US moves embassy to Jerusalem amid tensions with Palestinians

Palestinians are expected to protest in large numbers.
Sunday 20/05/2018
A man looks at the road leading to the new US embassy in Jerusalem, on May 14. (Reuters)
A man looks at the road leading to the new US embassy in Jerusalem, on May 14. (Reuters)

LONDON - The United States is moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on May 14 after months of international outcry, Palestinian anger and exuberant praise from Israelis over President Donald Trump's decision tossing aside decades of precedent.

While a White House delegation and Israeli officials gather for the inauguration ceremony, Palestinians are expected to protest in large numbers near the Gaza border with Israel and perhaps elsewhere.

"Tragically, the US administration has chosen to side with Israel's exclusivist claims over a city that has for centuries been sacred to all faiths," the general delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to the United States said.

There are concerns that the Gaza protests less than 100 kilometres away will turn deadly if Palestinians approach the fence with Israeli snipers positioned on the other side. Israel has warned Gaza residents they will be risking their lives if they approach the border during the planned mass protest.

The inauguration that follows Trump's December 6 recognition of the holy city as Israel's capital also comes at a time of heightened regional tensions.

The Trump administration has vowed to restart the moribund Middle East peace process but the embassy move has inflamed feelings across the globe.

The US Embassy move "gives life to a religious conflict instead of a dignified peace," it said in a statement.

Israel said all 86 countries with diplomatic missions in Israel were invited to the event, and 33 confirmed attendance. Among those present were delegates from Guatemala and Paraguay, which will open their own Jerusalem embassies later this month.

Attending the Foreign Ministry gathering were representatives from Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, but none from western European Union states - suggesting a rift within the bloc over Trump's Jerusalem move.

The EU mission in Israel tweeted that the bloc would "respect the international consensus on Jerusalem ... including on the location of their diplomatic representations until the final status of Jerusalem is resolved".

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary has expressed concern that the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel could escalate tensions in the Middle East.

Yoshihide Suga said that "Japan is concerned that the move could make peace process in the Middle East even more difficult or escalate tension in all of the Middle East." He says Japan will watch the development with great interest.

US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will lead the Washington delegation that includes Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called Trump's decision "historic", welcomed them at a reception on May 13.

Police and the Israeli military planned major security deployments.

Around 1,000 police officers will be positioned around the embassy and surrounding neighbourhoods for the inauguration, said spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Israel's army said it would almost double the number of troops surrounding Gaza and in the occupied West Bank.

Israelis began celebrating on May 13, as tens of thousands of marched in Jerusalem, some holding American flags, to mark Jerusalem Day.

The annual event is an Israeli celebration of the "reunification" of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War.

Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.

Beyond the disputed nature of Jerusalem, the date of the embassy move is also key.

May 14 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel.

The following day, Palestinians mark the "Nakba", or catastrophe, commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in 1948 after Israel's creation.

There have already been weeks of protests and clashes along the Gaza border, with 54 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire there since March 30.

No Israelis have been wounded and the military has faced criticism over the use of live fire.

Witnesses said Israeli drones have dropped incendiary materials on May 14, setting ablaze tires that had been collected for use in the planned Gaza border protest.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a new message saying America's decision was evidence that negotiations and "appeasement" have failed Palestinians as he urged Muslims carry out jihad against the United States.

Trump "was clear and explicit, and he revealed the true face of the modern Crusade, where standing down and appeasement does not work with them, but only resistance through the call and jihad," Zawahiri said, according to a transcript provided by the SITE monitoring agency.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)