In Jerusalem, an embassy opens. In Gaza, at least 58 die on bloodiest day in years

A special dispatch that contrasts violent scenes on the Israeli-Gaza border with celebrations marking opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem

Donald Macintyre
Zeitoun, Gaza
Monday 14 May 2018 21:23 BST
Israeli drones fire tear gas as clashes erupt at Gaza-Israel border protests

It was a day 70 years in the making, one that the US sought to portray as a new dawn, but which in reality brutally exposed how far President Donald Trump is from solving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

While Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump led the fanfare for the deeply controversial opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, just 50 miles away in the Gaza Strip, Israeli troops shot and killed at least 58 Palestinians protesting at a move which they see as denying their basic rights to a shared capital in that holy city.

The term “asymmetrical” hardly does justice to what was easily the bloodiest day since the Gaza war of 2014; live rounds were met with rocks hurled in response - no Israeli injuries were reported as night fell.

The death toll seemed to make a mockery of Donald Trump’s insistence that he is seeking a peaceful solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Amid international condemnation, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan labelling the killings “genocide”, and calls for restraint from all sides, the bloodshed appeared to symbolise a belief in Israel’s government, euphoric at the embassy move, that force rather than compromise was the route to ensuring a secure future for the 70-year-old nation.

As well as the death toll, Palestinian officials claimed 2,700 people were injured either by live gunfire, tear gas or other means.

Israel said that it was protecting its borders and blamed Gaza’s ruling Hamas for the bloodshed. The Israeli military said three armed militants were killed as they tried to place explosives near the fence at the southern Gaza crossing at Rafah and that it had launched an airstrike on a Hamas post near the northern town of Jabalya after Palestinian gunfire in the area.

At the biggest protest site, in Zeitoun, close to the Karni crossing, the crowds – including women and children – were far bigger than even early in the protest cycle, many without any intention of storming the border fence.

Although one woman, Nisma Abdullah 29, said in the early afternoon: “We are here for Jerusalem and Palestine. This is our land.” Ms Abdullah, accompanied by her nieces and nephews, said her 22-year-old brother had been killed on the fifth Friday of the protests and added: “I think these young people will storm [the border] and change the situation.”

Mahmoud Mansour, 23, whose left arm was still bandaged from an injury in a previous protest, claimed that he was ready to “kill, throw stones or do whatever was available” once across the border. Mr Mansour left school at 13 in order to earn money for his family as a market porter but is now out of work, said: “We hope to make our dreams come true, find a job and have the crossings open.”

While as in the days before young men braved sniper fire and clouds of tear gas to approach the fence, many others in the crowd formed a long column walking parallel to the border and within about 150 metres of it, temporarily scattering when the Israeli troops fired sporadic live rounds and tear gas, its white plumes once again marked out against the black smoke from tyres brought for burning by the protesters.

White House press secretary Raj Shah blames Hamas for 52 dead Palestinians killed by Israeli forces

The scene could not have been more different from the one in Jerusalem, where Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “glorious day” and said that Israel was “here to stay” in the holy city.

Mr Trump was represented by his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner. The US president has handed his son-in-law the task of helping to bring Israel and the Palestinians together in peace as part of his White House adviser remit, a process to which Mr Kushner said the administration is committed. However, it was clear that Mr Kushner would not be ceding the status given to Jerusalem by Israel, which he called a “truth”.

“The journey to peace starts with a strong America recognising the truth”, Mr Kushner said. Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move that is not recognised internationally, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”. Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they hope to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Most countries say the status of Jerusalem – a sacred city to Jews, Muslims and Christians – should be determined in a final peace settlement and that moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

“Jerusalem must remain a city that brings people of all faiths together,” Mr Kushner said in his speech.

Mr Trump’s name had been cheered by those attending the ceremony in Jerusalem, including Mr Netanyahu, and in a recorded video video message the US president said the embassy move had been “a long time coming”. However, he too spoke of peace and said the United States “remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement”.

The White House also issued a briefing document that claimed Mr Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel “does not mean the United States has taken a position on final status negotiations”.

