Jerusalem Contested

The Holy City changed hands many times before the War of Independence.

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In 70 C.E. the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, ending Jewish sovereignty for almost two millennia. Jerusalem remained a Roman city until 638 A.D., when it was captured by the Muslims, who remained in power for over 500 years.  During the Crusades, which began in 1096, Christian Crusaders entered Jerusalem, proclaiming it the capital of their kingdom and massacring the Jews and Muslims who defended the city. It was reconquered in the 13th century by Arab Saracens, who held it until it was conquered by the Turks in 1517. While considered second-class citizens, Jews and Christians under Ottoman rule were nonetheless granted considerable autonomy in religious matters, enabling the Jews to reassert the importance of Jerusalem in Jewish religious life. Between 1830 and 1870, the Jewish population of Jerusalem doubled, and by 1914 it had tripled, mostly due to religiously motivated Jewish immigration.  By 1914 the Jews constituted a majority of the population. 

The British Mandate

In October 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and in November the Ottomans abolished the capitulation treaties, which had permitted foreign nationals residing in Ottoman lands to be judged according to the laws of their own countries. The Allies, meanwhile, set about creating a theoretical post-war distribution of Ottoman lands. During this period of uncertainty the British hedged their diplomatic bets, making promises not only to their French allies but to the Arabs and the Jews in the region as well as well. The Zionists, committed to securing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, also engaged both sides. While some, like Chaim Weizman, sought to build partnerships with the British, others worked to persuade Berlin of the justice of the Zionist cause. When the dust settled in 1917, however, the British were in charge of Jerusalem, and it was clear that they had no intention of leaving or sharing power.

old city of jerusalemThe Paris Peace Conference of 1919 awarded the British mandatory authority over Palestine, with the charge of implementing the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which supported the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.  Promising to respect the interests of all the religions in Jerusalem, Britain upheld the status quo of 1852--an agreement regarding custodianship of various Christian holy places formalized in 1852--extending it to refer to the Western Wall as well. Despite British efforts at impartiality the mandatory government was accused (by all parties) of taking sides, and anger and frustration steadily grew. Over the course of the next three decades, Jerusalem would become a hotbed of rebellion.

Nebi Musa and the Grand Mufti

 The first hints of the violence to come came in the spring of 1920, during the Palestinian Muslim holiday of Nebi Musa. According to Palestinian Muslim tradition, Moses' tomb was located on the West bank of the Jordan, and the Palestinians had built a shrine in that location. This shrine was the object of an annual pilgrimage festival. Even before the mandate, this festival had often been marked by in-fighting amongst the Palestinians. Under British rule, however, the violence of Nebi Musa reached new levels, as the festival took on nationalistic significance. The gathering became an opportunity to rally against Christian domination of Jerusalem, engage in intercommunal fighting, and foment anti-Jewish feeling. In April 1920 the political speeches erupted into violent rioting. Nine people were killed and 244 injured. In the wake of the riot the mandatory authorities made an unfortunate strategic decision that would confound the possibilities for Arab-Jewish peace. In exchange for a promise that there would be no more rioting at Nebi Musa, the British appointed Hajj Amin al Husayni, a firebrand who had been responsible for most of the incitement, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

This was but the first step for the Mufti, who would in 1921 become president of the newly established Supreme Muslim Council. Through this position he was able to build a strong power base, which he used to catapult himself to the forefront of the Palestinian Arab Nationalist Movement. He raised funds for the maintenance of the Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) from Muslims the world over and demanded Muslim rights at holy places. The efforts of the Grand Mufti changed the balance of power in the growing conflict, placing Jerusalem and Palestine on the political agenda of the greater Arab world.

Partition Plans

In 1936, Palestinian Arabs called a general strike and rebellion. In response, the British government created a commission, led by Lord Peel, to investigate the cause of the violence. The Commission concluded that the cause of the violence was growing Palestinian anxiety over the increase of Jewish immigration, and it recommended that Palestine be partitioned into two states:  an Arab state, which would become part of Transjordan, and a smaller Jewish state. The city of Jerusalem, as well as several cities well outside its boundaries would remain under British mandate. The Arabs, though divided, ultimately rejected this proposal in its entirety. The Jews, after much debate, chose to accept it (with demands for more generous borders) reflecting a belief that, given the international religious interests involved, they had little chance of being awarded Jerusalem. The Peel Plan was not implemented, and a new commission, the Woodhead Commission, was appointed in 1938. It rejected the idea of partition, maintaining that is was impractical, given Palestine's small size. The Woodhead Report would also ultimately be shelved.

