The “Religiousization” of the conflict in Jerusalem

By Mairav Zonszein and Aziz Abu Sarah
Crossposted from

Jerusalem – Jerusalem, home to Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and highly significant to Palestinians and Israelis alike – continues to be a crucial focal point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Holy Basin in Jerusalem is home to some of the most sacred sites to all three religions, including the Western Wall, a remnant from the Second Temple and the holiest place in Judaism, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Sovereignty, freedom of movement and the symbolism of the city are therefore very important to Palestinians and Israelis, both of whom see Jerusalem as their nation’s capital.

There have always been religious motives for the conflict over Jerusalem, but in recent years the religious-historical justifications are trumping political ones, and Jewish and Muslim extremists are using Jerusalem as a rallying point.

Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem following the Six-Day War in 1967, it has been building and expanding Jewish neighbourhoods beyond the Green Line and as of the 1990s it has been settling Jews in the middle of densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods.

Organisations such as Ateret Cohanim and Elad promote the Jewish purchase of property in Palestinian neighborhoods, portraying it as redemption of Israel’s land. Ateret Cohanim is a religious seminary that acquires property in the Old City’s Muslim quarter. They use the religious significance of this area for political gains, presenting it as a mitzvah(religious deed) to displace Palestinians from their homes.

Elad, founded in 1987, runs the City of David archaeological tourist site in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Tourists who visit there are excited about seeing where King David supposedly once roamed, but are unaware of the fact that not only are the region’s archaeological findings questionable, but Palestinian homes were expropriated inside the City of David to “resettle” Jews.

View of Silwan from City of David, East Jerusalem (Photo: Mairav Zonszein)

The Jewish religious settlement project has generated similarly one-sided responses by Muslims. To some Muslims these groups represent a new “crusade” against Islam itself. One of the leading groups countering the “Judaisation of Jerusalem” is the Islamic Movement in the North of Israel, which has been making strong inroads in Jerusalem. Like Hamas, the Islamic Movement fills the vacuum created by the absence of Israeli government services in East Jerusalem and the prohibition on the Palestinian Authority to take action. It has gained strong support from the Arab community by launching the “Al-Aqsa in Danger” campaign, which highlights the importance of the mosque as a unifying symbol.

Such groups capitalise on the fear of the local residents confronted with growing settlement and security activities in the city and the municipality’s neglect of Palestinian residents. They have positioned themselves as the defenders of Islam and Jerusalem and have quickly won local support by providing charity and infrastructure.

Both Muslim and Jewish groups have been denying each other religious and historical heritage in Jerusalem. A recent study by the Palestinian Authority (PA) claimed that Jews have no historical or religious heritage in Jerusalem. However, the PA leadership was quick to dismiss the study and its findings, a move which constitutes a shift away from previous trends of claiming exclusive rights to Jerusalem.

The change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a political conflict over identity, nationality and land to a conflict being led by extreme religious groups for political gains is a dangerous shift that should be worrying, especially for mainstream religious leaders. The more people see this conflict in starkly religious terms, the less likely they will be to accept compromise.

Jerusalem has the potential to be a city of peace and coexistence as mentioned in the holy books. This has been exemplified by efforts of non-violent protest and education, such as the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, comprised of residents of Wadi Hilweh who seek to effectively communicate information about their struggle to retain their land, and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement, which has been bringing Palestinians and Israelis together to protest the settlements in East Jerusalem every week for the last year.

Such groups must be strengthened so that Jerusalem’s potential to bring Christians, Jews and Muslims together in peace can be realised.

* Mairav Zonszein ( is an American Israeli journalist, blogger and activist based in Jerusalem. Aziz Abu Sarah (, a Palestinian from Jerusalem, is Director of Middle East projects at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, and winner of the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Common Ground journalism. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

This article was commissioned by Common Ground News and originally appeared on its website.