Israel has kicked off festivities to celebrate the opening of the new United States embassy in Jerusalem, even as it bolstered its forces along the Gaza border and in the West Bank in anticipation of mass Palestinian protests of the move.
- President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner attended a ceremony along with other American VIPs
- Tens of thousands of people are expected to gather along the Israeli border in protest
- Benjamin Netanyahu has thanked Mr Trump for his “bold decision”
Ahead of the embassy’s formal opening at 11pm (AEST), Israel hosted a gala party at its Foreign Ministry with President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared Kushner and other American VIPs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Mr Trump’s “bold decision” in upending decades of US policy by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“It’s the right thing to do,” a smiling Mr Netanyahu told the jubilant crowd.
Mr Trump announced his decision on Jerusalem in December, triggering a joyous reaction from Mr Netanyahu’s nationalist government.
The move infuriated the Palestinians, who claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas halted ties with the Trump administration and declared it unfit to remain in its role as the sole mediator in peace talks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Mr Trump’s “bold decision”. (Reuters: Ronen Zvulun)
Mass protests planned in Gaza
The rival Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, has been staging a series of weekly demonstrations against a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory.
Those protests are to climax today, with tens of thousands of people expected to gather along the Israeli border in an event timed to coincide with the US embassy move.
Hamas has signalled that large crowds, numbering perhaps in the thousands, might try to break through the border fence to realise the “right of return” to lost homes.
Both the embassy move and the protests have symbolic timing. Mr Trump has said the opening is meant to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment.
The Palestinian protests also mark the date as the anniversary of their “naqba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of people fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding the event.
About two-thirds of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinian refugees.
A mass border breach could trigger potentially lethal Israeli force.
Forty-two Palestinians have been killed and over 1,800 have been wounded by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began on March 30.
The United Nations, European Union and rights groups have accused Israel of using excessive force against unarmed protesters.
Israel says it is protecting a sovereign border and accuses Hamas of using the unrest to plan and carry out attacks.
Marchers have thrown stones and burned tyres at the fence and flown flaming kites over it to try to set Israeli fields on fire.
Gaza border gate closed
Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli troops. (AP: Khalil Hamra)
On Friday, a Palestinian crowd attacked the main cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza, disrupting shipments of cooking fuel, gasoline and building materials, and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Israeli officials said it could take weeks or months to repair the crossing.
“Unfortunately, the crossing is closed today and will remain closed until the foreseeable future due to severe damage caused by Palestinian rioters,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman.
“It is still unclear how long it will take to fix and replace the necessary parts.”
The Israeli military announced that it bolstered forces on the Gaza border with combat battalions, special units, intelligence forces and snipers.
Israeli warplanes also dropped leaflets in Gaza, urging residents to stay far from the fence.
“You deserve a better government. You deserve a better future,” the leaflets said.
“Do not approach the security fence, nor participate in the Hamas display that is putting you in risk.”
A high-ranking delegation of Gaza’s Hamas rulers has headed to Egypt, amid diplomatic efforts aimed at containing the mass rally.
But one of the Hamas participants, Khalil al-Hayya, said there were no breakthroughs and the march would go on as planned today.
The army said it was also reinforcing its troops in the West Bank with several combat battalions and intelligence units in case of possible unrest there as well.
Israel is marking the 51st anniversary of its capture of east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. (AP: Ariel Schalit)
Sunday’s celebrations coincided with Israel’s “Jerusalem Day,” the 51st anniversary of what it refers to the city’s “unification” during the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel immediately annexed east Jerusalem — home to the city’s most sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites — in a move that has not received international recognition.
The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
In an annual ritual, tens of thousands of Israelis marched through Jerusalem’s Old City to mark the day. Revellers sang, danced and waved Israeli flags.
‘Thank you President Trump’
In a reflection of the deep sensitivities, dozens of countries — including Britain, France and Germany — skipped Sunday night’s celebration at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Mr Netanyahu, who frequently clashed with president Barack Obama, has found a welcome partner in Mr Trump.
Donald Trump visiting the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Jerusalem, last May. (AP: Evan Vucci)
The new administration has lined up solidly behind Mr Netanyahu in his dealings with the Palestinians and delighted him last week when it withdrew from the international nuclear deal with Iran, Mr Obama’s top foreign policy achievement.
Addressing the crowd on Sunday evening, Mr Netanyahu said Israelis would be “eternally grateful” for Mr Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.
“Thank you, President Trump, for your bold decision. Thank you for making the alliance between Israel and the United States stronger than ever,” he said.
Mr Netanyahu said Mr Trump’s decision recognised a 3,000-year Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the “truth” that Jerusalem will be Israel’s capital under any future peace deal.
“It’s been the capital of our state for the past 70 years. It will remain our capital for all time,” he said.
Mr Kushner and Ms Trump sat in the front row near Mr Netanyahu during the ceremony, but did not speak.
Mr Netanyahu called their presence a “national and international statement” that “touches our hearts”.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Mr Trump was fulfilling a key campaign promise by moving the embassy.
“The United States has no greater partner than Israel,” he said.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group in the US, expressed concern that the embassy move would backfire.
He accused the White House of putting the interests of a small group of hardliners ahead of the larger interest of promoting peace with the Palestinians.
“Making a move like this removes the US as a credible mediator,” he said.
The Palestinian ambassador to Washington sharply condemned the relocation of the US Embassy in a statement.
“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,” Husam Zomlot said.