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City profile

1. The ‘uniqueness’ of the city

Stepped in antiquity, contested, conquered and imagined throughout centuries, Jerusalem exists as a uniquely Holy City to the world’s three major monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Its sacred symbolic power derives not only from the fact that it contains the greatest concentration of holy places and sites but that is remains the loci of religious fervour, seasonal pilgrimage and eschatological visions for worshippers around the world. The al-Aqsa Mosque, the site of Muhammad’s legendary night journey to Heaven and the Western (Wailing) Wall, the only visible remainder of the second Jewish Temple, form part of the sacred Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary compound. This revered site is the scene of continuing confrontation and communal friction between Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews, mirroring the wider national dispute over territorial rights, religious freedoms and political sovereignty. The special status of Jerusalem has been officially recognised and affirmed by successive Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli powers, impacting the city’s taxation, security arrangements, civil legislation and administrative control.


2. Origins as an ethno/nationally/religious divided city in its imperialist/nationalist contexts

From the origins of the developing conflict between Zionism and Arab-Palestinian nationalism in the 1880s, Jerusalem has simultaneously presented an inspiration and obstacle for peace. The conflict between Jewish and Palestinian state formation, in which Jerusalem’s strategic and symbolic role as the desired capital of both national communities would steadily gain in significance, was fuelled by a long history of Western imperial intervention in the city, predating the establishment of the British Mandate (lasting until 1948) after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. The defeat of the Palestinian national movement first by the British during the ‘Great Palestinian Rebellion’ of 1936-39, and later by the nascent Jewish state in the war of 1948, invited the increased influence in the Palestinian cause of neighbouring Arab and Islamic states. A complex constellation of intrusive international interests both by state, para- and non-state actors, based in part on the presence of the holy places and the related formation of quasi-autonomous religious enclaves in the city, has remained a permanent feature of the politics of Jerusalem. Deep-seated ethno-national divisions in Jerusalem today remain unresolved despite the asymmetry in state formation in favour of Jewish Israelis on the one hand and, on the other, recurrent negotiations of the ‘peace process’ beginning with the Oslo Accords of 1993 and varying efforts of international mediation.


3.  Internal structuring of the city itself.

Ottoman Jerusalem up to 1917
The last decades of Ottoman rule over Jerusalem witnessed Jerusalem’s rise as a modernising provincial capital of distinctive administrative status within the Empire. While the neighbourhoods of the Old city, nominally divided along confessional lines, continued to witness a significant intermingling of ethnic and religious groups, the growth of the city beyond the sixteenth-century walls was clearly segregated along national lines. Two distinctive forms of urbanisation emerged at the turn of the century. On the one hand, the Palestinian city grew along established patterns on the extensive lands of the clan-based villages of Jerusalem’s hinterland that had long entertained close ties to the Old City. On the other hand, Christian and Jewish urban enclaves were established in the West. In this period the Jewish population grew dramatically, mainly through immigration from Central and Eastern Europe, but the Palestinian Arabs (both Muslim and Christian) remained a majority in the city despite contested representations of the demography.

British Mandate, 1922-48
Under the British Mandate Jerusalem underwent dramatic changes, functioning for the first time as a capital of the newly defined territory of Palestine, with its population soaring from 62,700 to 164,400 between 1922 and 1946 (according to British censuses). The Jewish and Palestinian populations had reached near-parity within the metropolitan area of the city by the end of the Mandate. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, outlining in vague and contradictory terms Britain’s support for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ whilst respecting the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’, led to the increasing polarisation of the two communities in the city. Successive episodes of escalating violence throughout Palestine in 1920, 1921, 1929 and in 1936, led to the first partition proposal of the ‘Peel commission’ in 1937, unwanted by both sides, but more decidedly rejected by the Palestinians. Leaving a corridor of land including Jerusalem to the British, the plan anticipated the international community’s preference of the settlement of the conflict through an internationalisation of Jerusalem and a territorial partition of Palestine as the basis for a ‘two-state solution’, enshrined in what became know as UN Partition Plan of 1947, to which the Palestinians were implacably opposed.

