By: Dr. Aref Assaf
The governor said he believes now more than ever that only under Israeli control can people of all faiths worship together at the holy site of Jerusalem. “There is no question that that is so stark when you actually see it and you’re here,” he said in an interview. “I was somebody who felt that way politically before I came here, but now that I’ve actually seen the sights, it’s reinforced my opinion that the place has never been better or freer than under Israeli control.” NJ Governor Chris Christie as quoted in the Star-Ledger, April 5, 2012
Sorry Governor, you’re seeing a mirage.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declared before leaving for Israel that he was going there to learn firsthand the history of the area and to become better acquainted with the thorny world affairs. Now that he has departed Israel, the Governor’s statement on the control of Jerusalem’s holy sites seems to lack the litmus test of history, practice or long-held American positions. He, fundamentally, undermined the entrenched American belief that for any contested matter there exists at least two sides of the truth. Governor Christi has been ill-informed by his Israeli hosts. I am certain his next host, King Abdallah II of Jordan would be less hospitable if he learned of Christie’s controversial decision on Jerusalem.
Let us agree first that religious freedom is an internationally recognized human right. However, Israel has consistently ignored this right by enacting, and systematically, laws that limited access to non-Jewish religious sites in Jerusalem. Palestinian Arabs Christians and Muslims, especially those who Israel considers residents of the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip) are not allowed entry into Jerusalem unless the secure special travel permits from the Israel military authorities.These permits are rarely issued.
Governor Christie seems to have ceded sovereignty of East Jerusalem to Israel without comprehending the multiplicity of the legal and diplomatic positions on Jerusalem held within the international community. Governments and scholars alike are divided over the legal status of Jerusalem under international law. Most countries of the world do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Many UN member states formally adhere to the United Nations proposal that Jerusalem should have an international status and that East Jerusalem should be the capital of the future Palestine State.
The chief dispute revolves around Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, which was occupied after the 1967 Six Day War. While broader agreement do exist regarding the Israeli presence in West Jerusalem De jure, most countries and international organizations do not recognize Israel’s control of East Jerusalem, or its 1980 Jerusalem Law proclamation, which unilaterally declared a “complete and united” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Consequently, foreign embassies are generally located in Tel Aviv and its suburbs.
As for the position of the United States’ government, it does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The US views as desirable the establishing of an international regime for the city. Its final status must be resolved through negotiations United States policy on Jerusalem refers specifically to the geographic boundaries of the “City of Jerusalem” based on the UN’s corpus separatum proposal. De jure, Jerusalem is part of the Palestine Mandate and has not been under the sovereignty of any country since President Bush (1989–1993) stated that the United States does not believe new settlements should be built in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration has condemned the expansion of Gilo and Ramat Shlomo and others as well as the evictions and house demolitions that are affecting over a hundred thousand Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.
It is worth noting that the United States voted for the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in November 1947 and United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 in December 1948 following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The U.S. opposed Israel moving its capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, following Israel’s declaration of Jerusalem as its capital in 1949. The U.S. opposed Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. The United States maintains a consulate in Jerusalem that deals primarily with the Palestinian population. Diplomatic relations with the Israeli government are conducted at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. The United States has proposed that the future of Jerusalem should be the subject of a negotiated settlement. Subsequent administrations have maintained the same policy that Jerusalem’s future not be the subject of unilateral actions that could prejudice negotiations, such as moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Regarding the treatment of non-Jewish people wishing to visit Jerusalem to worship in their respective religious sites, Israel has long maintained a policy of denial of this right to Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Often we talk about how Arab Muslims are denied entry into Jerusalem to pray in the Dome of the Rock, or the Al-Aqsa mosque. But the story repeats itself almost identically with Christian Arabs who reside in the West Bank. And this fact is particularly painful to bear when you consider that during this Holy Week when our governor was given unhindered access to the Holy Church of the Sepulcher, tens of thousands of would-be pilgrims from Ramallah or Bethlehem or Nablus will be denied entry at the Apartheid barrier that Israel has built to keep Palestinians separated from their fields, places of work or in this case places of worship.
Our Governor seems to have taken the advice given to him by Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the US who extended the official invitation to visit Israel back in October. In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Oren glowingly spoke of the great treatment Arab Christians have been receiving under Israeli control. He credited Israel with sustaining the fragile presence of Christianity in Israel while blaming their continued decline on Muslim intolerance. But Mr. Christi should have read the strong condemnation letter that leading Arab Christian showered the WSJ in response.
In an Open letter to Michael Oren ahead of Easter , Christian leaders in Palestine wrote, “[W]e were appalled by the baseless allegations you published in the Wall Street Journal on March 9. Your attempt to blame the difficult reality that Palestinian Christians face on Palestinian Muslims is a shameful manipulation of the facts intended to mask the damage that Israel has done to our community.” One of the letter signers was Archbishop Theodosios (Hanna) of Sebastia, who is the highest-ranking Palestinian clergyman in the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The letter further stated that: “The Israeli occupation is the primary reason why so many members of the oldest Christian communities in the world have left the holy land, Palestine.” A just-published piece in the Washington Post by Richard Stearns, tilted, ‘A Dark Easter for Palestinian Christians echoes the same painful experience Palestinian Christians must endure as a result of the Israeli military occupation.
We hope Governor Chris Christie will reevaluate his position on Jerusalem in light of these irrefutable facts. He may have very well nurtured his spiritual salvation by visiting the Christian holy sites. His political credentials, on the other hand, will require more than a prayer.
Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum