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U.S. Marks The Opening Of Its Embassy In Jerusalem


Steve Inskeep is in Jerusalem today, where, Steve, you are covering two stories that have been connected for generations, right?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Yeah, yeah. The U.S. Embassy is opening in Jerusalem. A ceremony just completed here today. And as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke here on the embassy grounds, he referred to the other big story, saying that Israeli soldiers were, as he put it, protecting Israel's borders as we speak. Palestinian protesters in Gaza, southwest of here, have tried to break through border fencing. Israeli troops opened fire, and Gaza health officials say that more than 40 people have been killed. It's the deadliest day of protests in a six-week round of protests so far.

MARTIN: And we've been hearing through the morning from NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting in Gaza, where the Israeli response has apparently included airstrikes against Hamas, which is one of the groups behind the protests. Can you just take a step back and remind us how these two stories are connected?

INSKEEP: Yeah. Both are disputes over land. Palestinians want out of Gaza and into Israeli territory they say their ancestors lost in wars generations ago. And then Jerusalem, where the U.S. just moved its embassy, is disputed by Palestinians, although you would never know that by the ceremony today. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the stage here, and he had this final applause line.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: God bless the United States of America. And God bless Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel.


INSKEEP: Undivided capital of Israel - but the thing is, President Trump's administration insists that although they've recognized Jerusalem as the capital, the city's future is not decided. Palestinians still want it divided. They want part of it for their capital and claim it, as we saw when meeting Daniel Seidemann, who's a left-leaning Israeli lawyer, also an expert on Jerusalem's geography. And just give a listen here as we met outside the embassy.

DANIEL SEIDEMANN: And if you look closely, those are the hills of Gilad (ph). Those are the mountains of Jordan. And on a clear day, from this spot, you can see the high-rises in Amman.

INSKEEP: Thank you for reminding me how tiny the land area is that's contested here.

SEIDEMANN: I've been told that one of the problems of Israel-Palestine is that there's too much history and not enough geography.

INSKEEP: Most Israeli Jews live in west Jerusalem. Palestinians live in the east.

SEIDEMANN: We live in different neighborhoods. We walk different streets. We shop at different shops.

INSKEEP: And this U.S. government building sits on what was a kind of no man's land between warring sides in 1948.

And this consulate that's becoming an embassy is more or less on the dividing line between the two.

SEIDEMANN: It's on the dividing line. Actually, part of this consulate facility extends into sovereign, uncontested Israel.

INSKEEP: United Nations resolutions and peace accords say peace talks should decide Jerusalem's status. That's why nations kept their embassies away. But Israelis moved their government here decades ago, and last December, President Trump endorsed their claim. The trouble is, Palestinians also want the city for their capital.

SEIDEMANN: There's a message being sent by this move to the Palestinians - you don't count, and the Israelis do.

INSKEEP: Seidemann disapproves of the embassy moving, although when we visited an Israeli Jewish neighborhood, it was clear that his was a lonely voice.

We're on a stone street between rows of stone buildings, shops open to the street and a phenomenal crowd in the last hours of Friday afternoon.

People went outdoors before the city shut down at sunset for the Jewish Sabbath.


INSKEEP: Hi. How are you?

And we asked Michal Shaw about the embassy move.

What do you think about that?

SHAW: It's very exciting.


SHAW: Because Jerusalem is the center of the world.

INSKEEP: She's 26, working as a telemarketer while attending school. She agrees the U.S., once seen as a broker for peace in the region, has now taken Israel's side.

SHAW: Definitely. But it's Trump, and he's very controversial, and he's crazy, and it's awesome. I don't know. Why can't the world just be crazy these days?

INSKEEP: Another Israeli in the crowd was Pini Einhorn, strolling through the market with his two daughters.

We're here because the U.S. Embassy is opening here on...

PINI EINHORN: Unbelievable, yeah.

INSKEEP: You look happy.

EINHORN: I definitely - I'm not happy because of that. I'm just a happy person, but that just helps for the happiness.

INSKEEP: Because of the message the embassy move sends.

EINHORN: I think the Palestinians are supposed to learn from this that Israel is a very powerful nation and spiritual, physical and emotional - OK? - and we're not going to give up on our country so fast now.

INSKEEP: Einhorn says he is willing to see a Palestinian capital in a different part of Jerusalem.

EINHORN: But I don't think that's what they want. They want us out of here.

INSKEEP: And you hear in that remark the Israeli fear of Arabs who call their country illegitimate. Israelis uneasily share this city with Palestinians who claim the right to belong to a different nation. Palestinians are 38 percent of the city's population. We met some when we drove east from the new U.S. Embassy.

DIANA BUTTU: This road is - you'll see - was supposed to continue.

INSKEEP: There seems to be a wall up there.