Divided City, 1948-67
As the British Mandate neared its end, hostilities broke out between Palestinian and Jewish militias in November 1947 leading to the pan-Arab invasion in May 1948 shortly after David Ben Gurion’s declaration of the Israeli state. The defeat of the Arab states resulted in the armistice agreement of 1949 and the division of Jerusalem between the newly founded state of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. 60,000 Arabs were forced to flee Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem, their Jewish counterparts from the Eastern part of the city numbering 2,000. Neither states received international recognition for their control of territory designated as the Jerusalem corpus separatum under the UN plan. East Jerusalem (which included the Old City) stagnated in the nineteen years of division, as the Jordanians were primarily concerned with integrating the West Bank into the Kingdom, developing Amman as the unifying capital of the Jordanian nation-state. From the beginning Israeli state building envisaged a central role for Jerusalem. The parliament declared the city as the official capital of Israel in 1950; the first ministries had been transferred as early as 1949.

Jerusalem after 1967
After the 1967 war, Israel annexed Jordanian East Jerusalem (6km2) along with 64 km2 of territory from the surrounding West Bank, unilaterally claiming this area as part of the expanded Jerusalem municipality (now totalling 108km2). The annexation has not been recognised by any other state or international body. Despite the attempts to unify the city under Israeli hegemony, two contested political realities – Israeli and Palestinian – emerged. The majority of Palestinians continue to view East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Through the 1967 annexation, about 66,000 Palestinians were drawn into the newly expanded municipal boundaries and granted residency permits. Today approximately 253,000 Palestinians are officially permanent residents in East Jerusalem, constituting about one third of the city’s total population. East Jerusalem is also home to nearly 200,000 Israelis living in areas built-up since 1967, known to Israelis as ‘new neighbourhoods’, and to Palestinians as colonial settlements, which do not distinguish them from their counterparts in the West Bank. This situation has been exacerbated by the recent building of a 168km long barrier (consisting of concrete and fenced sections), which when completed will separate and effectively seal East Jerusalem from the West Bank. The Israeli government states that the purpose of this barrier is to protect Israeli citizens from terrorist attacks. Palestinians denounce the separation barrier as apartheid and a mechanism of land-grabbing, control and oppression.

4.  Recent/contemporary nature and stage of the ethno-national conflict.

Jerusalem remains central to the Arab-Israeli conflict, acting both as an icon of the political and religious aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians and as a microcosm of the ebb and flow of relations between them. Although the Oslo Accords (1993) finally placed Jerusalem on the negotiating table, and the Taba Summit (2001) explored proposals for shared sovereignty, the subsequent demise of the peace process has stifled any substantial progress. Instead, there has been a radicalisation of both sides, demonstrated with the outbreak of the Palestinian ‘Al-Aqsa’ Intifada (2000) and the resurgence in popularity of the Islamist group Hamas; and also confirmed through Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in Arab neighbourhoods, their support for right-wing settler groups such as Elad and Gush Eminem and the bolstering of a military and security presence throughout the city.

Under Ariel Sharon’s Likud government (2001-2006) Israel dismantled the vestiges of PA political authority in Jerusalem with the closure of ‘Orient House’ and continued to restrict the growth of Palestinian communities. During this period, 512 Palestinian homes were demolished in East Jerusalem for not having legal building permits; 1,888 Jerusalem ID cards were revoked and 55,000 Palestinians living within the Jerusalem municipal boundaries were physically excluded from the city by the Separation barrier (B’Tselem, 2008).Despite such deliberate attempts to forcibly secure the Jewish majority in Jerusalem this has in fact contributed to an acceleration in Palestinian migration back into Jerusalem, with the Old City suffering under the strains of overcrowding and social deprivation. Political dislocation, due to Israeli intransigence and Palestinian infighting (Hamas and Fatah), has further served to mobilise religious extremists, exacerbating communal tensions and resulting in spontaneous car attacks and targeted sectarian violence. Amidst this political vacuum and upsurge in social confrontation new spheres of public contestation are becoming increasingly significant, such as archaeological sites, religious places, and public spaces.

