territory through conquest. Iraq can’t decide it wants the oil fields of Kuwait and conquer them. The ICJ also recognised that annexing occupied Palestinian land affects their territorial sovereignty, and the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. That is, if Israel simply steals occupied Palestinian land, that interferes with their right to self-determination.
Since 1967, Israel has ruled over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and other than the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, has subjected them all to military rule, rather than Israeli domestic law. That is, Israel is forcing Palestinians into smaller and smaller areas of land, whilst denying them civil and political rights. By contrast, Israeli Jews in settlements in the West Bank do have the rights of Israeli domestic law.
Israel’s eternal undivided capital
The Israeli government now claims that Jerusalem is its eternal, undivided city. This is specious. Israel continually expands settlements in East Jerusalem for the purpose of annexing as much of the city as they can. Still, Jerusalem remains divided.
In 2015, when a wave of Palestinians would stab and attempt to stab Israelis, many of the attackers came from East Jerusalem. A survey found that two-thirds of Israelis supported Israel withdrawing from East Jerusalem. That was when Israelis thought occupying East Jerusalem came with the threat of violence, and they didn’t have the backing of the US.
Without Palestinian violent resistance, and with the occupation and annexation now backed by the US, public opinion is likely to change.
Palestinians in East Jerusalem, though under Israeli domestic law, have been subjected to systemic discrimination from the start of the occupation. This has been generally conceded within Israel.
For example, Teddy Kollek was the mayor of Jerusalem from 1965-93. Whilst still mayor, he frankly admitted how Palestinians were discriminated against:
We said over and over that we would equalize the rights of the Arabs to the rights of the Jews. [This was] empty talk… Never have we given them a feeling of being equal before the law. They were and remain second and third class citizens…
For Jewish Jerusalem I did something in the past 25 years. For East Jerusalem? Nothing! What did I do? Nothing. Sidewalks? Nothing! Cultural institutions? Not one. Yes, we installed a sewerage system for them and improved their water supply. But do you know why? Do you think it was for their good, for their welfare? Forget it! There were some cases of cholera there, and the Jewish residents were afraid that they would catch it, so we installed a sewerage and water system for cholera prevention.
Israeli policy is to claim as much of East Jerusalem as possible through the building of settlements for Israeli Jews. To solidify its claim to Jerusalem, Israel has, as observed by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, “treated the Palestinian residents of the city as unwanted immigrants and worked systematically to drive them out of the area”. This policy of making life worse for Palestinians so they will leave aims to create “a geographical and demographic reality that would thwart any future attempt to challenge Israeli sovereignty there.”
Meanwhile, there are some 208,410 Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem, according to Israeli NGO Peace Now.
US continues to support Israeli colonisation
Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is new in the sense that it offers backing to Israel to flout international law, steal Palestinian land, and deny Palestinian self-determination. It legitimises the theft of land that Israel claims it will allow Palestinians to build a state on.
As many observers have explained in the past, if Israel and Palestinians were negotiating over how to divide a pizza, it would be as though first the Palestinians agreed that Israel gets 78 percent of the pizza, and then they negotiate over the rest whilst Israel takes big bites out of the remainder.
With that said, the US has traditionally supported Israel flouting international law, stealing Palestinian land, and denying Palestinian self-determination. The US has only offered symbolic opposition to Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in the past. The occupation has always relied on US support, both in terms of military aid that the US provides Israel, and diplomatic support that the US gives Israel that prevents it from complete international isolation, particularly in the UN Security Council.
Whilst some claim the mask of “honest broker” has been removed from the US, it has always taken wilful blindness to ignore actual US policy. The US has been a primary obstacle to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians for over 40 years.
In 1976, a two state agreement was first proposed at the United Nations. The US, backing the Israeli position, said no, using its veto at the Security Council. It wasn’t until Ehud Barak that Israel formally claimed to support a two-state agreement, whilst in practice continuing to colonise Palestinian land.
The US has consistently backed Israeli rejectionism throughout, which is also how Israel is able to get away with colonising Palestinian land, imposing the siege on Gaza, and the terrible massacres Israel has visited on Gaza in 2008-9, and 2014.
That is to say, strong US support for Israeli atrocities and oppression is not a new development. There is a change in degree, but not direction. It’s simply that US rhetoric has changed from regarding settlements in the West Bank as illegal under international law, to unhelpful to peace, and whatever new ground the Trump administration winds up staking out.
