BAKU, Azerbaijan, 20 July — Warning that tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem had reached a breaking point, speakers outlined a range of challenges — from increasing discrimination against Palestinian women to a recent “weaponization of religion” at the Al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount — as the International Conference on the Question of Jerusalem held its first plenary session this afternoon.
“We are on the edge of a volcano,” warned Daniel Seidemann, Director of Terrestrial Jerusalem and one of this afternoon’s panellists. Noting that radical Israeli right ideology had moved into the mainstream and transformed Al-Haram al‑Sharif/Temple Mount from a secure, Muslim Palestinian space into one of tension and danger, he said events on the ground over the next 48 to 72 hours would be critical. Indeed, if Israel responded to the peaceful Palestinian protests at Al‑Aqsa Mosque by backing down, a crisis could still be averted.
Imad Abukishek, President of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, urged participants to view recent escalations through the lens of Israel’s long-standing and feverish attempts to obliterate the city’s Islamic and Christian character. They included the establishment of the “Jerusalem 2020” plan, which aimed to reduce the city’s Palestinian population to no more than 20 per cent of its residents, as well increasing the number of settlements and building the “racist wall of separation” on Occupied Palestinian Territory with the aim of further isolating the population between the West Bank and Jerusalem, he said.
Hadeel Abdo, Project Coordinator for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, outlined the many particular challenges confronting Palestinian women living in East Jerusalem. They included struggles to navigate Israeli laws and accessing justice, especially in cases of domestic abuse or everyday matters such as obtaining a driver’s licence — as well as embedded racism, discrimination in the workplace, online surveillance and pervasive fear, she said.
Following those presentations, speakers representing non-governmental organizations and civil society expressed concern about the situation on the ground, asking the panellists to suggest ways to reduce tensions and move towards a peaceful solution. In response, speakers underscored the importance of international solidarity, efforts to improve education and opportunities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and restoring respectful dialogue in which each party would respect the fact that Jerusalem belonged to all peoples and all religions equally.
The Conference will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Friday, 21 July, to continue its work.
The representative of Morocco delivered a statement at the outset of the afternoon session, underlining his country’s special relationship with Palestine and its long support for a settlement that would preserve the Palestinian people’s right to create an independent and viable State with East Jerusalem as its capital. Morocco was also host to the Bayt Mal Al Quds Agency, the operational institution of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s (OIC) Al Quds Committee, which was committed to helping the Palestinians remain steadfast on their lands. In particular, it undertook efforts in the areas of health, education and population, as well as efforts to safeguard religious and civilizational heritage. Noting that Morocco supported more than 80 per cent of that agency’s budget, he called upon other States to increase their participation.
The Conference then held the first of its three plenary discussions, on the theme “life in East Jerusalem under occupation”. Chaired by Husnan Bey Fananie (Indonesia), it featured three panellists: Imad Abukishek, President of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem; Daniel Seidemann, Director of Terrestrial Jerusalem; and Hadeel Abdo, Project Coordinator, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Mr. ABUKISHEK drew attention to Israel’s long-standing and “feverish” attempts to obliterate the Islamic and Christian character of Jerusalem, noting that such actions continued unabated despite repeated condemnations by the international community. On the contrary, Israel continued to work towards Jerusalem’s judaization, an effort that had culminated in the “Jerusalem 2020” plan aimed at reducing the city’s Palestinian population to no more than 20 per cent of its residents. “This closes the last window of opportunity” to avoid a political catastrophe, he warned, emphasizing that creating a new, irrevocable status quo would render the two-State solution impossible.
Asserting that Israel was also replacing Jerusalem’s Palestinian population with Israeli settlers — supported by a “war machine” that killed and arrested without regard for laws, ethics or morals — he went on to outline challenges facing Jerusalem’s Palestinian population in education, housing and social services, among other areas. The Israeli authorities had expanded the border of Jerusalem into the West Bank and built a “racist wall of separation” intended to further isolate the city’s Palestinian population from the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Noting that Israeli settlements had more than doubled in size since 1993, he said holy sites, including Al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, had been targeted with a view to further transforming Jerusalem’s historical character. It was high time to hold Israel accountable and finally end the occupation, he emphasized, urging Member States to give full support to the cause of the Palestinian people.