The question of Jerusalem continues to involve a multiplicity of external actors and international attempts at mediation. The UN and EU position has been clear, consistent but rather ineffectual, affirming their commitment to a Corpus Separatum (UNGA 181) and the illegality of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. The US approach remains conveniently ambiguous, publicly supporting the concept of a ‘unified city’ determined by final status negotiations, but largely ignoring Israeli expansion through settlements and the trajectory of the separation wall. The creation of the ‘Quartet on the Middle East’ (US, Russia, EU and UN) in 2002 and their subsequent ‘Road Map’ (2003-2005) which proposed fixing borders, Palestinian political reform, freezing Jewish settlements and negotiating Jerusalem, also appears to have run aground on the obstacles of Israeli non-compliance and Hamas’ violent resistance. Similarly, the ‘Arab Peace Initiative’ (2002) proposed by Crown Prince King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, offering a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in return for the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital, remains a distant unfulfilled dream. While the future of the city of Jerusalem
is invariably tied to a broader political settlement, it must also address and reconcile the everyday tensions and divisions that continue to permeate society.


5.  Prospects/expectations/scenarios for the future

Various formulae for the sharing or division of the city have been presented in both official and unofficial discussions between Israelis and Palestinians. A common theme is the creation of a ‘Coordination Committee’ appointed by the municipalities to oversee the economic development of the city as a whole and a special regime for the Old City with Israeli sovereignty over the cemetery on the Mount of Olives and the Western (Wailing) Wall. Yet on the central issue concerning respective sovereignty, particularly Palestinian sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif, the negotiations usually break down.

At the time of writing no significant discussions for a negotiated settlement are in the offing.  Indeed, on one level prospects for a negotiated solution appear to be receding with an Israeli policy of ongoing unilateral action such as the completion of the Separation Wall which will act as border around the eastern part of the city and detach the Palestinian areas from their hinterland. No legitimate Palestinian leadership will accept this outcome as a permanent solution for Jerusalem; and therefore given this context, no credible solution is in sight. However, it is also possible to take a longer view and recognise that there have been significant shifts over the past fifteen years. Taken altogether, the various Track II discussions, the Oslo Accords, the Camp David summit and the Taba talks reveal a gradual movement away from the maximalist positions of both sides prior to the peace process and towards positions based upon UNSC Resolution 242 but including land exchanges.  We can see this in the form proposals for an Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian sovereignty over large areas of East Jerusalem, and a tacit parallel acquiescence on the part of Palestinians to the new realities in Jerusalem.  The fact that this movement is limited and incremental cannot disguise the fact that for the Israelis, the issue of Jerusalem has shifted from being non-negotiable in the eighties (pre-Oslo), to becoming negotiable-at-some-deferred-stage in the nineties (Oslo), to negotiable-in-detail, including land exchanges, in the 21st century (post Camp David and Taba). The current alteration to the landscape and physical use of the city by the separation Wall and the unilateralist policies of the current Israeli government does not, for the time being, alter this trend. 

Click here to learn more about our current research on Jerusalem.

Click here to see our publications on Jerusalem.

Click here to see our working papers on Jerusalem.

Click here to learn more about our Jerusalem and Other Contested Cities workshop.

6. References

K. Armstrong (1996) Jerusalem: one city, three faiths, London: HarperCollins.
K. J. Asali (2002) Jerusalem in History: 3000 BC to Present. London: Kegan Paul.
M. Benvenisti (1996) City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem, Berkeley, University of California Press.
M. Dumper (1997) The Politics of Jerusalem since 1967, New York: Columbia University Press.
R. Friedland and R. D. Hecht (2000) To rule Jerusalem, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
R. Kark (2001) Jerusalem and its Environs, Quarters, Neighbourhoods, Villages, 1800-1948, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
M. Klein (2001) Jerusalem the Contested City, London, Hurst & Company.
S. Ricca (2007) Reinventing Jerusalem: Israel's Reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter after 1967, London, I. B. Tauris.