It is possible to talk of Jerusalem in many ways: as a city where history lives, as a city where history lives, as a city holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims, as a place where people live and work, as a place of pilgrimage. This primer talks of Jerusalem the modern city, the city claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis as their national symbol, Jerusalem the united, Jerusalem the divided. It tells how a thriving Arab city with expanding Jewish-Arab suburbs was transformed into a large Jewish Israeli city in which the Arab residents are not citizens. Finally, it stresses the urgent need for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate Jerusalem’s future.

Modern History

British troops captured Jerusalem on December 11, 1917 during World War I. This conquest ended more than a thousand years of Muslim rule, with a brief Crusader interlude. In 1917, Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman empire, transformed in the previous century from a “relatively minor provincial town” of some 10,000 people to “the biggest city of Palestine and the political and cultural centre of the country.” [1]

About 90 percent of the residents of Palestine in 1917 were Arab Muslims, with small numbers of Palestinian Christians and Jews. In Jerusalem, though, the population had changed dramatically in the nineteenth century. Religiously motivated European Jewish immigration to the city had begun in the early 1800s, and by 1882 much larger numbers of Jews, influenced by the Zionist political movement, began to arrive. By 1917, the numbers of Arabs and Jews in the city were about equal.

At first Jewish immigrants settled in the southern part of the walled Old City of Jerusalem traditionally known as Harat al-Yahud (the Jewish Quarter), in properties almost entirely owned by Muslim religious endowments or Arab individuals. As the quarter became crowded, Jews began to rent or buy in Muslim quarters of the city as well, and in the 1860s and 1870s established settlements west of the city walls, creating what became known as the “New” City. New Arab neighborhoods and Christian institutions were also built outside the walls. Despite its rapid expansion, Jerusalem was not a commercial center. Its economy was based largely on the pilgrim and tourist trade, as well as foreign contributions to its Christian and Jewish communities.

Jerusalem remained under British military control from 1917 until 1920, and in 1922 the League of Nations ratified the colonial dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and gave Palestine to Britain as a semi-colonial “mandate.” During the 26 years of the British Mandate, an increasingly numerous and well-organized Zionist immigrant community pushed for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Alarmed by this influx, but less well-organized, Palestinian Arabs agitated for independence from British rule. Britain made contradictory promises in support of the sovereignty claims of both groups.

Arab-Jewish riots over disputed rights to the Western (Wailing) Wall and the adjacent Muslim holy site, the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), prompted those Jews living in the Muslim quarters to move to the New City between 1929 and 1936. Accelerated Jewish immigration in the early 1930s sparked greater Arab resistance: a general strike in 1936 and an armed rebellion in 1937-1938 during which Palestinian fighters briefly held the Old City.

The British put down the revolt, and by 1948 there were about 100,000 Jews and 60,000 Arabs within the city’s narrow municipal boundaries, with Jews owning 18 percent of the city’s property. In the entire Jerusalem subdistrict, which included surrounding Arab villages, Arabs maintained a slight majority (105,000 to 100,000) and owned 80 percent of the property.

Jewish-Arab conflict and Zionist anti-British terrorism finally prompted Britain to abandon Palestine. The United Nations decided in 1947 that the only workable solution was to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state, although no referendum on this matter was held to determine the views of the population. Jerusalem, along with its surrounding villages, was to be a separate territory located within the proposed Arab state under a “special international regime” controlled by the UN. Jewish Zionist organizations publicly accepted this plan; Arabs continued to demand an independent Arab state in all of Palestine.

Events quickly rendered the partition plan irrelevant, as Jewish and Arab armies and militias battled to “create facts” before the British mandate ended on May 15, 1948. Jerusalem was a key objective for Zionist, Palestinian and Jordanian forces. Zionist forces sought to secure a corridor from the coastal plain to Jerusalem as a lifeline for the Jewish community there. They encountered heavy resistance from Palestinian irregular forces, but ultimately defeated them. Many Arabs from villages west of Jerusalem, terrorized by word of the April 9 massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the village of Dayr Yasin on the outskirts of Jerusalem, fled. By April 30, the Zionist Haganah was in control of the New City (West Jerusalem), and forced the last of its 30,000 Arab residents to abandon their homes and substantial properties and flee. Arab irregular forces held the Old City and most of the largely Arab-populated areas to the north and east. The residents of the Jewish Quarter remained, isolated and besieged, defended by the Haganah.

Divided City

Israel declared its independence on the afternoon of May 14, 1948; on May 15 the British mandate ended and forces of neighboring Arab states intervened militarily.

When the fighting ended, Jerusalem was divided: Israel held the New City, Arab forces the Old. The Arab Legion had forced out the remaining 2,000 residents of the Jewish Quarter; Zionist forces had driven out as many as 80,000 Palestinian residents of the New City and of villages west of Jerusalem. Some of these refugees occupied the newly empty Jewish Quarter.

The barrier dividing Israeli (West) from Arab (East) Jerusalem — made up of barbed wire, the wall of the Old City, abandoned buildings and no man’s lands — was quickly established. For the next 19 years, only one crossing point, Mandelbaum Gate, with a military checkpoint on either end, allowed passage to a few officials and tourists. Even before a ceasefire was declared, the Israeli cabinet voted on December 20, 1948, to move all government institutions to Jerusalem. Israel’s Supreme Court was established in Jerusalem; its parliament, the Knesset, held its first session there in February 1949; and the state’s first president took his oath of office there a few days later.

For a short time, Israeli officials paid lip service to the idea that Jerusalem could still be internationalized. When Israel applied for membership in the UN at the end of 1948, for example, its representative assured members that Israel was not opposed to the idea. The UN resolution of December 11, 1948 admitting Israel to membership specifically mentioned the partition plan and internationalization.

In fact, neither Israel nor Jordan favored internationalization. The armistice agreement of April 1949 confirmed the de facto division of the city between them, and left Israel in control of 78 percent of Palestine. In January 1950, Israel’s Knesset declared that Jerusalem had been Israel’s capital since the first day of Israel’s independence. In April of that year, despite opposition from other Arab states, Jordan’s parliament ratified King ‘Abdallah’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Many Palestinian Jerusalemites were unhappy with becoming part of Jordan, and perceived that the Jordanian regime developed Amman at the expense of Jerusalem. Jerusalemites were better-educated and more cosmopolitan than most Jordanians, and the city became the site of anti-Jordanian demonstrations. The first meeting of the Palestine Liberation Organization took place there in 1964. Still, under Jordanian rule, Jerusalem developed as a tourist center, and the city’s middle and upper classes lived relatively well.

By 1951, all but two Israeli government ministries had moved to West Jerusalem, but the city was restricted in its development because it lay at the point of a narrow corridor extending from Israel into the heart of the West Bank, and could only grow westward. Virtually all sites of pilgrimage, including the Western Wall, lay in East Jerusalem. Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, became Israel’s major metropolitan center.

Occupied East Jerusalem

On the eve of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, some 70,000 Palestinians lived in Arab East Jerusalem and its surrounding villages, and 196,400 Jews in West Jerusalem. The war began on June 5 when Israeli forces attacked Egypt. To demonstrate support for Egypt, Jordan’s military began to shell Israeli territory, providing Israel with an opportunity to occupy the remainder of Palestine. After brief but bloody fighting, the Israelis captured East Jerusalem (along with the rest of the West Bank).

Israel immediately sought to consolidate its control over Arab Jerusalem. The line dividing East from West Jerusalem was obliterated as quickly as it had gone up — barriers torn down, roads widened and repaved. A few days after capturing the Old City, Israeli troops gave the 650 Arab residents of the Moroccan Quarter several hours to leave and then began dynamiting their houses. Within two days, the entire quarter had been demolished to clear the way for an enlarged plaza for Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.

Two weeks after the fighting had ended, on June 28, Israel’s interior minister signed a decree extending Israeli law to East Jerusalem and enlarging Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries by 28 square miles, in effect annexing occupied Arab territory to Israel. Israeli officials carefully avoided the word annexation, speaking instead of “reunification” and the “extension” of municipal boundaries. The new boundaries were carefully drawn so as to exclude as many Arab villages (and people) as possible while including their uninhabited agricultural or grazing lands, and thus ensure that the enlarged city would retain a Jewish majority.

Israel dissolved Arab Jerusalem’s city council, dismissed and later exiled Mayor Ruhi al-Khatib, and quickly extended Israeli water, electricity and telephone grids across the old border. Officials issued identity cards to the Arab residents, began to collect taxes from them, and subjected their businesses and banks to Israeli commercial laws. Israelis poured across the old border to visit the Western Wall and the Old City, to gawk and to shop; many Palestinians did the same in the other direction.


Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem signaled what was to become the hallmark of its policy toward the occupied city: the transformation of an entirely Arab city into a majority-Jewish one irrevocably joined to Israel. Israel expropriated Arab-owned land for exclusive Jewish use and severely restricted the areas in which Arabs could build or expand homes. At the time of the 1967 war, nearly all of the land in East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages was Arab private or communal property; over the next 25 years Israelis took control of as much as half of that.

The areas on which Israel allows Jerusalem’s Arabs to construct new buildings amount to only 10 to 15 percent of the city, although their population has more than doubled since 1967. Of the 72,000 residential units built in the entire city since 1967, 88 percent were for Jews, 12 percent for Arabs. [2] Israeli policy has kept Jewish and Arab neighborhoods carefully segregated. The strain on Arab housing is even greater than official numbers suggest, because an estimated 25,000 Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza reside illegally in East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem’s commercial district has been restricted to three main streets, more appropriate to a large village than a major city. In the Old City, no new construction is allowed at all except in the Jewish Quarter, which is now entirely Jewish-owned. The Muslim quarters have become home to the city’s poor: “overcrowded, dilapidated, unsafe in some areas, with few amenities or services.” [3]

New Jewish areas have been built in two concentric rings to the north, east and south of the city: an inner ring of Jewish neighborhoods in the East Jerusalem area annexed in 1967, and an outer ring of about 40 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, are intended to create a physical barrier between East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. Jerusalem’s deputy mayor estimates that by the end of 1993 there will be a Jewish majority even in East Jerusalem.

The Israeli Labor Party government of Yitzhak Rabin, elected in 1992, abandoned the politically divisive policy of government support for small bands of ideologically motivated Jewish settlers that have forcibly taken over some 200 houses in Arab neighborhoods. His government will concentrate instead on completing large, exclusively Jewish housing complexes and settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and on connecting them to the center city with major road construction. If construction proceeds as planned, the Rabin government will oversee the largest expansion of settler population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the history of the occupation.

Jerusalem the Negotiable

Jerusalem evokes such powerful passions among Israelis and Palestinians that it is hard to imagine how its future could be negotiated. One might reasonably ask why Israel, which has held the entire city since 1967, should even be interested in negotiating the city’s future. After all, negotiation implies a willingness to share or to give up something — some land, some control, some rights. Yet if Israel wants peace, it must share Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has been bound together by force, and its physical unity relies on force,” said the city’s former deputy mayor, Meron Benvenisti, in 1987. Take away the force and “Jerusalem is split in two.” Imaginative ideas on sharing the city have already been floated by Palestinians and Israelis — joint sovereignty, shared sovereignty, scattered sovereignty and shared administration. The roadblock to negotiation is not the lack of ideas; it is the lack of a will to negotiate on the part of the stronger party, Israel.

It is not for the US to choose among Jerusalem’s possible futures. That is a task for the most creative of Palestinians and Israelis. What Americans can do is to recognize, and to encourage Washington to push for, the principle that Jerusalem’s future is — must be — negotiable. The alternative is Belfast or Beirut.

Sources: Modern history is drawn from Michael Hudson, “The Transformation of Jerusalem, 1917-1987 AD” and Alexander Schölch, “Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century,” in K. J. Asali. ed., Jerusalem in History (Essex: Scorpion Publishing Ltd., 1989); Malcolm H. Kerr, “The Changing Political Status of Jerusalem,” in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. ed., The Transformation of Palestine (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971). On the 1948 war, see Zachary Lockman, “Original Sin,” Middle East Report 152 (May-June 1988). On Israeli land confiscation and settlement, see articles by Jan de Jong and Michal Schwartz in the Israeli magazine Challenge, and various issues of the newsletter of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, Report on Israeli Settlement.


[1] Alexander Schölch, “Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century,” in K. J. Asali, ed., Jerusalem in History (Essex: Scorpion Publishing Ltd., 1989), p. 223.
[2] According to a study by the Jerusalem Research Institute, reported by Nadav Shragi in Haaretz, cited in al-Fajr, June 5, 1992.
[3] Michael Dumper, “Israeli Settlement in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Journal of Palestine Studies 21/4 (Summer 1992), p. 40.

How to cite this article:

Martha Wenger "Jerusalem: A Primer," Middle East Report 182 (May/June 1993).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This