Trump Stirs up the Holy Land: Jerusalem Recognition Revives Crusading Passion

So, President Donald Trump has done what the whole world knew he was going to do; he has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking an international precedent despite warnings from allies and enemies both at home and abroad.

A defiant POTUS declares Jerusalem capital of Israel

The next few years promise a relocation of the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, although how practical that will be on a security footing is something even this blundering administration will need to consider.

Unsurprisingly, the move has caused uproar in the Arab world, with protesters taking to the streets to burn effigies of Trump and global leaders strongly rebuking the incendiary announcement. That the recognition also further destabilises the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process – despite Trump’s claims to the contrary – is somewhat of an aside.

Burning an effigy of President Trump the West Bank city of Nablus

From Pope Urban’s call for crusade in 1095, Jerusalem has served as a battleground – the Holy Grail – of the Abrahamic religions. It changed hands between Christendom and Islam on several occasions, men travelling from far flung places to spill blood in the name of their God.

Crusaders and Seljuk Turks do battle during the First Crusade at Dorylaeum, Anatolia

Of course the Jews have remained present in Jerusalem for most of that time – indeed since the days predating Christianity and Islam as they like to remind us – even if actual power was only bestowed upon them by the victorious parties (mainly the Truman administration) post-WWII.

The monumental decision to create a new religious state – whilst understandable given the centuries of horrific Jewish persecution which had culminated in the Holocaust – has resulted in intermittent warfare ever since, and has added another simmering rivalry to that already existing in the region between the perennially fighting Sunnis and Shiites.

Why has Trump done it? To appease the pro-Israel lobby that voted for him in large numbers during the last election is the obvious answer. In fact, it wouldn’t have been beyond the realms of possibility for the President to have suggested a new Christian crusade to the Holy Land, such is his dedication to his Evangelical base.

Trump went overboard to impress the pro-Israel lobby during the election campaign

Trump is also playing to type, sowing divisions where they already existed. What makes your rivals weaker makes you stronger right?

Some have advocated more pragmatic and sentimental reasons; that Jerusalem is the economic and political capital of Israel, ‘home to Israel’s legislature, its supreme court and the prime minister’ , or that it ‘reflects the reality that [the] city is [the] historic center of [the] Jewish faith’.

Jews at the wailing wall, 1891. Parts of the wall predate Christianity and Islam

Either way, it takes little to incense the Arabs and whilst Trump’s move isn’t particularly beneficial to the US – who Israel will continue to rely upon for years to come no matter how strained relations are – it is unlikely to create major change or crisis.

There are arguments that it will encourage further ‘illegal’ Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, though this is likely to continue regardless. Indeed, Trump has left the door open for East Jerusalem to become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The claim that the move has irrevocably destroyed the potential for a two-state solution, however, is ridiculous. This is, and has been since Israel’s inception, a distant dream. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to make the concessions to make it happen, no matter what international diplomacy can achieve.

Whatever Trump’s rhetoric and actions, the Holy Land will continue to inspire and divide, to inflame passion and hatred, to breed reconciliation and war. The world will watch on as the cycle continues, whilst the militant proxies of the region’s powers seek to gain the smallest of footholds wherever they can. They are left to take up the crusading mantle of the past.

3,000 years on the Jews are entrenched in Israel and Jerusalem is beyond sacred to them. That it is to many Muslims and Christians, too, will not change the geopolitical status quo.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre – sacred to Christians
Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount – sacred to Muslims

The bloodshed of the infidel will continue to stain the holiest of monuments, memories of crusade and defiance infusing energy into every brick that help to make Jerusalem one of the most captivating cities to visit.

What President Trump says will never change this.

Chaotic, Disputed, Endangered: enduring trouble in the Sinai Peninsula

Egypt’s military has reportedly killed over 250 Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula during the past ten days. It continues the violent struggle between Cairo and its restive eastern province, which is fast becoming a base for dangerous fundamentalists pledging their allegiance to ISIS.

Sinai-peninsula-map

At the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, Sinai has always been a geopolitically vital area and its ownership has long been contested. Inhabited since prehistoric times, its northern coastline was a major trade route between Egypt and Palestine and in the first century AD the Roman Empire took control of the Peninsula.