BUTTU: There's a wall right ahead of us, yeah.

INSKEEP: Diana Buttu traveled with us outside the concrete separation barrier that Israel built after Palestinian attacks. Buttu is a lawyer who once advised the Palestine Liberation Organization. Our driver had to talk her way past Palestinians preparing to protest.

NUHA MUSLEH: So they want to block the road.


MUSLEH: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

MUSLEH: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Moments later, we looked back and saw black smoke.

So the road we just drove on is now blocked by burning tires.

BUTTU: Yes, that's correct.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes. They (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Guess we won't be going back that way.

BUTTU: No. (Laughter) No.


BUTTU: So we could go out this way.

INSKEEP: OK, that's fine.

The 70th anniversary of Israel's independence is, for Palestinians, the anniversary of their loss of land. Peace talks have left them with only a distant promise of a state.


INSKEEP: There's this metal gate, and it's covered in graffiti. And there is a sizable stone building on the other side that looks kind of derelict. What is that?

BUTTU: Well, that was supposed to be the Palestinian parliament building for the Palestinian state.

INSKEEP: This vacant building at the edge of town is as near as Palestinians have ever come to a capitol in the ancient city. Diana Buttu once worked on peace talks for the Palestinian side but now sees negotiations as hopeless.

What do you think about when you see this building with no glass in the windows, and it's just derelict; it's abandoned?

BUTTU: It's a symbol of the peace process - buildings without any substance on the inside. That's what it reminds me of.

INSKEEP: Instead of negotiating over land, where Israel has the advantage, Buttu now talks of demanding equal rights in a single country. Other Palestinians take to the streets.

Is it these gentlemen who are involved?

BUTTU: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What if we talk to one of them?


INSKEEP: (Speaking Arabic).

MUSLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: (Speaking Arabic).

MUSLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: Outside the empty parliament building, we met a group of Palestinian men preparing to protest. One, in a black T-shirt, gave his name as Ali. And you've lived around here all your life, is that right?

MUSLEH: (Speaking Arabic.)

ALI: (Through interpreter) Since my childhood, I've lived here.

INSKEEP: Through an interpreter, he said the U.S. Embassy move confirms what he already believed.

ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "I do not trust the United States," he said. "Step by step, Israel is nearing its goal of confirming Jerusalem as its own, and the U.S. Embassy is another step."


INSKEEP: Sounds like this protest is firing up around the corner. Is that what's going on?

MUSLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

ALI: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: "The clashes have started," the man said. And soon, the spreading protest blocked not only the road we drove in, but the street we planned to drive out. You got some guys throwing rocks at passing cars up here.

BUTTU: (Speaking Arabic).

INSKEEP: They've got slingshots.

BUTTU: Yeah, there's some slingshots and...

INSKEEP: Men with masks.

BUTTU: Yeah, boys.

INSKEEP: So we backed up, seeking another way out.

Now, that was a small protest, and we are also following the big one in Gaza today. NPR's Peter Kenyon is with us here. He's covered Gaza and other places in the region for years.

Peter, how does this technique being used in Gaza today - rushing border fences - compare with protests in Gaza in the past?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, one thing is the use of civilians on this scale. That feels new. I mean, Gaza is run by Hamas. They've previously used their own fighters to launch attacks, plant bombs, et cetera. And they've always claimed they speak for the people of Gaza. This puts a kind of a visual on that.

INSKEEP: And the people - or the people who were in the line of fire here - more than 40 people killed. So that is happening. The embassy has opened here in Jerusalem. One of the people who spoke today was Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, and he made one particularly meaningful remark. Let's listen.


JARED KUSHNER: By moving our embassy to Jerusalem, we have shown the world once again that the United States can be trusted.

INSKEEP: U.S. can be trusted. What do you hear there, Peter?

KENYON: Well, that sounds to me like Kushner was trying to push back on one of the big criticisms when President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal the other day. The critics said that showed America is a country whose word can't be trusted; why would anyone negotiate with the U.S., et cetera. In this context, I think he's trying to suggest this is America staying true to its ally, Israel, and that's a kind of a steadfastness. But that won't stop critics from complaining about what he said.

INSKEEP: OK, so two big issues there, where the Trump administration moved in a direction that Israel would very much like - withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran and also moving the embassy here to Jerusalem. Is this administration shifting its view of the world to be closer to Israel's view of the world, particularly the Middle East?

KENYON: Well, it certainly feels that way at the moment. I wouldn't say this is a sea change in foreign policy in the region. I mean, the U.S. has always been Israel's strongest ally, has always been a foe - since 1979, has been a foe of Iran, I should say. And those things are still true, even more so now than under the previous administration. The real question is, what happens to peace talks?

INSKEEP: Perhaps you can hear as they're breaking down the set here because the embassy opening ceremony has ended here in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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