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Ahead Of U.S. Embassy Move, A Look At Jerusalem's Contested History


The Trump administration will relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem tomorrow. It's just 45 miles from one city to the other, but those 45 miles have far-reaching implications. The seat of Israel's government has been in Jerusalem since the first days of the Jewish state, but the Palestinian people see part of the city as the capital of a future state they've been seeking. When President Trump announced the embassy move in December, he broke with decades of U.S. foreign policy.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

SINGH: In a few minutes, our correspondent in Jerusalem will give us a sense of the atmosphere there now. But first, we look back at why this city is perhaps the most contested place on earth.

DEREK PENSLAR: Jerusalem is probably the most culturally, spiritually saturated city in the world, in that it is sacred to Christians, Muslims and Jews.

SINGH: Professor Derek Penslar of Harvard University guides us through the history of the city.

PENSLAR: It's sacred to Jews as the site of the ancient temples. For Christians, Jerusalem is the site of Jesus's last days. And Islam also has made a powerful claim on Jerusalem, with the Dome of the Rock shrine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. One could not ask for a spot that is more contentious between three of the world's most ancient religions.

SINGH: In the late 1800s, Jerusalem was an important administrative center for the Ottoman Empire.

PENSLAR: When the British conquered Palestine in 1917, Jerusalem was very much the jewel in their crown.

SINGH: European Jews began settling in Palestine - what they saw as their people's historic homeland. This was known as the Zionist Movement.

PENSLAR: Jerusalem actually was not central to most of the secular Zionists who were the political leaders of the movement up till 1948.

SINGH: And that was a thinking when, in 1947, the newly-formed United Nations approved a partition plan to establish separate Jewish and Arab states in Palestine.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The Jewish state will include the ports of Haifa and Tel Aviv and the whole of the Negev valley. They Arab will occupied the fertile eastern part. Jerusalem will come under United Nations' trusteeship.

SINGH: But Penslar points out that in the aftermath of a 1948 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Jerusalem ended up divided between Israel and Jordan. Jews were not allowed to pray at their holiest site, the Western Wall.

PENSLAR: Jordan took over the eastern part of the city, which really meant the Old City of Jerusalem and some of the outlying Arab neighborhoods. And Israel took over the larger western part of the city. So theoretically, this was supposed to be internationalized.

SINGH: Then another round of warfare in 1967.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good evening. War preparations were stepped up in the Middle East today, even as the diplomats worked to try to preserve peace.

SINGH: This was the Six-Day War.

PENSLAR: Well, in 1967, Israel conquered eastern Jerusalem, and the whole meaning of Jerusalem changed because eastern Jerusalem had been about 2 1/2 square miles - just the Old City and then a few neighborhoods beyond it. But Israel then, next to the state, a much larger area, which is - we call it eastern Jerusalem, but it's about 25 square miles. It includes some two dozen Arab villages that were not historically connected with Jerusalem.

SINGH: Derek Penslar says it was not just borders that changed.

PENSLAR: After 1967, this blend between nationalism and religiosity became much stronger. And as it became stronger, the significance of Jerusalem began to ascend in the whole definition of what it meant to be Israeli and what it meant to be a Zionist. It's almost like an exponential increase, where the political significance of Jerusalem, the investments in housing to make sure that Jews are living in this greater Jerusalem - everything increases in the 1980s', '90s and beyond.

SINGH: For Palestinians, the city also had profound significance.

PENSLAR: Jerusalem was the center of the rallying cries of Palestinian nationalism even in the interwar period. And the cry that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger was a rallying point for Palestinians, for Muslims in the Arab world and beyond. So Jerusalem always had a deeply, deeply powerful political and religious meaning for the Palestinian national movement.

SINGH: Now, Israeli control means Palestinians with deep roots in the city struggle to remain. About 40 percent of the population of Jerusalem is Palestinian. Many of them live behind a concrete wall, part of the barrier Israel built during a wave of Palestinian attacks in the 2000s. For them, moving around the city can be a daily ordeal. Historian Derek Penslar notes that the U.S. government, like most of the world, has maintained for that the status of Jerusalem will be resolved sometime in the future through negotiation.

PENSLAR: And this is why the moving of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has such symbolic impact.

SINGH: That was Harvard University historian Derek Penslar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.