Why the Jerusalem problem remains unsolvable

By Katerina Karakatsanis 

The Israeli-Palestinian Peace talks, which aim to resolve the perpetual conflict, involve numerous obstacles which both sides must compromise on in order to move forward. In this article we will focus on one particular issue: Jerusalem. This has been one of the most controversial and intractable issues facing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It is best described as a “microcosm of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as this one city is a mix of religious heritage, nationalist aspirations and hunger for control.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and due to the lack of progress of negotiations on this issue, it has kept de facto control of the city. For Palestine, this is unacceptable and has led them to demand ownership of East Jerusalem. Jerusalem for many remains much more than a city– it is the physical manifestation of religion, and thus identity.


One of the main reasons why Jerusalem is unique is due to its sacred sites which are important in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. In order to better understand this issue, we are going to focus on Hassner’s argument that sacred sites are an unsolvable issue because they are indivisible. By bringing academic research into this debate, we can examine this controversial issue through a theoretical lens. Theory can often be complicated and boring, something political science students cram for exams during their first year of university. However, detaching the emotional side of Jerusalem and understanding the phenomenon theoretically can help explain the unique religious and national implications of this city. Hassner, a political scientist at UC Berkley, has long studied the relationship between religion and politics. His theory of indivisible helps to explain the complications of ownership, territory and understanding the ‘sacred’ in a political context.

According to Hassner, a sacred site is where “the heavenly and the earthly meet, providing meaning to the faithful by metaphorically reflecting the underlying order of the world.”[1] In other words, for believers, sacred space is an important part of their religion as it provides them with a direct link to God, as well as a concrete space where they can find him. Jerusalem has many important religious sites for Jews, Muslims and Christians- such as the Haram al-Sharif /Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

As a result of the number of sacred sites Jerusalem is often referred to as a Holy City. Understanding the sacred aspect to Jerusalem, is vital to understanding its importance to both Israelis and Palestinians. If the city itself is sacred, and Hassner is correct in arguing that sacred sites are indivisible, then whether by religious authority or a constructed idea of holiness, Jerusalem is an issue with little room for negotiation.

Indivisibility basically means that something cannot be divided. Hassner identifies three components of indivisibility: cohesion, boundaries and uniqueness. The first, cohesion, refers to the notion that the parties fighting over a certain site agree that it cannot be subdivided without losing some, or all, of its (subjective) value. As we shall see, this is highly applicable to Jerusalem. The second component, boundaries, means that the conflicting sides agree on what they are fighting over. In the case of Jerusalem, there are certainly quarrels over specific areas within the city, but there is no doubt that both sides are in fact speaking of the same territory whilst referring to Jerusalem, despite recent important spatial modifications of the city’s urban structure. The third component, uniqueness, refers to the fact that both parties consider the site to be too unique to be substituted for something of equal value, which is apparent in the case of Jerusalem and its symbolic importance for both Jewish Israelis and Muslim (and Christian) Palestinians.

The city that can’t be divided

As a result of Jerusalem’s significance for both Palestine and Israel, the city cannot be easily divided. Tensions arise over Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount, not merely because it is a contested piece of land, but because it represents a sacred site where the two religions can claim direct legitimacy from God and thus maintain their national religious myths. Because sacred sites have played such an important role in the construction of national identity, neither side is willing to part with it, highlighting Hassner’s uniqueness criteria.

A concrete example is when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the al-Aqsa mosque, situated on the Haram al-Sharif, in 2000. According to previous agreements, the site is under the stewardship of Muslim authorities, making Sharon’s visit extremely controversial. This caused anger among many Palestinians, and the events that would follow was to become known as the Second Intifada. Obviously, there were other factors that led to the Second Intifada, but this still goes to show how controversial and sensitive the issue of this sacred site is within Jerusalem and the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Moreover, there has been unwillingness to give up parts of the city, which further supports Hassner’s theory. If the city is divided, or if a side feel like they are giving up parts of it, they may be accused by their own members of having ‘sold out’. Without its cohesion, sites, particularly Jerusalem, lose value – both its own intrinsic value and the value it holds for the two communities. This way, negotiators in various peace-processes make uncompromising or even unrealistic claims, which in turn results in the Jerusalem issue not being resolved.

Although many other divided cities exist in other conflict societies fighting for particular land that they claim belongs to their side, Jerusalem is further complicated because of the religious aspect. Taken from a religious viewpoint, no human being can divide the Holy Land as it has been anointed from heaven. Arguably every inch of the city cannot be holy, particularly as many conduct normal daily life in the ground. However, in the context of competition between Palestine and Israel over their right to exist, religion becomes even more important as part of each identity as it helps define each one against the other. Although these sites are also central to other faiths, such as Christianity, for Palestinians and Israelis, it is not only a religious identity but also a national one. Thus, even to achieve its own state, Palestine cannot give up East Jerusalem and Israel cannot give up the city as a whole.

But is Jerusalem definitely indivisible? Ironically, this debate is so controversial but in reality there is an actual separation wall in the city as well as ‘indivisible’ walls between the different communities, so clearly the city can and has been divided. According to the Peace Index half of Israel population are willing to transfer East Jerusalem over the Palestinian Authority. However, it is the perception of the city being indivisible, either on religious or nationalistic grounds, that has made the city become such a road block in the peace process. This, of course, does not mean that the importance Jerusalem holds for both religious and secular people should be neglected, but that there are clear indications that Jerusalem, looked at as a geographical city, and less as a sacred site that is indivisible, can be divided.

The importance of the city to both religious and national identity cannot be denied. It is up to future populations- and their political leaders – to determine how indivisible the city really is. If future leaders follow uncompromising positions, such as former Prime Minister Rabin’s statement that “if they told us peace is the price of giving up a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, my reply would be ‘let’s do without peace”, then a solution to the issue seems impossible.



[1] Hassner, Ron E. Fighting Insurgency on sacred ground, The Washington Quarterly, 29:2,150.


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