The Arguments over Jerusalem

Summary: In considering the arguments that Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews each make for Jerusalem as their capital, only one party makes a truly compelling case.

Jerusalem has long been considered the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinians Question. In 1947, when the United Nations put forward a plan to partition the land into two states, it proposed placing Greater Jerusalem and Greater Bethlehem into an international zone called the “Holy Basin.” This Holy Basin would be neither part of Israel nor Palestine, to remove the sensitive region from the conflict.

1947plan jerusalem
UN 1947 Partition Plan for the “Holy Basin”
of Greater Jerusalem and Greater Bethlehem

However, as fate would have it, the partition plan was rejected by the Palestinians who then launched a war to destroy Israel in May 1948, together with armies from Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. At war’s end, the Holy Basin was divided with the western half of Greater Jerusalem and Hebrew University falling under Israeli control, and Greater Bethlehem and the eastern half of Jerusalem falling under Arab control (Jordan annexed the area and granted the Palestinian Arabs there citizenship).

The Holy Basin remains an outstanding issue.  In a two-state resolution, the Israelis propose to split the Holy Basin whereby they control all of Greater Jerusalem and the Palestinians would have Greater Bethlehem; the Palestinians seek to have all of Greater Bethlehem AND the eastern half of Jerusalem as its capital, while Israel would only have the western half of Jerusalem. Which side has a better claim?


The Arguments over Jerusalem


RELIGION: The sensitivity over the Holy Basin is due to the fact that it holds many holy sites for the three monotheistic religions. A short list includes:

  • The Temple Mount/ The Noble Sanctuary (Jerusalem). Jewish and Muslim
  • Al Aqsa Mosque (Jerusalem). Muslim
  • Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem). Jewish and Muslim
  • The Wailing Wall / Kotel (Jerusalem). Jewish
  • Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem). Christian
  • Dormition Abbey (Jerusalem). Christian
  • The Old City (Jerusalem). Jewish
  • Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem). Christian
  • The Tomb of Rachel (Bethlehem). Jewish

There are many other churches, synagogues and mosques in the Holy Basin, however, these sites are considered sacred as various events are believed to have occurred at these locations. For Christians, the churches were built on the various spots where Jesus and Mary are thought to have had significant life events. For Muslims, the Al Aqsa Mosque is considered to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. For Jews, the Temple Mount is not only considered to be the place of two Temples, but also the spot where Abraham brought Isaac for a sacrifice.  Of this entire list, only the Jewish Temple has any archeological evidence supporting the beliefs.

Among the three religions, Jerusalem is considered the holiest spot only for Jews. Muslims consider the Al Aqsa Mosque to be its third holiest spot (after Mecca and Medina), and the Roman Catholic Church considers the Vatican in Rome, Italy to be the holiest location.

Judaism is also unique in considering the entire Old City to be holy. While Christianity and Islam consider certain specific spots to be sacred, only Judaism considers the city as a whole.

Jerusalem: Advantage Israel
Bethlehem: Advantage None

Aerial view of Old City of Jerusalem from the south

ACCESS TO HOLY PLACES: A key concern for the United Nations (UN) is that access is provided to each religion’s holy places. In this regard, the divide between the Palestinian Arabs and Israel is stark.

The Arabs only controlled Bethlehem and the eastern half of Jerusalem from 1949 to 1967, as the cities and entire region were governed by the British and Ottoman Turks (who were NOT Arabs) for hundreds of years before then. During their brief period of control, the Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs evicted all of the Jews from Jerusalem and forbade their reentry, even during religious holidays.

While Israel has controlled all of the Holy Basin since 1967, all religions have had access to all of the holy places. Not only does Israel ensure that people of all religions have access, but the country created laws ensuring their safe keeping and open access, and put their religious organizations in charge of those places – even the Islamic Waqf over the Temple Mount which Jews consider their holiest spot.  This same Islamic Waqf prohibits Jews from praying at their holiest location today.

Further, Israel has allowed other denominations to establish themselves in Jerusalem.  The government of Israel helped the Mormons build their church overlooking the Old City.  This compares to Jordan, which doesn’t even recognize the Baha’i faith today (Israel has a huge Baha’i temple in Haifa).