Trump: The US remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement

The White House joined Israel in blaming Hamas for the violence at the border, with White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah repeatedly refusing to condemn Israel’s action and calling the Gaza protests a “gruesome” propaganda attack.

“We believe that Hamas is responsible for these tragic deaths, that their rather cynical exploitation of the situation is what’s leading to these deaths.”

He said: “This is a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt.”

The Israeli military had warned that it would take every measure needed to prevent the mass breaches of the border which Hamas had threatened. Amid signs that the protest had taken on a more violent tinge than in previous weeks, with a few demonstrators carrying kitchen knives as well as wire-cutters, a gigantic poster near the Karni crossing with portraits of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi was replaced with ones of stone throwing.

For a number of nations in the region and beyond the blame fell only one way. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the Palestinian killings amounted to “genocide”, with the country seeking to recall the Turkish ambassadors from both Israel and the US. His foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, called Israel’s actions “state terror”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the deaths in Gaza a massacre and announced a general strike on Tuesday. UN Human Rights commissioner Zeid al Hussein called the killings “shocking” and “outrageous” and that those responsible must be held to account.

Across Europe there was a call for restraint on both sides, with Germany, the UK, France and the UN all issuing statements. A spokesman for UK prime minister Theresa May said that Downing Street was “concerned” by the violence and urged “calm”.

Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, said: “Obviously we are extremely saddened by the loss of life that has taken place and we understand that some have been provoking that violence but on the other hand there has got to be restraint in the use of live rounds.”

A number of nations also reiterated their opposition to the controversial moving of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, including the UK.

“The UK remains firmly committed to a two-state solution with Jerusalem as a shared capital,” Downing Street said, adding there were no plans to move the UK embassy in Tel Aviv.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a 57-member body representing Muslim-majority countries, has said that the US opening of an embassy in Jerusalem was an “illegal decision” and “an attack on the historical, legal, natural and national rights of the Palestinian people.”

The protests in Gaza are backed by all the Palestinian factions. They have been dubbed by organisers, including Hamas, as the “Great March of Return” asserting the “right of return” claim by the descendants of over 700,000 refugees forced from their homes in 1948 war which established the state of Israel and which is commemorated as the nakba, or catastrophe, on Tuesday.

But the determination of demonstrators, already fuelled by an 11-year blockade which has imploded Gaza’s economy and created one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, was on Tuesday reinforced by anger over Mr Trump’s move of the embassy.

At the Zeitoun protest site, religious and patriotic recorded music mingled with the cries of food sellers, the sound of young men moving towards the border in pick-ups chanting “To Jerusalem we’re going with millions of martyrs” and “Death rather than humiliation”. Some families gathered at a safer point more than 300 metres from the border.

One Israeli estimate put the crowds near the border at 40,000, acknowledging that it was the biggest number since the protests began but saying that it was below Hamas’s best expectation.

Taher Nounou, a senior adviser to the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh warned that “civilian resistance” would intensify if protesters continued to be killed and the international community ignored their calls for support.

As Palestinians took cover from sniper fire and the occasional tear gas canister behind a large sandy berm, one young man fired an AK-47 at, and apparently downed, an Israeli drone dropping leaflets thousands of which had already warned demonstrators in Arabic not to let Hamas put their lives in danger to “hide its failure”.

As doctors, hampered by crowds of relatives, struggled to treat the wounded at Gaza’s main Shifa hospital the emergency head Dr Ayman Al Savani said the hospital was overwhelmed by the arrival of 400 of the most seriously injured and did not have enough beds. “For how long will this continue,” he asked reporters. “Can you answer that?”

Meanwhile at the morgue, a crowd of onlookers made way briefly for a small boy to kiss the corpse of a 21-year-old student Samir Shawa killed during the Zeitoun protest. Another Palestinian, Ahmed Judinya, 20 was there to mourn his cousin Mahmous Judinya, also 20, who had been shot dead at the border. He said: “I wanted ... in the morning to go too, but my family forbade it. Now you see the result of participating.”

The crowds are sure to return and the diplomatic fallout shows few signs of abating either. Kuwait has called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Tuesday, while Turkey has called for an emergency session of the OIC on Friday.

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