August 28, 2000 Special Dispatch No. 121

East Jerusalem and the Holy Places at the Camp David Summit

August 28, 2000
Palestine | Special Dispatch No. 121

The Jerusalem issue stood at the core of the Camp David Summit negotiations. The disagreements reported in the Arab media focused on two main issues: sovereignty over Muslim, Jewish, and Christian holy places, and sovereignty over East Jerusalem in general. The arguments combined religious, historic, legal, political and practical elements.

Sovereignty Over East Jerusalem

The Palestinians regard East Jerusalem as a part of the occupied territories which fall under UN Security Council Resolution 242, and demand full Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967 lines. [I] For Israel, East Jerusalem is an indivisible part of its territory after being annexed to Israel in 1967.

Along with their demand for a full Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem according to resolution 242, the Palestinians have expressed readiness "to take into consideration" the interests of Israel in East Jerusalem, as long as Palestinian sovereignty over it is not compromised.[1]

Recently, after the summit, Feisal Al-Husseiny hinted at the possibility that Palestinians will agree not to regard the Jewish neighborhoods that were established in Jerusalem beyond the June 4, 1967 lines as "ordinary settlements," - namely, that must be evacuated - on the condition that it will be done within a framework of territorial exchange: "There is a possibility of territorial exchange with Israel in West Jerusalem so that Palestinians return to neighborhoods in which they lived before 48."[II]

Discussions at Camp David also focused on the possible division of East Jerusalem into several categories, some of which will be under full sovereignty of one of the parties, while others will be under administrative control.[III]

On July 23, the United States submitted a proposal -- based on a milder Israeli proposal - to grant the Palestinians full sovereignty in the Muslim and Christian quarters [including Christian holy sites] while leaving the Jewish and Armenian quarters under Israeli sovereignty.

In a response to this proposal, Arafat told Clinton, "I will not agree to any Israeli sovereign presence in Jerusalem, neither in the Armenian quarter, nor in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, neither on the Via De La Rosa, nor in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. They can occupy us by force, because we are weaker now, but in two years, ten years, or one hundred years, there will be someone who will liberate Jerusalem [from them]."[2]

Recently, Feisal Al-Husseiny claimed that even the ownership of the Jewish quarter is primarily Palestinian: "…87.6% of the homes in the Jewish quarter are located on Arab land…"[IV]

Sovereignty Over Temple Mount and Israel's Demand for a Prayer Site on it

The Palestinians based their claims to sovereignty over Temple Mount not only its being part East Jerusalem (on the basis of Resolution 242) - but also on its holiness in Islam. Time and again, they repeated that the Muslim holy places are in the status of an Islamic Waqf [religious endowment].

Arafat stated over and over again that in his demand for sovereignty over East Jerusalem, he represents all Muslims, reminding President Clinton of the fact that he serves as the permanent deputy chairman of the 'Islamic Conference' organization.[3] The secretary-general of the Arab League, Dr. 'Ismat Abd Al-Maguid, too, stated that "no Arab leader is allowed to relinquish Jerusalem."[4] So did Arafat, in telling President Clinton that "The Arab leader who would give up Jerusalem has not yet been born."[5]

Arafat also demanded recognition as the defender and custodian of Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, regarding himself as the heir to the legacy of the Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem in 638, Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, and often stressed his responsibility for the Christians.[V]

Israel too presented in Camp David its demand to sovereignty over Temple Mount on the basis of its holiness in Judaism, as the site of the first and second temples. On this basis, it raised -for the first time - a demand for a Jewish prayer site on the on the edges of the mountain.

The Palestinians totally rejected both demands and regarded them as an attempt to foil any chance for an agreement. A statement by the Islamic Awqaf Council in Jerusalem explained this position: "The Al-Aqsa Mosque belongs to the Muslims alone, according to a divine decision, and is part of the Muslim faith. Prayer in it by non-Muslims is forbidden by [religious] law. Any attempt to harm its holiness or the site itself, or to desecrate it would injure Muslims all over the world."[VI]

The PA Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, Sheikh 'Ikrima Sabri explained that the buildings surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque are also holy and therefore establishing a synagogue there would be impossible: "All the buildings surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque are an Islamic waqf… These buildings have direct openings, doors and windows, to the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque, and therefore their status is similar to that of Al-Aqsa in terms of blessing and holiness. Therefore, according to Islamic law, it is impossible to plunder any of these building in order to make it a synagogue for the Jews."[6]

The Palestinian rejection of Israel's demands to sovereignty and prayer sites on Temple Mount is based on the total denial of any Jewish affiliation to the mountain. According to the Palestinians, the "so-called temple" that Israel recalls, has never been there, and there is no evidence to suggest its existence. This position was voiced by many high-ranking Palestinians, such as Nabil Sha'ath[7], Saib Ereiqat [VII] and Abu 'Alaa. The latter claimed that the Israeli demand is a plot: once it is accepted that the temple existed beneath the mosques, and Israel gained sovereignty over the land under the mosques - "It will mean that within a few years they will destroy the mosques."[8] This referred to the September 1996 Western Wall Tunnel Affair, in which the Palestinians claimed that the digging of the tunnel was aimed at destabilizing the foundations of the mosques, thereby destroying the mosques.

