The ancient city that could spark a modern war

A holy city: People have been living in Jerusalem’s “Old City” since around 2,300BC.

Is history a force for good? Donald Trump has officially recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The decision breaks with 50 years of US foreign policy, and could have huge consequences.

The city is over 5,000 years old, and is known by 70 titles in Jewish tradition alone. Fewer than one million people live there, but Jerusalem — the “holy city” — contains sites which Jews, Muslims and Christians consider sacred.

A price is paid for such significance: the city has been attacked 52 times, besieged 23 times, captured 44 times and destroyed at least twice.

Now Jerusalem’s history is in the spotlight again. Yesterday Donald Trump, the US president, made a speech declaring that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and announcing plans to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is “nothing more or less than a recognition of reality”, he said.

Many in Israel (the homeland of the Jewish people) have argued that this should be the case ever since the state was created after the second world war. But the Palestinian authority (whose people are overwhelmingly Arab Muslims) also claim all of East Jerusalem, including the Old City.

Temple Mount — called the Noble Sanctuary in Islam — is the biggest source of contention. Both ancient Jewish temples were built there and some want to build a third, in accordance with prophecy. But the al-Aqsa Mosque — where Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, initially directed his prayers — and the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven, are both on the same site.

Peace talks between Israel and Palestine have always crumbled over the issue of who gets to claim Jerusalem. For decades, the USA has consistently remained neutral on the issue, saying it must be decided as part of a peace deal. That is why Trump’s declaration yesterday was so significant. It delighted many of his right-wing supporters in Israel and the USA.

But it has angered many Arabs and supporters of Palestine. For days before his speech, several world leaders — including the pope — warned that the move could lead to violence. A spokesman for Turkey’s president said Trump could be “plunging the region and the world into a fire with no end in sight”.

And did those feet, in ancient times?

Some say the attachment to Jerusalem is tragic. It would be so much easier to achieve peace if we could see the city for what it is: a piece of land. So much blood has been shed, over so many centuries, for no rational purpose. Sometimes we must accept that clinging on to history does no one any good.

That’s simplistic, respond others. Humans as spiritual beings value the people and traditions that have come before. Such places as Jerusalem are unique and special; they allow us to make connections with ancestors who died thousands of years ago, and stir deep emotions within us. It is entirely natural to feel a deep attachment to them.

You Decide

  1. Are there any places to which you feel close emotional attachment?
  2. Is history always a force for good?


  1. Write five questions which you would like to ask the people of Jerusalem (based on both the short-term situation and the longer-term issues there). Discuss what the responses to your questions might be.
  2. Write a briefing paper on the different claims to Jerusalem and what possible solutions might exist to the problem there. Use the links to help you.

Some People Say...

“History and religion are barriers to peace.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
As modern Israel was being formed after the second world war, the UN declared that Jerusalem would not belong to either Israel or Palestine. Instead, it would be “a special international regime and shall be administered by the United Nations”. After ten years, a referendum would decide its future. Instead, a war broke out between the two countries. This happened again in 1967, and its status has been in dispute ever since.
What do we not know?
The true effect that Trump’s decision will have on relations between Israel and Palestine. While many believe it will lead to conflict, others think that such a bold move could kick-start peace talks, and help to resolve the thorniest issue between the two countries once and for all.

Word Watch

The Church of the Old Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a holy Christian site. It is believed to house the tomb of Jesus.
Tel Aviv
Although Israel says that Jerusalem is its capital city, Tel Aviv is a large city about 60 miles away which functions as the country’s main financial and technological hub. The countries which have embassies in Israel are all based there. In the 1990s, the US Congress passed a law saying its embassy should be moved to Jerusalem. However, presidents have signed waivers every six months delaying the move for national security reasons. Trump signed this waiver in June, but let the next deadline pass on Monday.
In 1947, the UN proposed the creation of an independent Jewish state (Israel) and an independent Arab state (Palestine), with Jerusalem an “international” territory.
Palestinian authority
This was formed in 1994 as an interim body to govern the West Bank and Gaza (the Palestinian territories). It was intended to last for five years. But no agreement to recognise the state of Palestine has been reached, so the authority still exists today.

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