Many wars have been fought over Jerusalem across the centuries, for the city's religious (and recently, national) importance made it a strategic battleground. But the conflict that began over a year ago, and that took the name of Jerusalem's most significant mosque, has perhaps been the only war whose battles have been fought outside the now marginalized city.
When the second intifada began in September 2000, the reclamation of Palestinian Jerusalem was the rallying cry - a grand vision for a time of disillusionment with the ever-souring Oslo peace process. But in the months ensuing, the Palestinian people lost more ground in Jerusalem than ever before.
From the beginning of the uprising, it was clear that the intifada was only symbolically about Jerusalem: despite the initial confrontation with Israeli police and the continued protests at Friday prayers, the main clashes occurred far from the city, in Gazan refugee camps or on the outskirts of West Bank towns and villages.
Palestinian Jerusalem has been largely spared the effects of the violence; in the city, a surreal calm reigns in the subdued Palestinian neighborhoods.
This bifurcation of the Palestinian experience results directly from the response of the Israeli government to this outpouring of Palestinian longing for Jerusalem. Since September 2000, the Israeli government has succeeded in sealing the city off from the West Bank, limiting the movement of Palestinian residents of the city, creating a new settler road system that excludes East Jerusalem from the city's Israeli body, and shutting down the main, and long-standing, Palestinian institutions that serve the East Jerusalem population.
As the violence rages in Rafah, the Qalandia checkpoint grows more like the fortified Erez Crossing every day. (In an Orwellian twist, Israeli Major General Eitan, head of Central Command, views the development of the mega-road block with pride, terming it an "enlightened road block.") As Israeli tanks continually "re-deploy" inside Palestinian cities, East Jerusalem remains detached, caught in a web of checkpoints and settlements and without a defined role in the current struggle.
Jerusalem has been surgically severed from the Palestinian body: checkpoints choke its arteries and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian-controlled areas and institutions cauterizes its nerves.
But signs of hope are on the horizon: a groundswell of defiance is building in East Jerusalem. In the last weeks of December, national and religious leaders organized events to demonstrate Jerusalem's relevance to the Palestinian nation: Sari Nusseibeh, holder of the Jerusalem portfolio in the Palestinian Authority, held a series of Iftar receptions, despite detention by the Israeli police; nuns, Israeli peace activists, and local Palestinians marched through the Old City, demanding "Open Jerusalem" and "End Occupation;" and the Latin Patriarch led a procession of thousands of Palestinians in an attempt to march from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. These efforts were greatly enhanced by the participation of international delegations from the Grassroots Campaign for International Protection for the Palestinian People. After a 7 January press conference in East Jerusalem highlighting the activities of this campaign, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti was detained, 'deported' to the Ram checkpoint, and beaten by Israeli soldiers; two members of the European Parliament were also physically attacked. The politics of exclusion from Jerusalem are thus both contested and subject to "solution" by violence and intimidation.
As the second year of the intifada unfolds, these efforts to remind the world of the Palestinian character of Jerusalem are vital. The Palestinian leadership, and the Jerusalem community in particular, must remain involved in the dialogue over the fate of East Jerusalem, or Israel will make the entire debate irrelevant.