Mr. SEIDEMANN, emphasizing that relations between Israelis and Palestinians were “strained to the breaking point”, recalled his recent urgent meeting with European Union representatives following two serious changes on the ground — the surge in Israeli settlement activities and the increasing radicalization around Al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. “We are on the edge of a volcano,” he warned, noting that no incident more serious had been seen since 2000. Indeed, events on the ground over the next 48 to 72 hours would be critical. Asking whether installing metal detectors at the entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif following a violent 14 July incident constituted a violation of the status quo, he pointed out that the site had historically been designated as an exclusive place of worship for Muslims. Non-Muslim visitors had been permitted as guests, and it had long been the policy of many Israeli Governments that no Jewish prayer was permitted on the Temple Mount.
In contrast to that historical status quo, he continued, previously radical views had today moved into the political mainstream and transformed Al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from a secure, Muslim Palestinian space into one of tension and danger. Warning against such “weaponization of religion”, he said the parties were in a “frenzy of mutual denial” in which each side ignored the other’s claim to the city. While it was indeed generally legitimate to use metal detectors to prevent the smuggling of dangerous objects into public spaces, it was undeniable that, since Israeli police and border control officers were symbols of the occupation, their presence and actions at the gates of the Al-Aqsa Mosque were seen as a threat and a humiliation.
“We have been an occupying Power so long that it is no longer possible to separate conflict management and permanent status,” he continued, underlining that the Government’s reaction to the coherent, non-violent Palestinian protests at the holy site would have great significance going forward. Indeed, if Israel decided to back down now, a crisis could still be averted. “We are living in a situation where the brakes have been removed,” and in which facts and accountability no longer mattered, he said. There was need to identify alternate sources of stability, including finally addressing the core issue of occupation.
Ms. ABDO described a joint project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UN-Women intended to create a better understanding of Palestinian women’s access to justice in occupied East Jerusalem. She noted that, whereas Israeli law provided “permanent resident” identification cards to Palestinians living in the city, they could be revoked at any time, did not give the right to reunite with family members and were not automatically passed down to children. In recent years, she noted, East Jerusalem had seen growing levels of violence, including attacks against Palestinian women. The Women’s Studies Centre in Jerusalem had therefore conducted a study using feminist methodology to document the voices of the city’s Palestinian women, including through interviews and the collection of letters, court records and other documents. Among its findings, the study revealed that Palestinian women and girls navigating the Israeli legal system struggled with challenges in such simple areas as obtaining a driver’s licence.
She went on to state that Palestinian survivors of domestic violence faced significant obstacles because they feared visits by the Israeli police, from whom they sought protection. Indeed, Palestinian women suffering abuse often refrained from calling the police, particularly if they were not legal residents of Jerusalem. The study also revealed that Palestinian women’s access to the city’s labour market was impacted by embedded racism, that women who spoke out politically or sought justice risked being fired, and that their social media accounts were under constant surveillance by employers. Letters from younger women and girls also revealed daily struggles, including constant fear and thoughts of death, as well as discrimination in higher education and in seeking employment opportunities.
In the ensuing dialogue, participants expressed concern about the recent events, asking the panellists to suggest ways to reduce tensions and move towards a peaceful solution against that complex backdrop.
Mr. SEIDEMANN underlined the need to promptly establish a respectful discourse on Jerusalem, emphasizing that the city belonged to all and that “no one is entitled to denigrate or deny the attachment of anyone else”. Jews, like Muslims, were deeply connected to sites in the holy land, “and we have to respect that”. Nevertheless, no attachment could justify changing the status quo, he stressed.
The observer for the State of Palestine said the installation of metal detectors and other restrictions at Al-Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount was “changing the reality” on the ground with the goal of frustrating Palestinians and preventing them from accessing their holy sites. That action — alongside the expansion of settlements, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the continued imposition of hardships in the Occupied Palestinian Territory — was a “very sophisticated form of ethnic cleansing”, and would only deepen the hatred and resentment between the parties. In that regard, he expressed hope that more Israelis would join Mr. Seidemann in standing up to those policies.
Mr. ABUKISHEK, asked how to improve the situation of those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, said that improving education would increase opportunities for Palestinians currently forced to seek education or employment abroad.
A representative of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation asked the panellists how Muslim nations could better educate their populations about the Palestinian cause, as some participants said the low attendance by Islamic countries was evidence of their lack of strong support for the Palestinian people.
Mr. FANANIE (Indonesia), Conference Chair, responded by saying the occupation imposed against the Palestinians was deeply felt among his country’s 240 million Muslims. “This is the time to find our solidarity,” not only among Muslim countries, but among humans all over the world, he added.
Also speaking were representatives of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation Youth Forum, National Organization for Human Rights Palestine Committee, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, and several individual members of civil society.