- - Monday, May 14, 2018

JERUSALEM — On a day of surreal, split-screen contrasts, the prime minister of Israel and the daughter of President Trump headlined an opening celebration of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, while just miles away more than 50 Palestinians were killed in the deadliest protests against Israeli occupation in years.

U.S. officials and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to keep the focus squarely on the symbolic embassy relocation from Tel Aviv. They blamed the violence on the militant Palestinian Hamas faction and said the embassy move was a concrete sign of Washington’s support of Israeli legitimacy and a recognition of Israel’s claim to the divided holy city as its rightful capital.

“Today we keep our promise to the American people and extend to Israel the same right we extend to every other nation: the right to designate its capital city,” U.S. Ambassador David Friedman said at the star-studded ceremony, with first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, senior White House aide Jared Kushner, in attendance.

President Trump, addressing the gathering by video from the White House, said the day was “a long time coming.”

But the white tents for the 800 guests could not fully block out the bloodshed nearby or the furious reaction from parts of the Arab world.

Palestinian protesters burned tires, threw rocks and dragged away parts of the barbed-wire border fence separating Israel from the Gaza Strip. The official embassy relocation was being celebrated just a day before the annual commemoration of what Palestinians call the “Catastrophe” — Israel’s establishment as a state in the region.

Turkey announced that it was recalling its ambassador to Washington in protest, and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s largest Muslim organization, denounced the U.S. Embassy move as “an attack on the historical, legal, natural and national rights of the Palestinian people.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has boycotted peace talks Mr. Kushner was trying to mediate, said the embassy amounted to an illegal settlement and vowed not to accept any peace deal proposed by the Trump administration.

U.S. officials said privately that they were heartened by the relatively muted early reaction to Mr. Trump’s December announcement of the embassy’s relocation, long a flashpoint in Israeli-Arab relations. But many issued statements in response to the flare-up of violence that accompanied Monday’s ceremony condemning the Netanyahu government’s handling of the situation.

All told, Palestinian officials said, 55 protesters were killed and more than 1,000 injured in the protests.

Israeli defense officials said the army used airstrikes and tank fire against Hamas targets in Gaza after squads of gunmen opened fire and tried to plant bombs along the border. The Trump administration refused to blame Israel for the casualties, saying Hamas had provoked the violence in a bid to foment instability.

“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests solely with Hamas,” said White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah. “Their cynical exploitation of these issues is what is leading to these deaths.”

Mr. Shah said the deadly violence did not signal a derailment of the U.S.-sponsored peace deal.

“I don’t think it hurts the peace plan,” he said. “The peace plan will be introduced at the appropriate time.”

But Marine Corps security forces were increased at American embassies in Turkey and Jordan, as well as the former embassy site in Tel Aviv and other diplomatic installations in the Middle East, U.S. officials said.

Officials at the Pentagon and Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico confirmed the State Department’s request for additional security as a result of the “heightened threat environment” posed to American diplomats in the region, said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, Defense Department spokesman.

Celebratory mood

The mood was starkly different at the embassy celebration, which the Netanyahu government clearly saw as a validation of its hard-line defense of Israel’s security and its cultivation of Mr. Trump.

Both Israel and the Palestinians see Jerusalem as their capital, and previous U.S. presidents have broken campaign promises to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, citing fears that such a move could put a negotiated peace deal out of reach.

“While presidents before him have backed down from their pledge to move the American Embassy once in office, this president delivered,” Mr. Kushner told the assembled guests. “Because when President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it.”

Mr. Kushner rejected the idea that the embassy relocation undermined the prospects for a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

“The United States recognizes the sensitivity surrounding Jerusalem, a city that means so much to so many …,” he said. “Jerusalem must remain a city that brings people of all faiths together.”

But the evidence of a strong bond between the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration was not hard to find.

Guests at what had been a U.S. consulate office were handed red and blue baseball caps marking the occasion, the U.S. Marines presented their colors and a large video screen featured the American flag and a montage of Israeli and U.S. leaders meeting throughout the years.

Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Trump was simply recognizing reality in carrying out a promise made by previous U.S. presidents.

“The truth is that Jerusalem has been and always will be the capital of the Jewish people, the capital of the Jewish state,” he said.

The new embassy building is on the border of mostly Jewish west Jerusalem and Palestinian east Jerusalem — an area that formed the dividing line between Israel and Jordan before 1967. The American delegation included Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas.

Mr. Trump won rare support for the foreign policy move from Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, who called it “long overdue.”

“Every nation should have the right to choose its capital,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “I sponsored legislation to do this two decades ago, and I applaud President Trump for doing it.” He did not attend the Jerusalem ceremony.

Protests began in the morning with burning tires at points along the Gaza Strip border with Israel. Thousands gathered and listened to speeches conveyed via loudspeakers in Gaza City. Near the Jabalya refugee camp, thousands of Palestinians gathered and attempted to cut one of the fences between Gaza and Israel.

In Jerusalem, hundreds of Palestinian and Jewish protesters tussled with police near the site of the embassy.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, a coalition of mostly Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset, condemned the violence. “Anyone who believes in justice must hold Israel to account for this brutal crime,” he tweeted.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about the “shocking killing” in Gaza.

By nightfall, the clashes were mostly confined to Gaza.

East Jerusalem neighborhoods were quiet, and many residents appeared to go about their usual workday. Similarly, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank has been cautious about fueling anger in Gaza.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced three days of mourning for those killed in Gaza and declared a general strike in the West Bank to begin Tuesday.


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