During World War II another partition scheme was put forward by the High Commissioner of the mandatory authority. This proposal called for a Jewish state, an Arab state and a "State of Jerusalem," to be ruled by the British. This idea found great favor with Winston Churchill, though not with the British foreign office. It too was abandoned, however, after Jewish terrorists from the group Lehi assassinated British minister Lord Moyne in 1944.

Mandate in Crisis

Following World War II, the situation in mandatory Palestine became increasingly dire, as the mandate descended into chaos. The coming years saw a surge in illegal Jewish immigration as well as terrorist acts against the mandatory authority, including, most notably, the Irgun bombing of Jerusalem's King David Hotel--where the mandatory government and army were headquartered--in July 1946, resulting in the deaths of 91 people.  Shortly after, in August 1946, the Jewish Agency Executive (the defacto Jewish government of pre-state Palestine) agreed, at least in principle, to accept the partition of Palestine, and set about fixing borders for the international area that would guarantee a Jewish majority and contiguity to the Jewish state. The Palestinian Arab leadership, however, remained divided, unable to come up with an agreed course of action.

In February 1947, Great Britain turned the problem of Palestine over to the United Nations, which formed a Special Committee on Palestine. This committee came up with two proposals:  1) partition, with an internationalized Jerusalem (the majority opinion), and 2) a single, federated state, with a divided and demilitarized Jerusalem as its capital (the minority opinion). The majority plan was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in November 1947--the Zionists were overjoyed, but the Palestinian Arabs, furious, declared a strike and began to riot. The U.N. partition plan for Palestine and Jerusalem would never be implemented.

Violence in Jerusalem

The mandate was set to end on May 15th, and as this date hastened, the British allowed much of Jerusalem to pass into Jewish and Arab control. Meanwhile, the Arabs and the Jews divided into two armed camps. As tension grew, several grievous acts of violence were committed that changed the face of the future conflict and compromised possibilities for a peaceful settlement. In April of that year, an Irgun unit entered Deir Yassin, an Arab village slightly to the West of Jerusalem, and massacred at least 100 Arabs, including many civilians, women, and children. Vengeance came four days later, when Palestinians ambushed a convoy of doctors and nurses on their way to Haddasah Hospital on Mount Scopus, killing seventy-seven. Many Palestinians, fearing a repeat of Deir Yassin as well as the anticipated retribution for the violent acts and rhetoric of their own people, fled Jerusalem and Palestine.

The U.N. attempted at this point to impose a ceasefire and form an international police force, but found that it lacked the manpower to ensure Jerusalem's peace and protection. On May 14, 1948, the day before the Mandate's end, the Zionists declared the establishment of the State of Israel. (though this declaration, it should be noted, made no mention of Jerusalem). The Palestinian Arabs took no similar political action, and Arab forces prepared to attack.

A Separate Peace

While the general shape of divided Jerusalem was established by the end of the Mandate--with the Jews controlling most of the Jewish areas of the city and the Arab forces controlling most of the Old City and some of the new Arab districts--the exact lines would be determined by the war. The Arabs set siege upon Jewish Jerusalem, and in late May the remaining inhabitants of the Jewish quarter left, surrendering it to Arab control. The siege wore on and the stores of food and water in the new city also dwindled--a ceasefire, called by the U.N. in early June, likely saved the Jews from being starved out of Jerusalem. During this ceasefire Mt. Scopus was also declared a demilitarized zone.  In contrast, the second ceasefire, which came into effect in mid-July, probably preserved Arab control of the Old City. There would be two more ceasefires before the Arabs finally admitted defeat that fall, formalizing, for the time being, the lines of division. The Arabs residing in West Jerusalem fled, and would not be permitted to return.

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Lili Kalish Gersch

Lili Kalish Gersch is Director of Literature, Music & Dance at the DCJCC. She was the Managing Editor of MyJewishLearning.com.