Historically, the religious standing of Jerusalem for Muslims waxed and waned with political circumstances; in a consistent and predictable cycle repeated six times through fourteen centuries, Muslims focused on the city when it served their needs and ignored it when it did not.
This contrast was especially obvious during the past century. British rule over the city, 1917-48, galvanized a passion for Jerusalem that had been absent during the four hundred years of Ottoman control. Throughout the Jordanian control of the walled city, 1948-67, however, Arabs largely ignored it. For example, Jordan’s radio broadcast Friday prayers not from Al-Aqsa mosque but from a minor mosque in Amman. The PLO’s founding document dating from 1964, the Palestinian National Covenant, mentioned Jerusalem not once.
Muslim interest in the city revived only with the Israeli conquest of Jerusalem in 1967. Jerusalem then became the focal point of Arab politics, serving to unify fractious elements. In 1968, the PLO amended its covenant to call Jerusalem “the seat of the Palestine Liberation Organization.” The king of Saudi Arabia himself declared the city religiously “just like” Mecca — a novel, if not a blasphemous idea.
By 1990, the Islamic focus on Jerusalem reached such surreal intensity that Palestinians evolved from celebrating Jerusalem to denying the city’s sacred and historical importance to Jews. The Palestinian establishment — scholars, clerics, and politicians — promoted this unlikely claim by constructing a revisionist edifice made up in equal parts of fabrication, falsehood, fiction, and fraud. It erases all Jewish connections to the Land of Israel, replacing them with a specious Palestinian-Arab connection.
Palestinians now claim that Canaanites built Solomon’s Temple, that the ancient Hebrews were Bedouin tribesmen, the Bible came from Arabia, the Jewish Temple “was in Nablus or perhaps Bethlehem,” the Jewish presence in Palestine ended in C.E. 70, and today’s Jews are descendants from the Khazar Turks. Yasir Arafat himself created a non-existent Canaanite king, Salem, out of thin air, speaking movingly about this fantasy Palestinian “forefather.”
Palestinian Media Watch sums up this process: By turning Canaanites and Israelites into Arabs and the Judaism of ancient Israel into Islam, the Palestinian Authority “takes authentic Jewish history, documented by thousands of years of continuous literature, and crosses out the word ‘Jewish’ and replaces it with the word ‘Arab’.”
The political implication is clear: Jews lack any rights to Jerusalem. As a street banner puts it: “Jerusalem is Arab.” Jews are unwelcome.
Three key events, Yitzhak Reiter of the Hebrew University argues, transformed this self-indulgent mythology into official ideology:
· The Temple Mount Faithful incident of October 1990 saw a Jewish group’s unsuccessful effort to lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple leading to a Muslim riot in which 17 rioters lost their lives. This episode increased Palestinian apprehensions about the demolishing of Islamic sanctities, prompting a drive to prove that Jerusalem has always been a Muslim and Palestinian city.
· The Oslo accord of September 1993 placed Jerusalem, for the first time, on the table for negotiation. Palestinians responded by attempting to discredit Jewish connections to the city.
· The Camp David summit of July 2000 saw the Israeli government, again for the first time, put forward its demands for sovereignty over parts of the Temple Mount.. As Dennis Ross, a U.S. diplomat present at the summit, astringently puts it, Arafat “never offered any substantive ideas, not once” at the talks. However, “He did offer one new idea, which was that the Temple didn’t exist in Jerusalem, that it was in Nablus.” With this, Jerusalem’s pseudo-history became formal PA policy.
Palestinian denial of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem has two likely long-term implications. First, it suggests that the Palestinian focus on Jerusalem has reached such a fervor that it might now sustain itself regardless of politics, thereby breaking a fourteen-century pattern. Jerusalem appears to have developed into an abiding Muslim interest, one generating feelings of entitlement no longer related to utilitarian considerations.
Second, this denial severely diminishes the prospect of a diplomatic resolution. The Palestinians’ self-evidently false history alienates their Israeli interlocutors even as it lays claim to sole rights over the entire city. As a result, future negotiations over Jerusalem are bound to be yet more emotional, askew, and difficult than past ones.