Guatemala opens Jerusalem embassy amid Gaza turmoil

Israel faces a growing international backlash over Gaza killings.
Wednesday 16/05/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ahead of the inauguration ceremony of Guatemala’s embassy in Jerusalem, on May 16. (AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (L) speaks with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ahead of the inauguration ceremony of Guatemala’s embassy in Jerusalem, on May 16. (AFP)

LONDON - Guatemala opened an embassy in Jerusalem on May 16, two days after the United States inaugurated its new one in the holy city in a move that infuriated Palestinians and drew international condemnation. Israeli troops shot dead dozens of Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border when the high-profile opening of the US Embassy to Israel in Jerusalem raised tensions to a boiling point after weeks of Palestinian demonstrations.

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attended the embassy’s opening in an office complex in West Jerusalem.

“It’s not a coincidence that Guatemala is opening its embassy in Jerusalem right among the first. You were always among the first. You were the second country to recognise Israel,” Netanyahu said at the ceremony, referring to his country’s founding in 1948.

Guatemala was one the few nations that backed US President Donald Trump’s decision in December to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and it is only the second country to move its embassy to the holy city. Paraguay has said it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by the end of May.

Trump’s move reversed decades of US policy, upsetting the Arab world and Western allies.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to forging a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who with broad international backing want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as their capital.

The international community does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over the entire city and says its final status should be set in peace negotiations.

Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem. (Reuters)
Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem. (Reuters)

On the day the United States inaugurated its own embassy in Jerusalem, Israeli gunfire killed 60 Palestinians during the Gaza border protests. It was the bloodiest day in the Hamas-run enclave since a 2014 war with Israel.

Palestinian leaders said by relocating the embassy, the United States had created incitement and instability in the region and abrogated its role as a peace mediator.

Palestinians have been demonstrating on the Gaza frontier for the past six weeks, demanding a return to family land or homes lost to Israel when it was founded in the 1948 Middle East war.

Pope condemns Gaza killings

Pope Francis condemned the killing of Palestinians near the Gaza-Israel border, saying the deaths would only lead to more violence, and appealed for dialogue to bring justice and peace to the Middle East.

“I express my great pain for the dead and wounded and I am close in prayer and affection to all those who are suffering,” he told tens of thousands of people at his general audience in Saint Peter’s Square.

“I repeat that the use of violence never leads to peace. War begets war and violence begets violence.”

Francis, who visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2014, asked both sides and the international community to redouble efforts “so that dialogue, justice and peace prevail.”

Last December, when Trump announced the decision to move the embassy, Francis called for Jerusalem’s “status quo” to be respected, saying new tension in the Middle East would further inflame world conflicts.

Speaking earlier in the audience to a group of Polish second world war veterans, he said: “We never learn.”

International backlash

Israel is facing a growing international backlash and new charges of using excessive force.

In Brussels, Prime Minister Charles Michel called the Israeli actions “unacceptable violence” and said there was a “clear lack of proportionality.” Michel said the violence and killings would be moved onto the calendar of the European Union summit in Sofia.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the violence “concerns us greatly,” but also accused Hamas of cynically escalating the unrest.

Ireland’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador to express “shock and dismay.” Turkey asked Israel’s ambassador to leave temporarily and the country lowered flags to half-staff to mark three days of mourning. China called on Israel to exercise restraint. On May 14, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel until further notice.

The UN human rights office said Israel has repeatedly violated international norms by using deadly live fire to repel protesters from its border with Gaza, suggesting its forces should instead arrest those who reach the fence.

The UN Security Council met to discuss the violence, beginning with a moment of silence at the suggestion of Poland, the current council president.

In strong criticism of Israel, the United Nations’ Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, told the council “there is no justification for the killing.” He called on Israel to “recalibrate” its use of force and to use lethal force only as a last resort.

He also urged Hamas not to use protests as cover to plant bombs and “create provocations.”

Regional reactions

Saudi Arabia “strongly condemns the Israeli occupation forces’ gunfire against unarmed Palestinian civilians, which has left dozens of dead and wounded,” a Saudi foreign ministry spokesperson said.

The spokesperson, quoted by the kingdom’s official SPA press agency, called on the international community to “take responsibility and put an end to the violence against the Palestinians,” noting Riyadh’s support for the “rights of the Palestinian people.”

Bahrain condemned the targeting of Palestinian civilians and reaffirmed support for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The United Arab Emirates also condemned Israel’s “current escalation in the Gaza Strip.”

A front-page editorial in Dubai’s Gulf News ran with the headline: “Mr. President, you killed any glimmer of hope for peace.” The front page of Abu Dhabi’s The National described the US Embassy move as “a new catastrophe.”

Qatar described the violence as a “brutal massacre and systematic killing committed by the Israeli occupation forces against unarmed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, including children and women, during their peaceful and legitimate protest.”

Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador in Ankara and Israel’s consul general in Istanbul.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)