Abu 'Alaa also claimed that "at Camp David the Israelis offered Palestinian sovereignty over the ground and Israeli sovereignty underneath the ground. Who would agree to this? They also offered Palestinian sovereignty, and Israeli super-sovereignty. There is no precedent for such a thing. They also offered Palestinian control under Israeli sovereignty, in a sort of diplomatic representation, similar the status of a Palestinian embassy [enjoying sovereignty] in Israeli land. Whoever agrees to such offers betrays faith."[9]

A classified report of the Palestinian leadership on the Camp David summit refers to this Israeli offer: "The Israelis offered to divide the sovereignty …so that the Palestinians have vertical sovereignty from the sky to the ground, and the Israelis have sovereignty from the surface to the center of the earth. What they intended by this offer was a right to look after the remains of the so-called temple, which (archeological) diggings have failed to find for the last seventy years."[10]

Arafat told Clinton in this regard: "I am a religious man, and I will not allow it to be written of me [in history] that I have… confirmed the existence of the so-called temple underneath the mountain."[11]

Abu Mazen also denied the right of the Jews to a prayer site on Temple mount not only on the basis of its holiness to the Muslims, but also on the basis of practical experience in Jewish - Muslim joint Jewish-Muslim prayer sites: "We have learned the lessons of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem. The Jews asked to visit them, then it became the basis for [further] demands. In the Hebron mosques, they asked to participate in praying at the site, and today whoever visits the Tomb is being attacked. For these reasons, as a matter of principle we will allow neither [Jewish] sovereignty nor prayer in, around, or above the mosques.[12]

Akram Haniya, editor of Al-Ayyam and an Arafat advisor who participated in Camp David, criticized the Israeli demands, and furthermore their acceptance by the US: "The secular [Israeli] negotiators began talking in the language of extremist religious Jews. Suddenly, the Jewish access to the [Muslim] holy sites and Israeli sovereignty over the mountain became a basic Israeli demand. But the dangerous thing about it was that the Americans endorsed these demands unhesitatingly, and without any thought about the implications."[13]

Sovereignty Over the Wailing Wall

The Palestinian position is that the Wailing Wall is a holy Islamic site and an Islamic Waqf. Its holiness derives, according to the Muslim tradition, from its being the site where the Prophet Muhammad landed in his nocturnal divine journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The Wailing Wall is where he tied his horse called 'Al-Buraq,' (which is why the wall is known in Islam as 'The Wall of Al-Buraq.')

At Camp David, Arafat also based his claim to the site on an "assertion by the British mandatory government in 1929 that the Western Wall is the Wall of Al-Buraq, and that it is regarded as an Islamic Waqf and an historic Islamic right."[14]

The PA mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, Sheikh 'Ikrima Sabri explained that the Western Wall is part of the Al-Aqsa Wall, and therefore is an Islamic Waqf. On the other hand, he asserted: "no stone of the Al-Buraq Wall has any relation to Judaism. The Jews began praying at this wall only in the nineteenth century, when they began to develop [national] aspirations, as Yossi Beilin has said."[15]

Nevertheless, the Palestinians are ready to acknowledge the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall …out of respect to Judaism, but only on the condition that the sovereignty over it will be Palestinian.

Feisal Al-Husseiny explained that: "the PA is ready to discuss all the arrangements relating to free access, worship and the visiting of Jews in Jerusalem, upon the condition that the sovereignty over the city be fully Palestinian."[16] However, as Abu 'Alaa asserted: "there is no point in discussing the details of these arrangements, before Israel has recognized Palestinian sovereignty over [East] Jerusalem."[17]

Abu Mazen recognized the fact that "Jerusalem is holy for all [religions]" and explained that even though the Jews would be granted the right to pray at the wall - the wall will remain an Islamic Waqf: "All parties have a right to their religious worship on the mountain. The Jews have the right to visit the Western Wall and pray there, despite the fact that the British Commission asserted in 1929 that the wall is an Islamic Waqf. Arafat always says that he will allow them to pray at the site."[18]

This assertion was made clear by Arafat in an interview with the Japanese news agency NHK during his last visit to Tokyo. While rejecting Israel's claim to sovereignty on Temple Mount, he added: "However, I offered them (meaning, the Jews) freedom of prayer at the Western Wall. They are praying there, and I offered that they would be able to continue with their prayers, because I respect Judaism." Arafat reiterated this statement repeatedly during the interview. In an answer to the interviewer's question about the holiness of the Wall to the Jews too, he said: "I have offered them free access to pray at the Western Wall …they will have an open corridor to reach the Western Wall."[19]

