A special regime for Jerusalem

by John Bell, Michael Bell, Mike J. Molloy, Tom Najem
OTTAWA - Over the past few months, the issue of Jerusalem has once again risen as a matter of dangerous contention between Israel and Palestine. Claims to the city and, above all, the question of control continue to make the holy city a battleground. Today, the issue is primarily over Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. The question of control over the Old City and its Holy Sites also remains a primordial matter of contention between the sides.

Seven years ago, out of a mixture of deep concern and Canadian innocence, we decided to tackle the question of the Old City and its Holy Sites and how it could be governed to the satisfaction of all. We waded into Jerusalem in the wake of the failure of Camp David and the ongoing violence of the Intifada. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings.

Over time we developed a complex process of consultations, research and meetings involving Israeli, Palestinian and international figures. We concluded that the most sustainable and equitable answer for the Old City of Jerusalem would be a “special regime”. This system would be created by Israel and Palestine and involve a governance board identified by all the parties. This board would, in turn, appoint an empowered executive, the chief administrator, to run the special regime on behalf of the two states.

The mandate of the special regime would involve management of the issues and points of friction within the Old City: public safety, access, religious and ancient sites, property matters, as well as ensuring religious freedom and the equitable status and treatment of residents and visitors. It would rely on a police service consisting of international officers—and Israelis and Palestinians in the key function of community liaison. Above all, this arrangement would be responsible for the whole of the walled city, maintaining the area as an integral urban unit and not divided as proposed by other initiatives.

The special regime leaves much in the hands of national governments. A key differentiation involves “people” and “place”: most matters relating to “people”, such as education, tourism, social welfare and political rights, remain under the national governments; most relating to “place”, such as Holy Sites or disputed property, will be under the responsibility of the special regime.

Critically, our proposal assumes that freedom of religion and worship will be guaranteed by a peace treaty. Access to the Holy Sites would continue within the existing customary practices, and management of the sites will rest with current custodians and the communities they represent. The Special Regime would not determine what is holy but will be responsible for security, public order and ensuring respect for customary practice. We also propose an advisory religious council that would make recommendations to the special regime on issues of mutual concern and provide a forum for coordination over issues such as pilgrimage and site preservation.

The past has shown that the issue of the Old City and the Holy Sites, especially the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount, will be a major challenge in negotiations. The question of sovereignty over the Old City is especially fraught with difficulties. If the sides cannot come to an accommodation over this question, the special regime may offer an acceptable, and durable, option to break the deadlock.

This proposal does not put forward details regarding sovereignty over the Old City; that would be left to the negotiators. It may, therefore, not satisfy either side’s need for classical territorial sovereignty over the Old City. Yet it offers innovation in the face of deadlock: such a special regime, mandated by both sides and involving a strong third party presence, will protect freedom of religious practise, ensure fairness for all concerned as well as respect for the vast heritage in the Old City. It also suggests that key needs can be met without complete control or political ownership over the site.

The recent frictions over Jerusalem—over unilateral control and rights and access to Holy Sites in this most complex of cities—have highlighted once again why a body such as the special regime could be an answer.


* John Bell, Michael Bell, Mike J. Molloy and Tom Najem form the Jerusalem Old City Initiative, to find creative options for the governance of the Old City of Jerusalem. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and is part of a special series on Jerusalem.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 24 June 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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Other articles in this series

My Jerusalem by Carol Daniel Kasbari by Carol Daniel Kasbari
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Prepare Jerusalem for peace now by Hagai Agmon Snir
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