Some 60 Palestinians died Monday, protesters killed by gunfire from Israeli troops on the Gaza border. They will be buried Tuesday on the Day of Nakba (Catastrophe) — held annually the day after the anniversary of Israel’s founding.
It was the deadliest day in the territory since the war with Israel of 2014. Now the region, already febrile from the Syrian civil war, the collapsing Iran deal, and the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, is bracing for more bloodshed.
The sixtieth fatality was an eight-month-old baby who had breathed in tear gas at a protest camp, Gaza health officials said. In total, more than 2,700 people were injured, about half of them by live ammunition, which saw the long-running demonstrations swell amid Palestinian fury at Washington’s embassy move.
Tuesday marks the final day of a six-week Palestinian “Great March of Return” that began on March 30 — and culminates on the Day of Nakba. But following the high death toll Monday, Palestinian leaders have called for three days of mourning, a move that seemed to rein in the demonstrations, which were much smaller Tuesday.
While senior U.S. officials have framed the embassy relocation as a shake-up that could advance the prospects of Middle East peace, the results have so far run counter to that aim. The move has inflamed tensions and provoked the worst bloodshed in Gaza in years, raising fears of another intifada or uprising against Israel, and triggered a wave of international condemnation that has left the U.S. and Israel further isolated from the international community.
What has been the international response to Monday’s violence?
International reaction condemned Israel’s response to the protests, with the United Nations saying that “those responsible for outrageous human rights violations must be held to account.” U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said that while Israel had a right to defend its borders under international law, lethal force could only be used a last resort, and wasn’t justified by Palestinians massing on the border.
Among the strongest diplomatic responses, Turkey said the U.S. shared responsibility with Israel for the “vile massacre,” and announced it was recalling its ambassadors from both countries, while South Africa also recalled its ambassador to Israel, condemning “the indiscriminate and grave manner of the latest Israeli attack.”
Kuwait drafted a U.N. Security Council statement expressing “outrage and sorrow” at the deaths and calling for an independent inquiry into the violence, but this was blocked by the United States.
Washington’s Western allies also criticized Israel’s response, with French President Emmanuel Macron condemning “the violence of the Israeli forces against protesters.” Germany acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself but said it needed to do so proportionately, while Britain described the amount of live fire as “extremely concerning" but called on Palestinian protesters to demonstrate peacefully.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also called on Israel to be “proportionate in its response and refrain from excessive use of force.”
And the White House response?
But the United States and Israel have staunchly defended the actions of Israeli troops, with both countries blaming Hamas, the Islamist militant group that governs Gaza, for the killings.
“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters, making no call on Israel to exercise restraint. “Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response.”
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said Israel has acted with “restraint.” “I ask my colleagues here in the Security Council, who among us would accept this type of activity on your border? No one would.”
In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) accused Hamas of “leading a terrorist operation” and inciting the protesters. On Tuesday, it said that at least 28 of those killed had a "documented terror background" – and were active operatives of either Hamas or the militant group Islamic Jihad.
The Washington Post reported that Monday’s protests had a more violent overtone than previous days, with some of the protesters carrying knives and speaking of their desire to wreak havoc on the Israeli side of the border, and organizers urging them to break through the fence by telling them that Israeli troops were abandoning their positions, which wasn’t the case.
Palestinian health officials say that 104 Gazans have been killed since the protests began at the end of March. No Israeli casualties have been reported.
Where does this leave the peace process?
Trump has repeatedly spoken of his desire to break the deadlock in stalled Middle East peace talks and secure the “toughest deal of all.”
In his recorded message at the opening of the Jerusalem embassy, he said the U.S. remained “fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement,” while U.S. officials have insisted that the move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital does not prejudge the final status of the contested city, and that its final boundaries can still be determined in peace negotiations.
But it’s hard to see how, by making a seismic shift on the status of Jerusalem — a highly sensitive issue that lies at the heart of the conflict — this can be achieved. Sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the Holy City is claimed by both parties, with the Palestinians wanting the eastern part of the city for their future capital.
The U.S.’s move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has shattered the delicate international status quo over the city’s status: Guatemala and Paraguay are both following suit in opening embassies there.
Rather than providing the intended shakeup that might press Palestinian leadership to accept what Trump called “the plain reality” of the situation and come to the negotiating table with a more realistic position, the move is seen by Palestinians as having discounted Washington as a fair broker in negotiations.
While, according to reports, the Trump administration had bet that the Palestinians would get over their initial anger over the decision to resume contact with U.S. negotiators, this hasn’t happened.
The Trump administration says it has nearly finalized a new peace plan framework, but that may be moot. Following Monday’s bloodshed, the region is braced for the prospect of spiraling violence, and the prospects for peace look slimmer than ever.
Cover image: Ahmed Al-Tubassi, 18, left, and his father, Ibraheem Mohammed Al-Tubassi, middle, mourns the death of Yazan Ibraheem Mohammed Al-Tubassi, after identifying his corpse at the Shifa Hospital Morgue as casualties stream in from the protest at the border fence separating Israel and Gaza on May 14, 2018 in a camp east of Gaza City, Gaza. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)