18 June 2018

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem

For my first 12 years, the map with which I was familiar showed a small Israel, some of whose territory was precariously thin, caught between its hostile neighbours and the sea. This all changed in June 1967, when Israel, attacked by those neighbours, pushed them back and occupied the territories west of the Jordan River. For the first time in nearly 20 years, Jerusalem was no longer a divided city bisected by a tense no-man’s-land. Israel had restored the unity of its capital city.

Yet to this day few countries recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, maintaining their embassies in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. But wait. Doesn’t a country have the right to name its own capital city? Shouldn’t other countries with which it enjoys diplomatic relations honour this right without question? Ordinarily this would be the case.

Yet few things are normal in the Middle East, especially where Israel and Palestine are concerned. My visit there in 1995 confirmed this for me. Tension hung constantly in the air, and military personnel armed with machine guns were ubiquitous. Moreover, that was at a time of optimism in the wake of the Oslo Accords.

When the fledgling United Nations Organization drafted a settlement for the British mandate of Palestine in 1947, the land was to be divided between Jews and Arabs, with Jerusalem given special international status. Tel Aviv was the principal city in the Jewish section, while Jerusalem was wholly within the Arab zone, though not part of it. This partition plan was never put into effect due to the war that broke out the following year.

Although 70 years have passed and Israel is now a permanent feature on the landscape, its very existence is nevertheless disputed in the Arab world. Israel has made peace with two of its neighbours, and even the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist in 1993. Nevertheless, such nonstate actors as Hezbollah and Hamas, the latter of which took over Gaza in 2007, have managed effectively to weaken, if not nullify, this recognition, thereby casting a long shadow over Israeli-Palestinian relations. Not surprisingly, Israel is reluctant to cede too much control over territories that could pose a threat to its own security. Palestinians would almost certainly have their own state by now if they had been better served by their leadership and if foreign powers, such as Iran, hadn’t interfered to advance their own ambitions.

Of course Jerusalem is in fact Israel’s capital. The Knesset meets in the western part of the city which has been in Israeli hands for nearly three-quarters of a century. Nevertheless, because Jerusalem’s status is still disputed in much of the region, virtually no other country is willing to risk inflaming the situation by relocating its embassy there. Back in 1979, Joe Clark’s short-lived government promised to move Canada’s embassy to Jerusalem but was defeated before it could do so.

But now Donald Trump has done what others had only talked about: last month the United States opened its embassy in a city holy to three religions, followed by an almost immediate outbreak of violence in Gaza. Was this a wise move? Probably not. Even if it is right over the long term – assuming Jerusalem’s status can eventually be agreed on by all actors in the region – in the short term the administration had to know that its action would facilitate bloodshed, in addition to establishing a tempting future target for terrorists.

The psalmist’s injunction to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Palm 122:6) has never been more relevant. Yet the monastic motto of ora et labora (“pray and work”) is also pertinent. As we pray, let us do what we can to encourage our leaders to seek a just peace that would regularize the status of this ancient city.

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