It is not clear what will follow. Much of the Arab world is in turmoil, from Syria, Libya and Yemen, to Saudi Arabia kidnapping the Lebanese Prime Minister. It seems likely Trump’s new move had the blessing of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The Palestinian Authority is utterly dependent on US patronage. The consistent message from the US was that they would cut funds to the Palestinian Authority unless their handpicked leaders stayed in place. The Palestine Papers showed that Mahmoud Abbas – whose mandate ended in 2009 – threatened to resign and call for new elections. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded angrily, saying that Abbas not running in elections “is not an option”. Similarly, General Keith Dayton, who trained the repressive thugs of the Palestinian Authority, warned Palestinian leaders that they weren’t allowed to undermine their other man in Palestine, Salam Fayyad. The Palestinian Authority’s leadership was demonstrated in 2009, as negotiator Saeb Erekat explained to a US official that “we are counting on the US to help us”.
The Palestinians have to reckon with a repressive and fragmented leadership. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority depends entirely on collaboration with Israel and funding from the US. They are structurally incapable of leading resistance without collapsing.
In Gaza, Hamas would be very reluctant to engage in large-scale resistance, because of the barbaric savagery that Israel has repeatedly unleashed on Gaza for the last 10 years.
This kind of bleak analysis may be unpopular, given the desire to vindicate worldwide outrage at Israeli actions. But the story of colonisation often includes brute force overcoming Indigenous resistance.
In settler colonies like Australia and the US, the colonisers won by wiping out most of the Indigenous populations. In Palestine, Israel doesn’t have a long-term strategy. The right-wing political leadership has tilted away from a Bantustan version of a two-state agreement, towards indefinite occupation. For now, Israel is ascendant, as it has scored a major victory with US recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
However, US support for Israeli land theft won’t legitimise it. Trump is almost as much of an international pariah as Israel is, and the close relationship between the two will not do Israel any favours in the West, particularly when Trump’s presidency ends.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue as long as the Palestinians are oppressed by Israel. Israeli annexation of Jerusalem may have the perhaps temporary backing of the US, but that will not make the annexation permanent, and does not mean that Israel has secured Jerusalem.
The challenge for Israel is that it is basing its occupation on superior force, and the backing of a superpower. Superior force may not be permanent, and never has been in international relations.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is almost akin to the Balfour Declaration. An imperial power has given away land that doesn’t belong to it. It is as though China or Uganda gave itself the right to take London away from England and give it to France.
No-one would accept that kind of international theft as legitimate. And just as British people love London, and Americans love New York, Palestinians love Jerusalem. The religious, cultural and economic significance of it means that without Jerusalem, there can’t be a Palestinian state.
Trump has said many crude and offensive things since long before his political career started. But the brazen colonialism of offering to giving away a city that doesn’t belong to him is among the more egregiously racist things that he has said and done.
Australia and Palestine
The cowardice of our Foreign Minister should also be noted. In two interviews, Julie Bishop refused to say or even imply any criticism of Trump’s action or the US record in negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians. She simply reaffirmed Australian token support for a two-state agreement, without commenting on whether recognising Jerusalem as Israeli would prejudice such an agreement in any way.
Bishop’s record of support for Israeli expansionism is pretty grim. When the Security Council passed a resolution critical of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem last year, Bishop expressed criticism of the resolution as one sided. Prime Minister Turnbull also opposed the resolution as “deeply unsettling”. When Israel passed a law effectively legalising settlements on Palestinian land, Bishop decided against criticising the law.
The Australian government backed the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014. Turnbull claimed that Israel was acting in self-defence, as it risked “extinction”. Shortly before the war, Attorney-General George Brandis declared that the Australian government would no longer refer to East Jerusalem as occupied.
For now, the government will likely continue supporting the Israeli occupation. However, the political consensus on Palestine and Israel has basically been destroyed. Former Foreign Minister Bob Carr is now frequently quoted in media stories, including accusations that Israel practices apartheid. Correspondents like John Lyons and Sophie McNeill have brought the reality of the occupation to the mainstream. And the ALP position on Palestine is gradually shifting, driven overwhelmingly in opposition to the Federal leadership, and at a grassroots level across Australia.
The Israeli government and its loyalists may be delighted at this coup on behalf of the occupation. In time, this may be viewed as a backward step.
Entrenching the occupation entrenches injustice, and it also entrenches conflict, and the certainty of continued death and suffering for Israelis and Palestinians. Subjugating the Palestinians and stealing their land isn’t a viable model for ending the conflict.
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