‘Abrahamic religions’ such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam cover more than half of the world’s population. Adherents of these monotheistic faiths believe in the prophet Abraham as their common forefather. Abraham (Avraham in Hebrew) is believed to be the patriarch of the ‘Israelites’ in Judaism (through his descendants Issac and Jacob), in Christianity he is the ‘father in faith’, and in Islam, Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) son Ishmael is regarded as the ancestor of the Arabs. The similarity of heritage and ancestry is inherently implied in the composite Islamic term, ‘People of the Book’, to also include Jews, Christians and Sabians. The historical Abrahamic lands are called the ‘Holy lands’ (‘Biblical lands’) that are situated in the arid swathes between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, including the modern states of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria with towns like Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron, Damascus etc. dotting the restive areas. However, it is the ancient city of ‘Urusalima’, now known as Jerusalem that is the coveted holy city at the core of contemporary strife.
The old quarters of Jerusalem, lined with the date palm and cypress tree, is home to the Temple Mount (Haram Al-Sharif), which the Jews believe was the location of the ‘First Temple’ to house the Ark of the Covenant (housing the Ten Commandments) in a special room called the ‘The Holy of Hollies’. In Islam, the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) is the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, where the rock under the Dome of Rock (near Al Aqsa mosque) is where the Prophet Muhammad left the Earth to go to heaven on a winged horse. It was said to be the direction for Islamic prayers before God allowed the Prophet to pray facing Mecca.
In Christianity too, the significance of Jerusalem is conserved in the Septuagint which Christians adopted as their authority, and was iterated in the New Testament because Jesus was crucified here ~ the Garden Tomb, Condemnation Chapel, Chapel of Flagellation etc. are deeply revered for their religious import. Oddly enough, this city and the cradle of ‘Abrahamic religions’ is also at the heart of the hypothesis of the ‘clash of civilizations’, propounded by the American political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington.
Despite the theological beliefs and ethical principles underlying the affinity within the ‘Abrahamic religions’, the ‘city of peace’ i.e, Jerusalem, has been destroyed at least twice by Babylonians, Romans and even Mongols, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and exchanged hands on 44 occasions. The centuries-old struggle to control Jerusalem led to the division of the old city into the Armenian, Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters.
The more recent history of Zionism and the war of 1948 leading to the creation of Israel, also saw the division of the city of Jerusalem into two parts ~ West Jerusalem was captured by Israel, while East Jerusalem (including the old city) was captured by Jordan. This scenario changed after the ‘six-day war’ of 1967, when Israel captured and annexed the East Jerusalem areas, setting the tone for the modern-day ‘Abrahamic divide’. This contentious move was further escalated by Israel when the Knesset passed the “Jerusalem Law” in 1980, to legitimize the Israeli claim of integrity and unity of ‘Greater Jerusalem’ (Yerushalayim rabati).
The major issue was the designation of Jerusalem (‘complete and united’) as the capital of Israel, the seat of the Israeli President, the Knesset, the Government and the Supreme Court. It also allowed Israel to protect the Holy places from ‘desecration and any violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings towards those places’. The Israelis call Jerusalem the ‘eternal capital of the Jewish people’, whereas the state of Palestine (a US Observer state, recognised by 136 UN member-states) calls East Jerusalem its capital city, in an overlapped clash of territorial counter-claims.
The conflicting claims have resulted in many inter-faith violence, with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) successfully centralising the issue of ‘Jerusalem’ to the Palestinian resistance, that was subsequently aggravated by other factions and supporters like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian establishment. Tehran went to the extent of observing ‘Jerusalem Day’ and concurrently threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’. These competing emotions have made the future status of Jerusalem the symbolic pivot, for tilting scales in favour of either the Israelis or the Arabs. Historically, the move to declare Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel has been a favourite bogey in the run-up to the US Presidential elections given the power of the Jewish lobby. It has usually been put on the backburner post the elections as the derivative value and potential outcomes emanating from such a contentious declaration, simply did not make sense.
However, Donald Trump is no Bill Clinton or George Bush who chose to keep the lid on the issue of Jerusalem, and certainly not Barack Obama, who went on to support a UN Security Council resolution that criticized Israel for its settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. On the contrary, President Trump has decided to stir the hornets’ nest by provocatively threatening to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The fledgling peace process in the region could implode with the fury over the outrage in the Arab world. Already the region is reeling under the imploding faultlines of revisionist religiosity and sectarian strains; the return of the old binary of Israeli-Arab hostilities can only flare up regressive passions and worse, distract global efforts from defeating terrorism from the region. Apart from the Arabs, the EU, Russians and most other powers have slammed the Trump move, which if carried out, effectively closes the door on East Jerusalem as the future capital of a fully-independent Palestine. Yet again, the ferment might yet again strike the Abrahamic divides that have endured the regimes of the Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Mamelukes, Crusaders, the British, the Arabs… and now, the Jewish state.
The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry