Israel claims the holy city as its ‘eternal, undivided capital,’ but that claim is not internationally recognized

On Nov. 29, 1947, the U.N. adopted a proposal establishing Jerusalem, as marked by the red line, as “a corpus separatum under a special international regime.” But the war of 1948 left the city divided between Israeli (blue) and Jordanian (beige) control.


The status of Jerusalem remains one of the most vexed – and volatile – sticking points in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After occupying the eastern part of the city in the war of June 1967, Israel annexed the territory, and its political leaders proclaimed the city Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital.” But the international community, including the United States, continues to regard East Jerusalem as occupied territory, and to reject Israel’s decision to settle its citizens there. Nor is Israel’s claim that Jerusalem is its capital city widely recognized. Most foreign nations, including the U.S., continue to maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Before the creation of the State of Israel, the newly formed United Nations had, in 1947, voted on a partition plan to divide what was then British-Mandate Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Although that partition map put Jerusalem within the boundaries of the envisaged Palestinian Arab state, it designated Jerusalem and Bethlehem as corpus separatum, under international rule. The special status was decided on the basis of Jerusalem’s religious importance to all three Abrahamic faiths, as home to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Church of Holy Sepulchre, and the Western Wall of the Jewish temple built by Herod. There were also 100,000 Jews living in Jerusalem at the time, and the partition map envisaged an equivalent Arab population in the combined Jerusalem-Bethlehem entity.

The leaders of what became Israel indicated acceptance of the partition plan, but it was rejected by Arab leaders, who responded to Israel’s declaration of independence the following year by going to war. The resulting conflict substantially redrew the map, as Israeli forces fought their way to Jerusalem and cleared much of the Palestinian population out of the coastal plain and the Gallilee. Whereas the original partition had allocated 55 percent of the territory to a Jewish state and 45 percent of it to a Palestinian Arab state, the war of 1948 put Israel in control of 78 percent of the territory. The remaining 22 percent, comprising Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), was now controlled by Egypt and Jordan respectively.

Jerusalem remained a divided city, with the holy sites in the eastern part under Jordanian control. The international community continued to regard the city as having a distinct status.

In November 30, 1948, Moshe Dayan, Israeli commander, and Abdullah el-Tell, Jordanian commander, drew a map which became the 1949 Armistice Line.

Tamar Hayardeni / Wikipedia / Creative Commons

The rough, hand-drawn lines on a map sketched by Israeli and Jordanian commanders in November of 1948, which later became the official 1949 Armistice Line, left parts of Jerusalem as a no-man’s-land, outside either Israeli and Jordanian control. Special arrangements were made for Mount Scopus, which lay in the Jordanian controlled zone, but was home to an Israel hospital and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The 1949 Armistice Line, also known as the Green Line – or more colloquially as “the 1967 borders” – is often referred to in two-state negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

The war of June 1967, however, left Israel in control of the remaining 22 percent – the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel then annexed East Jerusalem, redefining the municipal boundaries of the city to incorporate other West Bank towns and villages, making it the largest city in the country.

Despite the annexation, however, Palestinians in East Jerusalem were not granted citizenship of Israel in the way that those Palestinians who remained in the country after the 1948 war had been. Instead, East Jerusalem Palestinians were given “permanent resident” status, the same status as non-Jewish foreigners who moved to Israel, according to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem. East Jerusalem Palestinians live under constant fear of their Jerusalem identifications being revoked if they cannot prove their residency. B’tselem says 14,000 have suffered that fate since 1967.

Despite the international community – including Israel’s staunchest ally, the U.S. – rejecting Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, 12 Israeli settlement blocs housing more than 190,000 Jewish settlers have been built on occupied land in the city since 1967.

Thumbnail image for Maps: The occupation of the West Bank

Maps: The occupation of the West Bank

Varying layers of Israeli control show stark reality of Palestinian life under occupation

In 1980, Israeli Knesset passed the Jerusalem Law, which states that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” However, United Nations Security Council Resolution 478, adopted by 14 votes to none, with an abstention from the US, declared the law “null and void.” No foreign country today has an embassy in Jerusalem.

Although Congress, in 1995, passed a law requiring that the U.S. Embassy be relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it allowed the executive branch the option of, every six months, signing a waiver on implementation that law. Since then, every U.S. president starting with Bill Clinton has, twice a year, waived implementation of that law.

The U.S. State Department’s continued recognition of Jerusalem as corpus serparatum has sparked a legal battle with the parents of 12-year-old Menachem Zivotofsky, a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem whose birth certificate doesn’t place the city in Israel. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering arguments about whether the State Department should be required to use “Jerusalem, Israel” on documents issued to U.S. citizens born there. Zivotofsky’s birth certificate gives his birthplace simply as “Jerusalem.”

The status of Jerusalem has proved to be a major stumbling block in efforts to forge a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Failure to reach agreement on the issue was a key reason for the failure of the 2000 U.S.-mediated Camp David negotiations between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Israel mediated by the U.S.

The PLO demanded Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem east of the Green Line. Israel proposed giving the Palestinians custodianship over Muslim and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem, but not sovereignty. The Israeli side also demanded that large settlement blocs in East Jerusalem would remain part of Israel.

Then opposition leader Ariel Sharon rejected even that offer by Israel’s government, and took a large security contingent on a walking tour of the Temple Mount — also the precincts of the Islamic holy sites — triggering Palestinian protests that escalated into the Second Intifada.



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