Donald Trump vowed to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to win favor with America's religious right. Now he's made good on that promise, igniting tensions that have resulted in the bloodiest day for Palestinians in years.
At least 52 Palestinian protesters were killed in clashes with Israeli troops near the Gaza border as the embassy was officially opened Monday, Gaza's Health Ministry said. It said 2,400 had been injured, with dozens wounded by gunfire, in what was the deadliest day in Gaza since the 2014 war with Israel. The Palestinian Authority has called for immediate international intervention to halt what it called a "horrific massacre" of the protesters.
The dramatic escalation of violence came amid Palestinian fury at the official opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, at which Trump spoke via video-link Monday. "Congratulations, it's been a long time coming," he said at the event. "For years, we failed to acknowledge the obvious, the plain reality that Israel's capital is Jerusalem."
While the relocation the embassy has been widely condemned as a provocation to Palestinians and an obstacle to Middle East peace prospects, the timing of the move has only thrown oil on the fire.
The move was scheduled to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, a national day of celebration for Israelis that, for Palestinians, represents a disaster. Palestinians observe the following day, May 15, as the Day of Nakba (Catastrophe), an event that's typically marked by mass protests.
“Choosing a tragic day in Palestinian history [to open the embassy] shows great insensibility and disrespect for the core principles of the peace process,” Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallahwrote in a statement.
Since March 30, Palestinians have been demonstrating at locations along the Israeli border for what is billed as the “Great March of Return,” with the protests swelling in intensity Monday. Israel's military said that 40,000 protesters were demonstrating at 13 different locations along the border.
Many of the thousands gathered were peaceful, while some threw stones and others reportedly spoke of their determination to storm the border and attack.
Israeli security forces responded to the protesters with gunfire, and drones flew overhead spraying teargas. No Israeli casualties have been reported in the border clashes.
With anger at boiling point over the embassy relocation and Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — acts described by Hamdallah as “blatant violations of international law” — more violence is expected.
What is happening Monday?
Just miles from some of the clashes, the new embassy was opened Monday in the existing U.S. consular building in Jerusalem. It’s not the permanent location for the embassy, but an interim location to house the ambassador until a larger site is found.
The ceremony was attended by senior U.S. officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Speaking at the ceremony, Kushner described the move as boosting the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. "I am confident that as a result our nations will be stronger, our peoples more prosperous, and our future filled with even greater promise for peace."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was full of praise for Trump's decision. "What a glorious day. Remember this moment," he said. "President Trump: By recognizing history, you have made history."
Two controversial pastors associated with the U.S. religious right also appeared at the ceremony: Robert Jeffress, who has made comments critical of Islam and Mormonism, and John Hagee.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed Jeffress's involvement, tweeting: "Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States embassy in Jerusalem."
Why is it so contentious?
Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and subsequently relocate the embassy there, shattered decades of delicate American neutrality on the issue of Jerusalem’s status, and broke with international consensus that the status of the disputed Holy City should be worked out in the course of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Hamas, the militant organization that rules Gaza, described the decision as a “declaration of war.”
The status of Jerusalem goes to the heart of the Middle East conflict. Sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, it is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital. Israel sees Jerusalem as its indivisible capital, while the Palestinians want the eastern part of the city for their future capital.
Netanyahu has called on other countries to follow Washington’s lead in relocating their embassies to Jerusalem, and some are starting to follow suit: Guatemala will open an embassy there on Wednesday, and Paraguay intends to join them later this month.
The White House insists that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital "does not mean the United States has taken a position on final status negotiations."
But other countries have heavily criticized the U.S. move, which comes amid rising regional tensions since Washington pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last week, prompting military clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria.
Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Monday that the move was “short-sighted” and “could spark large-scale confrontations between Palestinians and the Israelis and cause a rising number of casualties.”
The move has also been condemned in Europe – France said it violated international law – and across the Muslim world.
The speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, warned that the move would inflame tensions across the region, while another high-ranking Iranian official said the move would hasten Israel's demise.
"The catastrophic measure will bring more unity and solidarity among the world's Muslims in defending their sanctities while speeding up the annihilation of the fake Zionist regime," said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.
What is happening on the border?
Palestinians in Gaza held a general strike Monday and mosques called for people to head to the border to join in the protests, with buses outside mosques ferrying thousands of people to 12 protest sites.
The protest is intended to highlight the rights of Palestinians to return to homes lost by their ancestors when Israel was formed.
According to health officials in Gaza, among those killed Monday were a 14-year-old boy and a man in a wheelchair, who had been pictured on social media using a slingshot. A senior Hamas official, Ismail Radwan, vowed to continue the protests Monday despite the deaths: “We will continue on this path until the rights of the Palestinian people are achieved.”
Israel’s military airdropped leaflets into Gaza, warning Palestinians not to approach or damage the border fence. "Save your lives and work on building your futures," read its message.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted a similar message to Gaza residents. “My recommendation to the residents of Gaza: Don’t be blinded by [Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yehya Al-Sinwar], who is sending your children to sacrifice their lives without any utility. We will defend our citizens with all measures and will not allow the fence to be crossed.”
Israel claims it is acting in accordance with the rules of engagement by defending the border and Israeli communities on its side of the fence, while observers such as the U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, have accused Israeli forces of using excessive force.
Despite the international criticism, Washington has backed Israel’s line over the clashes, accusing Hamas of instigating the violence.
Cover image: Palestinians shout slogans as set tires on fire in response to Israel's intervention during a protest, organized to mark 70th anniversary of Nakba, also known as Day of the Catastrophe in 1948, and against United States' plans to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, near Gaza-Israel border in Khan Yunis, Gaza on May 14, 2018. (Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)