Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Future of Jerusalem

The city of Jerusalem holds profound significance to the spiritual imagination of billions of people around the world. For the city and its precincts are intimately connected to the sacred memory of a long chain of Divine servants and events mentioned in the Holy Scriptures of three great religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 

For the Jewish people, Jerusalem is the heart of the Promised Land blessed and gifted to their pious ancestors by the Lord Almighty. The grand prophecy in the Qur'an reads: "And after him We said to the children of Israel, ‘Dwell ye in the land; and when the time of the promise of the latter days comes, We shall bring you together out of various peoples. [17:105] 

For the Christians, the city is sacred for being the venue of all the major events in the life and preaching of Jesus Christ (as). For the Muslims, the city holds spiritual significance for a variety of reasons, including one of the most important events in the spiritual life of the Holy Prophet (sa), ie., the Isra’ Mi’raj- the Night Journey and Ascent to the Heavens: when Allah (swt) caused the Prophet (sa), in the space of a single night, to journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and from there to heaven and back again. The Qur’an states: “Glory to Him who made His servant travel by night from the sacred place of worship to the furthest place of worship, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him some of Our signs: He alone is the All Hearing, the All Seeing”. (17:02)

It was during the Holy Prophet’s journey from the site of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem through the seven heavens that he encountered many Judeo-Christian prophets and finally came before the Exalted Presence: “until he was two bow-lengths away or even closer” (53:10). This mystical vision of the Holy Prophet (sa) clearly pointed to the deep connections of Islam to the Jewish and Christian prophetic heritage and Jerusalem came to be the first Quibla, direction of prayer for the Muslim community for many years- contributing to its sacred status in Islam. Through Divine revelation (2: 144-45), later of course, the Sacred Mosque in Makkah became the permanent direction of prayer for the Muslims.    

Within a few years after the death of the Holy Prophet (sa), during the time of Hazrat Umar (ra), when Jerusalem came under the protection of the Muslims, the site of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem became the site of the Mosque of the Dome of the Rock, inside which is ‘the rock from which the Prophet ascended to the Divine Throne’. Al Masjid Al Aqsa (17: 02) is also the name given by the Muslims to the Mosque built in the same complex in the first/seventh century. 

The ancient Temple, originally built by Hazrat David (as) and later completed by his blessed son Hazrat Solomon (as) had been lying in ruins for centuries altogether after the Roman conquest of the area. It is striking to note here that the places of worship belonging to non-Muslims are also called ‘Masjid’ in the Qur’an. According to Islamic tradition, the Holy Prophet (sa) led a Prayer in the Jerusalem Masjid in which all other Prophets ranged themselves behind him. In many ways, the Holy Prophet’s mystical experience and the consequent, profound connection of the Muslims with the holy land of the Jews and the Christians is a powerful spiritual statement of our common humanity and shared destiny of all three faiths in the Abrahamic tradition.    

The Status of Jerusalem

Jerusalem today is a land under illegal occupation by the Jewish State of Israel. It is part of the lands stolen from the Arabs of Palestine through terrorism and military conquest by the Jewish state in 1948 and later in 1967. The establishment of Israel was nothing less than a 'Great Catastrophe' (an-Nakba) for the Arab peoples of Palestine, with millions of them becoming refugees, constrained to flee from their homes and hearths for no fault of theirs. They were paying the price for the European racism that killed and persecuted millions of Jews in the Holocaust years in Europe.  After the conquest of West Jerusalem in 1948 and of East Jerusalem later in 1967; Israel annexed the territories it occupied into its own administrative/municipal systems and began to establish settlements of its citizens in the Occupied Territories- East Jerusalem and West Bank (and also Gaza, till 2005)- contrary to express provisions of applicable international law, especially the Geneva Civilian Convention of 1949. 

Under the general framework of international law, including the UN Charter, it is illegal and unacceptable for a State to acquire territories through use of force or military conquest and there is an obligation to return the territories to its rightful owners  even after the conquest. That is why the international community has never accepted the Israeli claims of sovereignty over Jerusalem all these years and the relevant UN Security Council resolutions require that States should not establish their Embassies in Jerusalem as it remains an Occupied Territory under international law, leading to the isolation of Israel on the issue, despite its ardent desire that the world recognize its capital as Jerusalem. 