The territory was wrestled back and forth between various Muslim successor states to the Romans before coming under Ottoman control in the 16th century. As Ottoman power declined in the 19th century, so did its grip on Sinai. A nascent Egyptian state was established by Muhammad Ali in 1805 which, whilst nominally a tributary of the Ottomans, was all but independent until the arrival of the British in 1882.

The entirety of Egypt (including Sinai) was effectively a British colony until 1936 when the Kingdom of Egypt was recognised as an independent state by London. Even then, the British maintained a military presence until 1952 before withdrawing as part of a general colonial retrenchment across the globe.

This is when the history of the Sinai Peninsula becomes even more contested and problematic. In 1948, the Arab-Israeli War saw Egypt send troops through Sinai in support of Arab forces in the former British Mandate of Palestine, which was being threatened by the new Israeli state. A reversal in fortunes saw the Israelis occupy part of Sinai for the first time before an armistice was signed in early 1949.

The 1956 Suez Crisis – when an attempted invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by British, French and Israeli forces in a bid to take control of the nationalised Suez Canal ended in a humiliating withdrawal – solidified the Egyptian-Israeli enmity that would continually boil over into war.

British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal Source: IWM
British troops prepare to depart Port Said after being forced into an embarrassing withdrawal
Source: IWM

In 1967 the Israelis finally captured Sinai during the Six-Day War, which was followed by a three-year War of Attrition orchestrated by the Egyptians in a failed attempt to recapture their lost territory. Further conflict broke out in 1973 after Cairo launched Operation Badr, initiating the Yom Kippur War. Again, the Egyptians could not recapture the Peninsula.

It would take the US-brokered Camp David Accords of 1978 and the subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty for the Israelis to concede the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt.

Whilst the Israeli-Egyptian peace has largely held, Sinai has remained unstable. Impoverished Bedouin Arabs – resentful of Cairo’s apparent disregard for their needs – and hardline Islamists have frequently staged attacks on foreign tourist resorts and government checkpoints.

Additionally, Sinai has become the main route through which Hamas has smuggled weapons into the Gaza Strip as part of its ongoing struggle against Israeli supremacy. A sophisticated network of tunnels – partially created and monitored by Hamas sympathisers on the Egyptian side of the border – have invited assaults from both the Israelis and the government in Cairo. It is now thought that Hamas and the Sinai insurgents are working together.

ISIS supporters certainly appear to be taking advantage of the inherent chaos in Sinai to establish a base close to Egypt and the other troubled states of North Africa, whilst also being within striking distance of the hated Israel.

Battle rages in Sheikh Zuweid, Sinai. Fighters loyal to ISIS have joined an existing Islamist insurgency by attacking checkpoints and killing civilians Source: Daily Telegraph

Complicating matters is the religious significance of the region. Mount Sinai, in the southern-central part of the Peninsula, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments during the Jewish exodus. It is therefore a revered place for all followers of the Abrahamic religions.

St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims Source: Berthold Werner
St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. It is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. Sinai is sacred place for Christians, Jews and Muslims
Source: Berthold Werner

Attempts to counter the violence in Sinai have tended to be military in nature, which has only perpetuated the various troubles. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has increased military action in Sinai to flush out militants and destroy their support networks, in addition to Hamas’ intricate tunnel system. Whilst this is necessarily part of any solution, more diplomatic, multilateral efforts should be made.

An agreement between Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians – in addition to their regional and international partners – on a coordinated approach to securitising Sinai is the preferable course. Such an outcome, however, is unlikely. Whilst Hamas remains in charge of the Gaza Strip, Sinai will be destabilised by attempts to smuggle in weapons, supplies and fighters. The Egyptians, too, appear reluctant to allow other states to interfere in their sovereign territory, particularly given how troublesome it has been to hold on to.

Without an agreed approach, though, there is no prospect for peace. An area with economic and multicultural potential is more likely to become a land bridge and sanctuary for terror, connecting the theatres of war between the Middle East and Africa. This may ultimately lead to a scenario that has always seemed inevitable: that the Sinai Peninsula will be beyond the control of every sovereign state, destined for perpetual conflict, the repercussions of which could spread far and wide.