international analysis and commentary

Tangier and Jerusalem, a history of two attempted internationalizations


In 1904, Morocco was split into three spheres of influence: one French, one Spanish, and a Tangier zone. The original idea for the internationalization of Tangier, discussed also in the frame of the Algeciras Treaty of 1906, is rooted in the “capitulations” – that is the concessions that the sultans of Morocco (like the Ottoman ones) granted to foreigners as a guarantee of religious tolerance and legal protection. At the same time, it was heavily influenced by Spain (whose possession of part of Morocco’s Mediterranean coastal zone remains a matter of contention even nowadays), France and Great Britain’s necessity to guarantee the neutrality of Tangier in case of war.

Yet, the eventual internationalization of the Tangier area materialized only in 1923, when the city was legally designated as a neutral demilitarized international zone ruled by eight Western countries. From that moment and until 1956, when Tangier was reabsorbed in the newly independent Moroccan state, its international status made it possible for people of different ethnicities and nationalities – Frenchmen, American, Italians, Spaniards, Belgians, Englishmen, Dutchmen, besides of course Arabs, Imazighen, and Jews – to take it as a place of residence.

The Tangier International zone


Contrary to other internationalized areas, for instance the city of Danzig in Poland until 1939, the international administration of Tangier – which remained encompassed in and part of the territory of Morocco – was not carried out by an international authority but only by a limited group of signatory powers of the Statute of Tangier (France, Spain, United Kingdom). This was even more the case after the end of World War II, when Tangier remained enmeshed in the dynamics of the early stages of the Cold War. The Conference of Experts that met in Paris in August 1945 to revise the Convention of 1923 contained new meaningful provisions that granted to the United States and Soviet Union “the right to appoint representatives in Tangier as member of the Control Committee.”

Moroccan historian Anouar El Younssi argued that from 1923 to 1956 Tangier “resisted the idea of the nation,” while literary scholar Greg Mullins contended that the city was “suspended between nations, cultures, and languages,” and “a place of intermediacy and ambiguity, a place that remains outside standard narratives of nationhood and identity.” The fact that Tangier’s internationalization was fully in the hands of Western powers has been seen by Anouar El Younssi and other Moroccan scholars as a rare case of collective colonialism”.

Notwithstanding the different perspectives and sensibilities on the issue, one of the main reasons the case of Tangier was – up to a certain period, and to a certain extent – successful might indeed be linked to the fact that the city represented an antidote to late modern sealed identities, and the related process through which complex and multidimensional local contexts in the MENA region have been homogenized and denied in their historical continuities by a number of extra- and intra-regional actors. Against the backdrop of a milieu in which identities were largely flexible, multifaceted and “hyphenated,” the practice of politicizing ethno-religious differences, through ascribing a non-mutable, culturally genetic profile to a group, often with the purpose of marginalizing it, led to a reality of tendentiously sealed identities.

Over 30 years of hybridity and internationalism left a still-visible mark on the cultural, geographical, political, and religious features of Tangier, also providing a (temporary) precedent to solve jurisdictional problematic cases elsewhere.

Already in the 1940s, scholars and policymakers were analyzing if the “liminal space” of Tangier could represent a relevant example and precedent for Jerusalem. The prospect of the internationalization of Jerusalem was largely rooted in the historic claims of the Vatican, Italy, and France on the city, but it is only in the frame of World War I that such option started to become more concrete. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was in this sense the very first plan that included the internationalization of Jerusalem, although such idea was already included one year earlier in a memorandum prepared by Herbert Samuel, who later became the first British High Commissioner for Palestine.

In June 1945, the San Francisco Conference stipulated, in Article 80 of the UN Charter, that the organization had the necessary power to conclude trusteeship agreements that could alter existing rights held under the pre-existing Mandate for Palestine. In the Partition Plan (resolution 181), passed by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, it was suggested the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. As for Jerusalem, it was expected to be subject to a Special International Regime and the direct control of a Trusteeship Council administered by a UN governor.

In the following seven decades, hundreds of books, essays and policy papers have discussed the role and status of Jerusalem. In January 2017, for instance, the Washington Institute for Near East Studies (WINEP), founded by former US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk, published an article by Hassan Mneimneh on the potential relocation (which became effective in December 2017) of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The author contended that the international community and the “Arab world” should have supported the “relocation within the confines of Western Jerusalem.” Related claims – including by former State Department officials Dennis Ross and David Makovsky – have been expressed in a number of publications of late.

The Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem


Former Knesset member Einat Wilf, for instance, published a four-step guide “for Moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem”, claiming that this will put an end to the “fiction” that Jerusalem is a “Corpus Separatum”, as envisioned in the 1947 partition plan. In Wilf’s words, “the fiction never existed for simple reason that the Arabs rejected the partition proposal and opened war to prevent it from being realized, and in losing the war Jerusalem west of the armistice lines became undisputedly Israel’s, and Jerusalem east of the line entered an extended period of disputed claims.”

Despite these common assertions, Israel’s admission to the UN on May 11, 1949 was not unconditional, but bound up with the full acceptance of the provisions regarding Jerusalem (Israel’s original application for admission was, not by chance, rejected by the UN Security Council): “Negotiations,” Abba Eban told the UN General Assembly, “would not, however, affect the juridical status of Jerusalem, to be defined by international consent.”

These binding assurances were made one year after the war of 1947-48: none of the historical events of the following seven decades has the legal capacity to undermine them. Even more so considering that when, in 1980, Israel passed a Basic Law that declared Jerusalem “complete and united”, as the “capital of Israel”, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 476 affirming that “measures which have altered the geographic, demographic and historical character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem are null and void.”

So why, then, has the internationalization of Jerusalem remained as one of the major failures of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The answer might be found in the claims made by those supporting unilateral solutions. Several Islamic figures, in Palestine and elsewhere, provide ideological solutions, while expressing extremist views aiming at denying any connection between Jews and what is known to them, since millennia, as the “Temple Mount”.

“Those who claim that they [Jews] have a long history in Israel are liars,” wrote Egyptian theologian Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. A study published by the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information went a step further, warning that “no Muslim or Arab or Palestinian had the right to give up one stone of Al-Buraq Wall.”

On the other side, Bar Ilan University political scientist Mordechai Kedar and other scholars claim that that “Jerusalem is a Jewish city”, and that “is not mentioned even once in the Koran”, while a growing number of groups such as the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement declare “their long terms objectives” as follows: “Liberating the Temple Mount from Arab (Islamic) occupation.”

Despite such absolutist claims, “Uru-Shalem” (the city “founded by Shalem,” a god venerated by the Canaanites), founded by the Canaanites around 5,000 years ago, has not belonged to a single people in its entire history. Long before of the three monotheistic religions, Al-Haram al-Sharif, the site on which Solomon’s Temple stood, hosted a Canaanite place of worship. It is noteworthy that in biblical usage Jerusalem is often mentioned as “Zion”, the high ground where its original inhabitants built the present city’s original fortress. “Siyon” is a term of Canaanite origin that can be translated as “hill” or “high ground”.

At the turn of the 20th century almost 80% of its population lived in mixed neighborhoods and quarters. This is a further reason why in its nature it must be internationally (or at least bilaterally) shared. Moshe Ma’oz, one of the most renowned Israeli historians, explained why religion must play an inclusive role in this complex process: it functions as a recipe against the denial of others’ claims and in support of the acceptance of others’ traumas and “myths”.

“The mosque of al-Aqsa, or ‘the farthest’”, Ma’oz clarified, “which is discussed in Quran’s Sura 17, the one on prophet Muhammad’s night journey, is certainly the result of an interpretation. But I wonder what difference it makes if Jerusalem is explicitly mentioned or not in the Quran. All religious matters are the result of interpretations. A number of academics have demonstrated that the history of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt is full of distortions. This does not change anything for us, Jews. We continue to believe in our myths, as other peoples continue to believe in theirs. It is not a matter of facts, but of beliefs. A billion and a half Muslims believe in the Isra and the Mi‘raj, the Prophet’s night journey to Jerusalem. This is what matters, unless we do not intend to scrutinize all the events mentioned in the books of the three monotheistic religions, to find historical evidence. If so, we would be very disappointed.”

Two major lessons can be drawn from the failed internationalization of Jerusalem, and the events that are still inflaming terrestrial Jerusalem. First, religion cannot be used as a political tool, to deny the beliefs and the “myths” of others – in this case either Jews or Muslims. Second, recognizing (through embassies or other means) the unilateral de facto annexation of the city should never be perceived as a positive step.

A solution must be found through sharing (two embassies) or internationalizing Jerusalem, particularly its Old City, and in striving to trigger a radical political change in the status of what the US Department of State also considers as “occupied territories”: an area where, for over 50 years, millions of people are tried in military courts (99.74% of the trials end in convictions) and deprived of any citizenship (i.e. rights). If none of these scenarios can be achieved, the UN General Assembly’s approach regarding Jerusalem and its most sensible sites remains – at least for now – the least worst alternative.

From Crimea to the Golan Heights, from Western Sahara to a number of other contended world areas, “international nationalization” is at times – notwithstanding its limits, failures and problems – the only recipe to avoid structural forms of oppression and what Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber called a “monologue disguised as dialogue”, that is the dialogue “in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources.”



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