Advantage Israel

MAINTAINING HOLY PLACES: While access is the primary concern for the UN, maintenance of the holy spaces is important as well. When the Palestinian Arabs controlled areas such as Nablus (Shechem), they almost destroyed the Tomb of Joseph. Archaeological digs occurred on the Temple Mount unsupervised resulting in the destruction of important and sacred sites.

Conversely, Israel has made extensive efforts to maintain all of the religious sites under its control. It performs archeological digs mindful of scientific rigor while balancing religious sensitivities.

Advantage Israel

The Hurva Synagogue in the Old City was destroyed by the Jordanian Arabs in 1949
(photo: FirstOneThrough)


HISTORY: The history of the Jewish people in Jerusalem extends back 3700 years when Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice. It became the unified capital of Jews under King David 3000 years ago and site of two temples (954BCE-587BCE and 516BCE-70CE). Jews have always continued to live there and move there over the centuries except when they were banned during the Crusades (early 1200s) and under Arab rule (1949-1967).

Arab history in Jerusalem is more recent than for Jews. Arabs came to the region and city of Jerusalem as part of the Muslim invasion in the seventh century, roughly 2300 years after Jews.

Advantage Israel

CAPITAL: Only one people ever made and considered Jerusalem to be its capital: the Jews. Whether in ancient times or modern, Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people.

When Muslims ruled the region and controlled Jerusalem, they never made Jerusalem the capital. Whether under the initial Arab invasion of the seventh century, under the Mamelukes or the Ottoman Turks, or even under Jordanian Arab rule 1949-1967, Jerusalem was never the central seat of government.

Jerusalem: Advantage Israel
Bethlehem: None

CENTRALITY: There is only one country in the UN that has a national anthem that is completely about its capital: Israel.

“As long as in the heart within a Jewish soul still yearns And onward, towards the ends of the east, an eye still gazes towards Zion.

Our hope is not lost, the hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem: Advantage Israel
Bethlehem: None

Beta Israel, Jews from Ethiopia, return to Jerusalem
(photo: FirstOneThrough)


In considering the future of the residents of the Holy Basin, it is important to consider how the people have been treated.

CITIZENSHIP: When Israel declared statehood in 1948, it granted citizenship to 160,000 non-Jews. When it took control of the entire Holy Basin in 1967, it offered citizenship to those who requested it.

This was in stark contrast to the Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs who evicted the Jews in 1949. Today, Palestinian leadership has insisted on a new Palestinian state devoid of Jews, which is why the Palestinian Authority objects so strongly to Jews buying homes in Jerusalem.

Advantage Israel

POPULATION GROWTH: Population growth can be used as a proxy for the freedom for Arabs and Jews in the Holy Basin under the different administrations.

From 1949 to 1967, the Jewish population under Jordanian and Palestinian Arab control went from zero to zero. The Jews were evicted from eastern Jerusalem and were not allowed to return. However, the Jewish population in the western part of Jerusalem nearly doubled (+98%). Over the same time period, the Arab population under both Israeli (the Israelis gave Arabs citizenship in their half of Jerusalem) and Jordanian control grew by 72%. Jewish growth outpaced Arab growth, even though Jews were only able to live in half of the city.

After reunification of the city in 1967 until 2005, the population trends changed. Jewish growth throughout the city grew by 196%, while Arab growth grew by 315%. Overall, the city grew at a compounded growth rate of 3.1% compared to the divided city which only grew at 2.4%.

  • Under Arab control, Jews were expunged from the area; but under Israeli control, Arab growth rate surpassed Jews’. Arabs performed ethnic cleansing while Jews encouraged diversity.
  • Under a constrained Jewish situation from 1946-1967 while there was no access to eastern Jerusalem, Jewish growth outpaced an unconstrained Arab dynamic. Jewish demand to live in Jerusalem outpaced Arab interest.
  • Under Israeli sovereignty, the city grew faster than under Arab control.

Under Israel, the city did better, the Arabs did better and the Jews did better.

Advantage Israel

POPULATION: Jews have been the dominant religious group in Jerusalem since the 1860s. Even at the start of World War I, when Jews accounted for only 8% of Palestine, they accounted for 64% of the population of Jerusalem.

Today, Jews continue to be a majority of Jerusalem, despite the Arab growth accelerating in Jerusalem under Israeli control (up to 3.8% CAGR from 2.6%). Jews account for roughly 69% of the city’s population overall, and 39% in the eastern part of the city.  The eastern part contains some of the largest Jewish neighborhoods (Pisgat Ze’ev) and is home to Hebrew University (established in 1925).

