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Sunday, February 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By John Ward Anderson
The status of Jerusalem a city sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians is one of the most divisive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides claim Jerusalem as their religious and political capital, but most countries do not officially recognize it as such, and the United States and others keep their embassies in Tel Aviv. Under past Israeli-Palestinian accords, neither side is supposed to take any action to change the city's status, which is to be resolved through negotiation.
Step-up since uprising
Projects to cut off access to Jerusalem to Palestinians living in the West Bank, which borders the city on three sides, have accelerated since the start of the current Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Today, Jewish settlements outside the city have been integrated with the urban core, redrawing the map of Jerusalem and complicating any negotiations over its future and the future of West Bank settlements, Israeli and Palestinian experts say.
The web of projects includes 13 settlements to the north of the city that are being linked with each other and with Jerusalem by access roads that act as physical barriers to Palestinian communities. To the east, Israel has approved expansion of the West Bank's largest settlement, Maleh Adumim, to absorb a swath of Palestinian land between the community and East Jerusalem. To the south, access and bypass roads and Jewish settlements have carved Palestinian lands into a checkerboard.
At the same time, a new barrier combining trenches, walls, electronic sensors and steel fences is being built around Jerusalem. The project, part of a large fence that is designed to cordon off the West Bank, has split some Palestinian neighborhoods and separated many Palestinians from their schools, jobs, families and lands.
Israeli officials say that several of the measures are designed to deter the movement of Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank into Israel and that others are aimed at increasing the proportion of Jews in Jerusalem. Palestinians describe the measures as an attempt to break their religious, economic, political and cultural ties to the city and preempt negotiations over its final status.
Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, denied that Israeli actions around Jerusalem were an attempt to predetermine the city's future or to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. Many projects, particularly the fence, are temporary measures to stop terrorist attacks, he said, adding, "We are not establishing facts that are irreversible."
"Jerusalem is not going to be a Palestinian capital that's the position of this government," Gissin said. "But as far as access and movement, all this could come back when the Palestinians remove terrorism from the agenda."
Avraham Duvdevani, head of the settlement unit of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which implements the Israeli government's settlement program in the West Bank, said the aim was to consolidate the capital of the Jewish state.
To Hatam Abdul Qader, a member of the Palestinian Parliament from Jerusalem, such an approach "will make it impossible to create an independent and viable Palestinian state."
"Jerusalem is the most visible example of Israel's settlement policy of besieging and caging Palestinian communities and controlling their exits and entrances with settlements and roads and fences, which are dividing Palestinian neighborhoods and separating Jerusalem from the West Bank," Qader said.
Under the agreements that ended British rule in Palestine in 1948 and divided the region into Arab and Jewish areas, Jerusalem was to be an international city. But Israel's war for independence ended the following year with Israel in possession of the western part of the city, while Jordan retained the eastern section, as well as the West Bank of the Jordan River. In the 1967 Middle East war, Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter annexed East Jerusalem and the lands around it 27 square miles in all.
Fueled by religious conviction, security concerns and economic pressures and encouraged and subsidized by the Israeli government Israeli Jews began establishing settlements around the city and throughout the West Bank. Today, there are approximately 175,000 Jewish residents in the parts of Jerusalem annexed in 1967, according to Israeli human-rights groups and 224,000 more in the West Bank, according to Israel's Interior Ministry.
The issue of Jerusalem is central to any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would result in the creation of two states. Under most recent peace proposals, a Palestinian state would be created from all or part of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some large, well-established Jewish settlements in the West Bank would become part of Israel; in exchange, the Palestinian state would be given an equal amount of Israeli land adjacent to the West Bank.
During the Camp David peace talks in 2000, Ehud Barak, Sharon's predecessor, appeared to accept a U.S. proposal that would have given Palestinians control over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, but the negotiations collapsed. In the subsequent elections, Barak was trounced by Sharon, one of the chief architects of settlement expansion, who often asserts that an undivided Jerusalem is Israel's eternal capital.
"That's where we are today, asking the question, 'Has Sharon won?' " said Jeff Halper, an Israeli human-rights activist. "If the goal is to foreclose the possibility of any viable Palestinian state emerging, then you could make the case that Sharon has succeeded."
U.S. officials are reluctant to publicly discuss the issue of Jerusalem. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said: "We are concerned about any unilateral activities including with respect to the status of Jerusalem that could prejudge a final settlement. And we've expressed those concerns to the Israeli government."
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