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, PA mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine, dismissed the claim that the prohibitions that kept Jews from reaching the 'Al-Buraq Wall' between 1948 and 1967 necessitates granting sovereignty over the wall to Israel out of the fear that if a Palestinian State is established, the Jews will again be prohibited from praying there: "Circumstances have changed," he said, "[now] there is international recognition [of the right to religious worship] - and the Jews are able to reach the Wall. Arafat can tell them: "Give me sovereignty over Jerusalem, and I will make it possible for you to reach the 'Al-Buraq Wall' and pray there. I promise you freedom of worship. [However] granting free access to the wall does not mean that the Wall will belong to them. The Wall is ours."[20]

[I] In all reports in the Arab media from the Camp David Summit, there was no reference to any specific Palestinian demand to the Jewish neighborhoods built in East Jerusalem after 67. Nevertheless, the principled Palestinian position regarding these neighborhoods is that they are "like all settlements" and need to be evacuated.

[II] Al-Husseiny pointed out two specific Palestinian villages which are now included in West Jerusalem: Lifta and Malha. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida

[III] According to Saib Ereiqat, "Israel offered to divide Jerusalem into three parts: the outlying neighborhoods: Sawahra, Um-Tuba, Shu'fat, Beit Hanina, Qalandia, Kufr-'Aqab, Samiramis and 'Isawiya will come under immediate Palestinian control. The inner neighborhoods: the Salah Al-Din street, Bab Al-'Amoud, Musrara, Sheikh Jarrah, Wadi Al-Jouz, Al-Suane, Al-Tour, Silwan, and Ras Al-'Amoud. All these will be under overall Palestinian autonomy. And the third part, the Old City, will fall under Israeli sovereignty with a Palestinian flag on Temple mount. The Palestinian security services will be based there, and the seat of the Palestinian cabinet will be in the Muslim quarter under Palestinian sovereignty. …We told them that we want Jerusalem to be an open city on both sides, the Eastern and the Western on the condition of full Palestinian sovereignty in east Jerusalem. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 12, 2000.

[IV] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 3, 2000. On August 26, 2000, however, Al-Husseiny told Al-Quds that the Palestinians may concede sovereignty over the Jewish quarter in exchange receiving sovereignty over the other three Muslim and Christian quarters of the old city. At the same time, Abu Mazen told the Kul Al-Arab weekly (August 25, 2000) that the Palestinians have nothing on which to concede regarding the basic issues of Jerusalem and the refugees.

[V] Ereiqat reports that in the summit negotiations that Arafat often expressed his determination to care for the Christians as well: "Abu 'Ammar" told us that the Christian quarter is more important to him than the Muslim quarter because of his wish to uphold the terms of the "Omar Pact" [regarding the status of non-Muslim monotheist religions." Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 8, 2000.

[VI] Al-Quds, August 15, 2000. In his arguments against Israel's demands, Arafat reminded President Clinton that Moshe Dayan himself prohibited Jews from praying on the Temple Mount since 1967: "Why do they want to do it now? The [Israeli] proposals are like mines that will ignite fires in the region and throughout the world. Beware not to repeat these proposals [because] they are dangerous and destructive."' Al-Ayyam. August 6, 2000. High-ranking officials told Al-Hayat that the Palestinians made clear to the Americans that giving the Jews a license to pray on Temple Mount will prompt massacres all over the world. Al-Hayat (London) August 6, 2000.

[VII] Ha'aretz (Israel), July 27, 2000. According to the reports, Ereiqat made this denial at one of the Camp David meetings in the presence of President Clinton, who noted that the Christian Minister at Camp David believes in the Israeli version.

[1] Saib Ereiqat in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, (PA) August 12, 2000.

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 10, 2000.

[3] Al-Ayyam (PA), August 10, 2000.

[4] Saut Al-Haqq Wa Al-Hurriyya (Israeli weekly), August 18, 2000.

[5] Al-Quds, July 20, 2000.

[6] Saut Al-Haqq Wa Al-Hurriyya, August 25, 2000.

[7] Al-Ayyam, July 27, 2000.

[8] Al-Ayyam, July 30, 2000.

[9] Al-Ayyam, August 12, 2000.

[10] Al-Quds, August 18, 2000.

[11] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 12, 2000.

[12] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 19, 2000.

[13] Al-Ayyam, August 3, 2000.

[14] Al-Hayat, July 27, 2000.

[15] Kul Al-Arab, August 18, 2000.

[16] Al-Ayyam, August 22, 2000.

[17] Al-Ayyam, July 30, 2000 and Al-Quds, July 25, 20000.

[18] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, August 19, 2000.

[19] Japanese News Agency NHK, August 15, 2000. Asked by the interviewer about the possibility of sharing responsibility in the holy sites for all three religions, Arafat reacted decisively: "Sharing of responsibilities? No! …I cannot agree to that. I am not allowed to accept any [foreign] sovereignty on places holy to Christianity and Islam."

[20] Kul Al-Arab, August 16, 2000.

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