Advantage Israel

View from Hebrew University
(photo: FirstOneThrough)


Any final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs must not simply focus on being fair, but be sustainable.

SECURITY: No capital city sits on the border of another country. To have the seat of government sit adjacent to a foreign country risks the viability of the state. In the case of Israel, the situation is even more sensitive than for other countries:

  • The countries adjacent to Israel have repeatedly attacked it
  • Those same countries continue to challenge the basic right of Israel to even exist
  • The main political party (Hamas) of the proposed country has a charter repeatedly calling for Israel’s complete destruction
  • Jerusalem sits on hills, making it even more vulnerable if the city would be divided, but significantly safer, if all of the hills and access roads remained within Israel

Jerusalem: Advantage Israel
Bethlehem: None

HISTORY OF DIVIDED CITIES: Fewer than 1/1000th of 1% of cities and towns in the world are divided. Those handful of towns that are split between two countries are typically very small and have a natural geological separator like a river dividing the city.  None of those factors apply to Jerusalem.

Divided capitals are even more rare, and history shows that they are unsustainable.  Recent examples include: Beirut, Lebanon; Berlin, Germany; Jerusalem and Nicosia, Cyprus.

Beirut and Berlin were divided by war for a few decades, and both have been reunified in peace.  Nicosia has continued to be split along with the rest of Cyprus, and ongoing peace talks since 1974 have attempted to reunite the city – not divide it.

Advantage Israel

OFFENSIVE-DEFENSIVE PARTIES: In the San Remo Resolution of 1920, the League of Nations (precursor to the UN) recognized the right of Jews to return to their homeland in the holy land. However, the Palestinian Arabs launched major riots against the Jews, most notably in 1929 and 1936-9 which made the British start to move Jews out of their homes in certain cities (such as Hebron).

When the UN developed various proposals over the years 1937-1947 to divide the land, the Israeli Jews said yes while the Arabs consistently said no. The Arab position was to control all of the land including Jerusalem with no land for Jewish control.

As part of their efforts, the Arabs launched a war to destroy all of Israel in 1948, and then again in 1967. The Arabs lost both wars, and the incremental land Israel acquired in each of those wars were from defensive actions.

In total, Israel’s land was acquired initially from the world’s recognition of the historic rights of Jews to the holy land, together with defensive wars.

Conversely, all of the Arab land was acquired through fighting the UN mandate and launching wars.

In regard to the Holy Basin specifically, both Israel and the Jordanian and Palestinian Arabs took sections of the city during the Arab war against Israel in 1948-9, that the UN had proposed to keep under international control. As such, the UN did not recognize either country’s seizure of parts of the city. When Israel took the eastern half of Jerusalem along with Bethlehem in 1967, the UN continued to withhold recognition.

Countries around the world did not recognize Israel’s western Jerusalem in 1949 nor the capture of eastern Jerusalem in 1967, so they have never moved their embassies to the city. Their refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (or Jordan’s) is from 1949, NOT because of Israel’s reunification of the city in 1967.

Advantage Neither
Slight preference for Israel due to defensive nature of acquisitions


By almost every measure, Israel should maintain control of all of Jerusalem as well as additional territory to the east to control the hills and access roads to the capital.  The Palestinians could have control of half of the Holy Basin – Bethlehem – which was handed to Palestinian Authority control in 1996 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There is one last reason which underscores the complete logic of Israel maintaining complete sovereignty of all of Jerusalem: it is the heart of the home of the Jewish people.  While there are 57 Islamic countries and dozens of Arab countries, there is only one Jewish State, and it has always had one capital: Jerusalem.

The Israeli flag at the Kotel
(photo: FirstOneThrough)

 Text from first half of Israel’s Basic Law declaring Jerusalem as it’s capital:

1. Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.
2. Jerusalem is the seat of the President of the State, the Knesset, the Government and the Supreme Court.
3. The Holy Places shall be protected from desecration and any other violation and from anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings towards those places.

Related First One Through articles:

The United Nations and Holy Sites in the Holy Land

The Waqf and the Temple Mount

The anthem of Israel is JERUSALEM

A Review of Divided Capitals

“East Jerusalem” – the 0.5% Molehill

Israel: Security in a Small Country

A “Viable” Palestinian State

Israel, the Liberal Country of the Middle East

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