Political holiness: Negotiating holy places in Eretz Israel/Palestine, 1937-2003

Lior Lehrs*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


The British High Commissioner of Palestine, Lord Herbert Samuel, wrote in 1925, that “[a]ll the chief shrines sacred to Christendom are here; Islam sends pilgrims to mosques in Palestine. .. [and] there are spots round which are entwined the strongest affections of Judaism.”2 The importance and sensitivity of the sacred sites bestowed an additional dimension on the national conflict taking place in Eretz Israel/Palestine, and therefore documents and proposals offering political solutions to this problem addressed this challenge. This chapter examines the ways in which various political documents, from the Peel Commission of 1937 to the Geneva Initiative of 2003, have dealt with the holy places in Eretz Israel/Palestine - with a particular focus on proposals and solutions relating to sites outside Jerusalem’s “Holy Basin.” I have chosen not to refer to the holy sites in Jerusalem as the literature has often addressed them, whereas the negotiations dealing with the sites in the other areas of Palestine/Eretz Israel have been largely ignored. The effort to reach a political solution to a conflict over sacred places is a difficult and complex endeavor. First, holy sites lend a religious character to the conflict, one that has consequences for the likelihood of attaining a solution. According to Svensson, when the demands of warring parties are rooted in religious tradition, the chances of resolving the conflict through negotiation are lower.3 Toft notes that, in conflicts with a religious dimension, the “time horizon” as perceived by those involved is longer, making it possible for them to absorb higher costs and to defer political solutions.4 Second, difficulties also arise from the fact that the conflict centers around something intangible, something that is connected to values and principles. Hensel and Mitchell note that the most dangerous territorial conflicts are those in which the disputed territory is linked to intangible, psychological and emotional aspects.5 According to Mansbach and Vasquez, when disputed issues are intangible the chance of resolution is smaller, and when they relate to transcendent values, they present the greatest possible difficulty in terms of conflict resolution.6 The problems that arise during a conflict over a holy site also have to do with the fact that sacred values are at issue - values which, in the view of Tetlock, are absolute and inviolable.7 Third, according to Hassner, a conflict over a sacred space is one whose object is indivisible, that is, any division would diminish its integrity and, therefore, its value; it has clear boundaries and cannot be exchanged for something else.8 Any attempt to propose a political arrangement for a sacred site unavoidably touches on the discrepancy between the world of religious, spiritual and historical concepts and the world of secular, political and modern concepts; it effectively seeks to bridge the gap between faith in sacred values and the need for political compromise. At the heart of the problem (and which is probably also the key to its resolution) lies the tension between religious sanctity and political sovereignty; the ability to differentiate between them is the province of academic, political, religious-legal and international-legal debate. On the academic plane, Professor Shlomo Avineri calls for a distinction to be made between “ties” and “rights, " noting that not every place to which ties exist has to be under political control and that different peoples’ ties to a place can coexist.9 Professor Chaim Gans discusses the claim to “formative territory, " that is, the right to territory that has been crucial in shaping a people’s history; Gans asserts that this right is not fundamentally an exclusive one, and that a formative tie to a specific territory cannot be the sole basis for a restoration of sovereignty.10.

Original languageAmerican English
Title of host publicationSacred Space in Israel and Palestine
Subtitle of host publicationReligion and Politics
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781136490347
ISBN (Print)9780415783156
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2013

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2012 Lior Lehrs for selection and editorial matter.


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