The iron key to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is tinged ochre with rust. Nearly every morning before dawn for more than 800 years, it has been used by a member of the Nusseibeh family, who are Muslim, to unlock the church’s doors for the Christian clergy who preside over its services.
Exactly how or when the arrangement began has receded from public memory. But to the custodians and the clergy, how it all started does not matter as much as what their daily ritual represents, which is the respect and spirit of co-operation with which their communities regard each other in their shared city.
A reminder of that message is sorely needed now in Jerusalem, as the city – and others in Palestine and Israel – continue to see an eruption of violence between Jews and Arabs, stemming from the threat of eviction of Palestinian residents from one of its neighbourhoods, Sheikh Jarrah, this month. Jewish settlers have used a 1970 law that gives priority to Jews' property claims over those of Palestinians in a case that Israel's top court suspended after the latest violence began.
Right-wing extremism has been on the rise in Israel since the 1970s, and in 1980, the Knesset passed a bill declaring “Jerusalem, complete and united” to be Israel’s capital. With this declaration of sovereignty came another to extend Israeli legal jurisdiction over East Jerusalem, which the international community still considers to be illegally occupied land. Under international law, any evictions within occupied land are also illegal. East Jerusalem is envisioned to be the capital of any future Palestinian state.
Evictions not only undermine legal norms, but also the heritage and dignity of Jerusalem’s Palestinians. Many of them, who live mainly in East Jerusalem, have ancient roots in the city – the Nusseibehs trace theirs back to 637. Others are refugees, having been displaced from other parts of Palestine during Israel’s creation in 1948. These families, in particular, have faced constant pressure to leave since Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967.
As the speaker of Jordan’s Parliament told a meeting of the Arab League this week, what has transpired in Sheikh Jarrah is not a simple “real-estate dispute”. The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that evictions such as those in process in Sheikh Jarrah “create a coercive environment” that may lead to a “forcible transfer” of the broader Palestinian population from its land. As long as the spectre of such a tragedy remains, it will provide wind in the sails of violent militant movements in Palestine, including those of Hamas, which has launched hundreds of rockets into Israeli territory from Gaza this week. Some of them inadvertently killed Arabs.
US President Joe Biden, whose country has long billed itself the arbiter of a prospective Palestinian-Israeli peace, has not yet been able to influence events. Rather, his administration has been criticised for its apparent equivocation as the violence worsens. In a briefing on Thursday, Mr Biden took care to avoid any strong statements, opting instead of safer, universal truths. One of them was the assertion that Jerusalem, “a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace”.
But the only way for that to happen is for Israel to take strong measures to ease tensions within its population. After that, it must sue for a long-term political solution that assures the rights of the Palestinians who live in Jerusalem, and lets go of any claims of exclusive ownership over this holy city.