Jerusalem is a fascinating place to visit. Pilgrims from all three Abrahamic faiths join the locals flowing in their thousands daily through the gates of the Old City.
Christians often travel in packs, following the lasts steps of Jesus with their passionate singing and life size crosses clogging up the narrow enclosed paths of the Old City. Orthodox Jewish men and boys stream to the Western Wall with their elegant black hats and ringlets. And on Fridays shops in the Muslim Quarter are left untended and unlocked as the shopkeepers go to prayer at the Dome of the Rock.
On a first look, Jerusalem is a cohesive kaleidoscope of religious fervour.
Jerusalem however is not just about religious observance. For many thousands of years it has been a centre of political power. Jesus was killed as he challenged the injustices that flowed from this city.
Jerusalem is also a symbolic microcosm of the hopes and failures of more recent political machinations in the ‘Holy Land’. When after the horrors of the second World War, the UN decided to ‘partition’ Palestine, Jerusalem was designated an independent international city, that could be shared by all. However in flagrant violation of this, Israel claimed the western side of the city in 1948, and then the rest of it in 1967. Since that time Palestinians have had a third of their land appropriated in a deliberate and ongoing process of “Judaisation of Jerusalem”.
Israel believes, that Jerusalem is the ‘eternal united and undivided capital of the Jewish people and the state of Israel’, a narrative that even made its way into the policy platform of new political party “Rise Up Australia”.
However where does this leave the Palestinians who have always lived in Jerusalem and for whom the city has has been a regional capital for millennia?
Palestinian Jerusalemites have not fared well in recently history. In 1948, tens of thousands were forced to leave their homes, and many thousands more in 1967. And Palestinians continue to be forced out of their homes. The reality for many Palestinians is that while they may have the legal title and the keys for their family home, their home has been taken over by others.
And while Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, it did not grant the people citizenship of Israel. This means there are over 360,000 Palestinians that live in Jerusalem on flimsy ‘residency permits’ which can be revoked at any time. Since 1967, more than 15,000 Palestinians have had their residency permits revoked. The latest announcement that Israel will only renew these permits for 10 years at a time has shocked human rights observers.
Palestinian areas in Jerusalem are easy to spot – their roads and buildings are in disrepair. This is not because of a lack of care from Palestinians, but because of lack of infrastructure investment. Palestinians are permitted to build on only 17% of the area of East Jerusalem, most of which has already been totally exhausted by previous construction; Nearly all Palestinian neighborhoods are lacking detailed outline plans; 78% of Palestinians in Jerusalem live in poverty and there is a shortage of over 1000 classrooms.
And the boundaries of Jerusalem continues to be redefined. In 1967 it was 38km2. Since that time Israel has continued to expand its boundaries, and it now considers Jerusalem 365km2 – a significant chunk of the West Bank. In addition there are a ring of settlements that surround Jerusalem, which ensure that East Jerusalem is separated from the rest of the West Bank.
Jesus suggested to his followers if they didn’t speak his message, then “the stones will cry out”. Palestinian Christians identify as the ‘living stones’ that are seeking to cry out to the rest of the world about the ongoing effects of the occupation of their lands. In the Kairos Document released by Church Leaders in 2009, they say “Jerusalem is the heart of our reality…Jerusalem, city of reconciliation, has become a city of discrimination and exclusion, a source of struggle rather than peace.”
This week is the World Council of Churches’ Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel. The theme for this year is “Jerusalem, the City of Justice and Peace”.
The renowned Jewish thinker, author and Liberation theologian Dr Marc Ellis said recently: the suffering on the ground cannot end without significant and decisive action to call Israel to account. By calling Israel to account at least the norms of justice can be spoken of in public. From there mechanisms of instituting justice can be imagined and implemented in the future.”
There are many ways to bring Israel to account. There is the diplomatic pressure which the EU is at the forefront. The Kairos document released by Church leaders in Palestine invites people to consider the boycott campaign as a nonviolent strategy led by Palestinian civil society. And Australians make pilgrimage to the ‘Holy Land’ then we can ensure that the ‘living stones’ are part of our travel plans. For Christians there is need to counter the theology of Christian Zionism which in seeing the return of the Jews to all of Palestine as a prerequisite for Jesus’ return, is directly supporting Palestinian dispossession. And as Australia purports to be a good friend of Israel it is incumbent on us to learn about oppression of the Israeli occupation.
Let it not only be the Palestinians that cry out for peace in Jerusalem.
THe 2013 World Council of Churches Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel began on the September 22.