There is a broad consensus within the international community about the need for establishing a Palestinian State for the Arab people in the territories under Israeli military occupation now. Publicly, Israel states that it is in favour of such a State of Palestine. Yet, pending the final agreement with the Palestinians through a peace process, it is doing everything on the ground through its policies, plans and projects to undermine the prospects for the emergence of such a viable State. While the State of Israel has a duty under international law to act in good faith of its legal obligations and not to do anything that obstruct the agreed course, its continuing settlement projects in the Occupied Territories is a sign of its lack of serious intent to respect its obligations. The creeping expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in the last two decades, especially after the so called Oslo Peace Accords of 1993-95, glaringly points to the deceit and duplicity of the Israeli State in its dealings with the Palestinian people. Over and above that, a viable Palestinian State is now almost impossible to imagine as such a move would require the shifting of these settlements with its close to million Israeli citizens from the Occupied Territories, a task fraught with potentially huge political costs for any government in Israel to undertake.

Trump and the US Policy on Jerusalem

It is against the aforesaid backdrop of an impasse in the Israeli-Palestine conflict that one should view the recent announcement of the US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Trump hopes that as earlier approaches have not resolved the conflict, his "new approach" of  more concessions to the interests of Israel will make it amenable to move towards a negotiated settlement. 

Despite the US Ambassador Nikki Haley seeking to impose the decision by virtually threatening countries and even vetoing the UN Security Council resolution on the issue, a vast majority of the member-states at the UN General Assembly voted against the US move. The unilateral declaration by the US has been roundly condemned by the international community due to the absence of any progress on the long-standing issue of Palestine. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, the recognition of Israeli claims over Jerusalem will amount to an unfair concession on an international wrongful act of the State.

In declaring his decision, President Trump was primarily moved by domestic legislative debates and was also seeking to appease the right- wing evangelical Christians and the powerful Jewish lobby that work to promote Israeli claims in the United States by all means. For long, the US had been playing the role of a mediator on the Israel-Palestine peace process, even though close observers have long noted the country’s obvious leanings on vital issues. If ever there was any doubt on where the US actually stood on the issues, the Trump declaration has unmasked the same for all to see. While the US President claimed that the decision will promote peace in the region, it is hard to see how that is possible when the aggressor is rewarded for his misconduct without any reciprocal expectations.

Israel and the Mirage of Immortality

Among the fundamental principles of the post-Second World War global order is the prohibition of military conquest of territories and the duty to respect the right to self-determination of peoples. By its prolonged military occupation of Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem and the effective denial of the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people by settling Israeli nationals in the occupied lands, Israel is guilty of flagrant violations of international law. The egregious violations of legal obligations by Israel in this regard had been noted with much concern by every international institution dealing with these issues through their numerous resolutions and recommendations: UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, the Human Rights Council and the International Court of Justice. 

For instance, in 2004, the World Court, in its Advisory Opinion on the Israeli Security Wall case, reminded Israel to take every measure to ensure respect for the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people under international law and to desist from all illegal activities in the Occupied Territories.

What explains the Israeli brazenness and virtual impunity from accountability for its egregious conduct? Israel has been able to exploit the fault lines in the global order. In a political and strategic context of military weaknesses in the Arab world, and the European guilt over the Holocaust, Israel thrives on the global map despite the political isolation in West Asia with the firm backing of the world’s last superpower- the US. With its pronounced superiority in weapon systems and other modern military technologies, and Billions in economic assistance from the US, Israel’s rulers feel they are invincible and that arrogance of hubris is visible in their contemptuous dismissal of the Palestinian suffering.

