At 4:00 PM on the 14th of May 1948, David Ben Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel. In his declaration, he did not mention Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He didn’t mention the capital of Israel at all. This is because he agreed to the UNSCOP Partition Plan, which stated that Jerusalem will be a city under international control, not part of the Israeli state nor the Arab state (read more about the Partition Plan here). Later, on the 5th of December 1949, Ben Gurion will declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
When the Independence War breaks on the 15th of May 1948, there are around one-hundred thousand Jewish people in Jerusalem, and 60 thousand Arabs. But before I start telling you about what happened when the Independence War started, I want to take you back in time to the Biblical days.
Jerusalem – The City of David and the Holy Temple
In the Bible, it is said that King David captured the city of Jerusalem from a Canaanite tribe named the Jebusites. Scholars believe this happened around 1004 BCE. The Bible also says that David’s son, Solomon, built the First Temple in Jerusalem as a holy place for God. This Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Then, when the Jewish people returned from exile around 521 BCE, they began rebuilding the Temple. The Second Temple was completed around 515 BCE. And if there are doubts about the First Temple, then there are much less doubts about the Second Temple.
You can find a description of the Second Temple in the historical book of Josephus, The Jewish War. Josephus was a Jewish historian who joined the Roman army during the Jewish War between 66 to 74 CE. In his book, he tells us a lot about the Temple. Here is a bit of what he wrote about the Second Temple’s destruction by the Roman Titus: “So Titus retired into the tower of Antonia, and resolved to storm the Temple the next day, early in the morning, with his whole army, and to encamp round about the Holy House; but, as for that House, God had for certain long ago doomed it to the fire; and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution of the ages: it was the tenth day of the month Lous, [Av,] upon which it was formerly burnt by the king of Babylon…”
Unfortunately, the Waqf, who oversee the Temple Mount area, do not allow people to carry out archeological excavations, which means we can’t really discover findings from the Second Temple era on Temple Mount. Though, what the two archeologists, Clermont and Ganneau, found in 1871, is a Temple warning inscription, known as the Soreg Inscription. This stone sign was probably positioned at the entrance to the Temple area, as its inscription in Greek says: “No foreigner is to enter the barriers surrounding the Temple. He who is caught will have himself to blame for his death which will follow.” Josephus also mentions such an inscription in his writings: “…Located within it, and nearby, were steps which led up to the second structure, which was surrounded by a stone wall used as a barrier, engraved with an inscription not allowing foreigners to enter into it under the penalty of death.” (The Jewish War 5: 5, 2) Today, a broken sign is kept in the Israel Museum. A whole sign is kept somewhere in one of Istanbul’s museums.
The Western Wall is a remainder of the wall that encircled the Second Temple’s plaza. On the Temple Mount, near the Gate of Mercy, you can also find the Board of Charity (which is one of the five pillars of Islam). Next to the Board’s building, there is a sign saying in Arabic that this is the Board of Charity of the Temple. They didn’t change the sign, although they’ve changed their opinions. Until the 90s, Muslims didn’t deny the existence of the Second Temple. They believed it existed. But, following the Arab-Jewish conflict that arose around the Temple Mount, they changed their story and stated that the Holy Temple is a lie of the Jewish people.
Back to the Independence War
So, after I told you a bit about why Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish people, let’s get back to the Independence War. Dozens of settlements were attacked, but now we’re focusing on Jerusalem.
Two months after the Declaration of Israel’s Independence, the IDF completes Operation Danny. In this operation, the IDF were able to reach the besieged Jerusalem and free the route to it, thus freeing the one-hundred thousand Jewish people in Jerusalem.
The Jordanians, during the war, captured the Eastern side of Jerusalem. In September 1948, after Operation Danny, Israel took Western Jerusalem under its control and very quickly established the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. On the 30th of November 1948, during the Independence War, Israel and Jordan signed on an agreement, saying that the Eastern side of Jerusalem is Jordanian, and the Western side is Israeli. This was the first time that Jerusalem was divided. Jordan pledged to allow the Jewish and Christian people to access the holy places in the Old City, which was under Jordanian control, but failed to do so. Between 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967, Eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City, was a neglected and underdeveloped area.
On the 16th of May 1949 Herzl’s coffin was taken from Vienna to Israel. On the 17th of August the coffin was buried on Mount El-Ashraf, which is the highest mountain in Western Jerusalem. Later on, this mountain will be called Mount Herzl. The Jewish leadership sent out a message: “It is most appropriate that the prophet of the State of the Jewish People will be buried in the capital city of the state he had foreseen.” This was the first time that Jerusalem was called the capital of Israel.
When the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, gathered on the 5th of December 1949, Ben Gurion stood on the stage and declared officially that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel.
Then, in 1967, came the Six Day War. The Jordanians captured Armon HaNetziv, which was a demilitarized territory according to the agreement that was signed back in November 1948. This meant they broke the agreement. Within six days, the Eastern part of Jerusalem, including the Old City, was back in Israeli hands. The Israeli leadership decided to annex around 85 square kilometers to the city of Jerusalem, including many Arab settlements, some even beyond the “Green Line” (the line that was set following the Independence War between Israel and its neighboring countries). This means that many Arabs living in Jerusalem do not see themselves as Israelis. And this is a long story, great for another post… Now let’s talk about the importance of Jerusalem to the Muslims.
The Importance of Jerusalem to the Muslims
Throughout history, it seems that Jerusalem was not so important to the Muslims. Mohammed was born in 570 CE and established the Islam about 40 years afterwards. He was born and raised in the area which is today Saudi Arabia. In the Quran, Jerusalem is not mentioned at all, whereas in the Old Testament it is mentioned 349 times. Muslims believe that Mohammed made a night journey to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where he got the Five Islamic Prayers. But, the place mentioned in the Quran is the “Furthest Masjid” (traditionally recognized as Al-Aqsa Mosque). “Al-Aqsa” in Arabic means “the edge”, which means “the furthest”.
The first Muslim leader steps in Jerusalem in 638 CE. The Caliph Omar captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines. He finds an empty, ruined Temple Mount, and decided to build an impressive holy structure on it to show, amongst other things, that the Islam is more supreme that the Christianity. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher might have been higher, but the Islamic structures on Temple Mount were spread on a much wider space.
The Golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were built during the Umayyad dynasty, between the years 692 and 705 CE. That was when the Arab rulers were close to Jerusalem, based in Damascus. But, in 750 CE, when the Abbasid dynasty, who were based in faraway Baghdad, took over the city, it fell into neglect. It stayed that way until the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in the 12th century. In 1033, when an earthquake ruined Al-Aqsa Mosque, the religious Muslim court judge of Jerusalem had to gather literature pieces about the holiness of Jerusalem to try and get funds for repairing the mosque. It wasn’t obvious.
Jerusalem was never a capital of any of the Muslim empires who captured it. Mecca is and was always the most important city to the Muslims. Medina is the second most holy city for the Muslims. Jerusalem is third on the Muslims’ list.
Hope this post helped you understand a bit more about what’s going on in Jerusalem and maybe understand why Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
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