Like the Qur’an says: They are not all alike. Among these people of the Book there are some upright people. (3:113). "Of the people of Moses there is a section who guide and do justice in the light of truth". (7:159)

Many Jewish intellectuals in Israel and outside recognize that the Israeli governments, over the years have violated International Law and also bent the national law, to establish and expand settlement activities in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem.  They find a deep irony in claiming to be a ‘democratic’ State when their State is behaving like an imperial power over the Palestinian people by occupying their lands and treating them as ‘second-class’ citizens. For instance, the Arabs of East Jerusalem, though titled “permanent residents” could be deprived of their residency rights and thousands had been so denied their entitlements over the years by the Occupation regime, whereas foreign Jews would enjoy all citizenship rights in the Occupied Territory settlements. Granting citizenship to the Palestinian people of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip would turn Israel into a binational state, something that will corrode Israel’s preferred national identity as a ‘Jewish state’. Such openly ‘racist’ policies expose the nature of the Israeli ‘democracy’ for what it is.

Israel’s unjust policy of depriving the Palestinians of their minimal rights remind us of the King-Prophet David’s injunction on Justice when two litigants appeared before him. The Qur’an retains the moral of the story for all times: This is my brother. He had ninety-nine ewes and I just the one, and he said, “Let me take charge of her,” and overpowered me with his words.’ David said, ‘He has done you wrong by demanding to add your ewe to his flock. Many partners treat each other unfairly. Those who sincerely believe and do good deeds do not do this, but these are very few.’ (38: 23-24).

Israel’s settlement policies and plans in the Occupied Territories, and the humiliating conditions to which it is subjecting the Palestinian people in everyday life, is being compared to the “apartheid policy” that prevailed in South Africa for long. The policy of territorial aggrandizement through expansion in settlements is now coming in the way of a just and final agreement with the Palestinian people. How long can Israel manage the contradiction of settling its own people in the Occupied Territories amidst the continuing plight of the Palestinian people seemingly having no end in sight?

Jerusalem and the cycle of History

“And be not like those who forget Allah, so He made them forget their own souls…” [59:19].

The human condition is such that it is free to pursue the path of goodness and rise in eminence, or go down the road of evil and inequity following one’s vanity and desires. Hence, the rise and fall of nations is a recurring theme in the Qur’an, alluded to in different verses through its inimitable style to the cycle of history. According to the Qur'an, it is certainly the struggle for justice and rights the Divine servants and their communities waged in Jerusalem and its blessed precincts that made it the Promised Land of history, calling our attention to the significance of spiritual qualities in the fortunes of a people.

It is also, however, instructive to remember that the promise of Divine favour and blessings of sovereignty also contains within it the latent warning that injustice and excesses will take away the promised fortunes to another people who will inherit the same. When a people exceed all bounds in chasing the mirage of immortality, their excesses will put them on the inevitable road to decline and fall, from the heights of their political power. A people under oppression and persecution can reclaim their destiny of freedom and sovereignty through the Holy Will of God when they strive with conviction and remain steadfast, and ready to sacrifice their all in the Path. It is to remind this Divine practice (Sunnat Allah) that the Prophets and Messengers of God came to their peoples, every time in history: the duty to worship God and the need to be just to fellow beings and the beauty of steadfast resistance in times of oppression. 

The future of Jerusalem as a city of peace where devout followers of all three religions could walk together and offer prayers to the Almighty side by side requires the radical readjustment of existing positions and policies by Israel which is seeking to undermine the Palestinian access to, and rights on East Jerusalem. Elementary considerations of humanity and justice require that the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people are foregrounded in any decision concerning the future status of East Jerusalem. The international community needs to insist on the integrity and equal application of international legal obligations on all States, especially in the present context, the obligation to respect the principle of non-recognition of illegal annexations by powerful States and the obligation to respect the right to self determination of peoples under military occupation. 

There is little doubt that 'peace and reconciliation', like the Qur'an repeatedly reminds everyone, 'is the best policy', rather than the policy of perpetual warfare and bloodshed that Israel seems to prefer. As the long arm of international law evolving to ensure accountability for international crimes, including in times of military occupation; as the US- Israel's powerful backer all along- strategic influence over the Middle East region gradually waning in a new era and as the global demographics and State power destined to move to the dominance of the Muslims once again from the chaos of today; the excesses and injustices perpetrated on them, including the liberation of Jerusalem, will remain on the Muslim agenda, Insha Allah. But, the big question for now is this: will Israel continue to chase the mirage of immortality, or like Daniel -the Jewish wise man in Old Testament-, can it 'see the handwriting on the wall'? Allah Knows Best.