As the number of Palestinian protesters killed by Israeli fire in Gaza on Monday continued to rise, the United States celebrated the official opening of its embassy in Jerusalem in fulfillment of President Trump’s decision and declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The festive inauguration ceremony was scheduled to take place on 14 May to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, just one day before Palestinians commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nakba in 1948 and the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.
Nakba Day, on 15 May, marks Israel’s forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, massacres of tens of thousands, the destructions of several hundred villages, and the takeover of millions of acres of Palestinian land and property, to make way for the state of Israel.
Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, have been demonstrating since Land Day on March 30 against Israeli occupation and oppression, and demanding their internationally recognised right to return to their homes.
It is against this backdrop that the Trump administration chose to realise the highly controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, against the principles of international law and legal frameworks, against the international community’s consensus, and against decades of US policy and wisdom.
Although the ‘opening of the embassy’ on Monday amounted to nothing more than a new plaque placed on the existing US consulate in Jerusalem, this largely symbolic step has important political significance. The decision by the Trump administration is not only a blow to any prospects for a peace process, but also displays complete disregard for the continuous suffering of Palestinians for over seven decades and for Palestinian life and rights.
Activists shared images of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in smiles, juxtaposed with pictures of Palestinians in Gaza being shot by Israeli snipers. In his speech at the opening ceremony, Kushner referenced the injustices of the Holocaust and maintained that the embassy move was “the right thing to do”.
More than ever today, the international community faces a critical juncture, between courting right-wing extremism and bigotry in Trump and Netanyahu’s company, or taking action to support human rights and a just peace.
A parallel reality: Celebrations, bloodshed and “truth”
At least 60 unarmed Palestinians were killed on Monday, including children, and more than 2,700 wounded as a result of Israeli live ammunition, firebombs, and tear gas grenades, in the bloodiest day since the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza.
But the happy Trump delegation did not let dead Palestinians nor 70 years of dispossession and oppression ruin its celebratory ceremony. As 60 Palestinians were being shot dead, the lineup of speakers at the embassy opening praised the move as a step for advancing peace. Absent from the speeches, however, was any mention of the Palestinians or how Israeli killing of unarmed protesters was going to bring about peace.
The indirect reference to Palestinians came from Jared Kushner, who blamed Palestinians for the Israeli killings. “As we have seen from the protests of the last month and even today those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution,” he said. Prime Minister Netanyahu focused on the “glorious day” for the Jewish people and reiterated the denial of Palestinian rights and their existence, “We are in Jerusalem and we are here to stay”.
While the successive speakers considered the embassy move to somehow help advance the cause of peace, the death toll in Gaza was rising less than 60 miles from where they stood in celebration.
Amnesty International called the current situation in Gaza “an abhorrent violation of international law & human rights”, while Human Rights Watch issued a statement condemning the Israeli policy to fire at Palestinian protesters “irrespective of whether there is an immediate threat to life”. President Trump tweeted “A big day for Israel. Congratulations!.”
This stark contrast shows the extremist tendencies of the Trump administration and how out of touch with reality it really is.
Ironically, notable in the remarks of most speakers at the inauguration was the theme of truth. President Trump’s pre-recorded video message reiterated this false notion that Jerusalem is in fact and has always been the capital of Israel, while remaining committing to facilitating peace. US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, the two US pastors present, Jared Kushner and Netanyahu all spoke of the “truth” that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.
Speaking of truth – in the factual not the religious sense – here are a few important truths for the Trump administration to keep in mind:
First, Israeli control over Jerusalem was instituted by force and against international law and UN resolutions, and therefore Jerusalem is considered under a “hostile military occupation”.
Second, Palestinian protests in Gaza are not “clashes” as there is a buffer zone and no direct contact between the protesters and the Israeli army, and those protests are not taking place at the “Gaza-Israel border” as Israel has never defined its borders.
The Israeli forces are targeting unarmed Palestinians on their own land who pose no threat to them, in violation of international law (no Israelis have been wounded since the protests started in March).
Finally, despite what Israeli propagandists say, the protests do not represent a grand plan to destroy Israel. The Palestinians have in fact recognised Israel on multiple occasions, but it is Israel that has not recognised a Palestinian state and continues to violate international law and human rights on a daily basis.
It is high time for a serious effort by political leaders in the United States and around the world to recognise the facts and uphold international law.
Doing the right(-wing) thing: Division in the international establishment?
The high-profile US delegation to the opening ceremony, under the leadership of senior aides and Trump family members Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, included special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process Jason Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Republican senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Dean Heller were also present. Remarkably, Kushner, Greenblatt and Friedman all have links with illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The Trump delegation also included two controversial US pastors, John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, who spoke at the opening ceremony. Jeffress has made statements in the past that Jews are going to hell, that Islam is “evil, violent and false,” and a religion of paedophiles.
His anti-LGBT rhetoric is well known, as is his claim that Obama was paving the way for the antiChrist.
Hagee, for his part, described Adolf Hitler as a hunter sent by God. To add to this ensemble of religious extremism, the delegation was blessed by Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who recently compared black people to monkeys, and on Monday anointed Trump the “King of Mercies”.
These extremist right-wing elements seem to unite the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government, with complete disregard for anti-Semitism and intolerance.
Democrats were notably absent from the delegation.
Although some democratic members of Congress sent their congratulations, such as New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who issued a statement saying “Every nation should have the right to choose its capital,” many more remained silent. A select few condemned the embassy move as detrimental to peace and objected to Israeli use of force against Palestinian protesters.
Senator Dianne Feinstein called the situation in Gaza heartbreaking and desperate, and noted that Jerusalem as a final-status issue should be “resolved as part of peace negotiations”.
Representative Marc Pocan tweeted that “there are better ways to deal with the tensions in #Gaza than bullets”. Representative Barbara Lee also denouncedthe killings in Gaza, “The US should be laying the groundwork for peace not fueling conflict in the region with an unnecessary & counterproductive embassy move.”
Betty McCollum tweeted that the embassy opening and the killings in Gaza “advance Netanyahu’s agenda of occupation and oppression” and that Trump’s policies are “fueling conflict, abandoning diplomatic efforts to achieve peace”.
The embassy move, and the events on Monday, may mark the end of bipartisan support for Israel, and the United States may see a new era for US policy towards Palestine/Israel.
As the alliance between the Trump administration, the Christian right, and the Israeli right-wing government celebrated the embassy move, condemnations poured in from around the world.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the “shocking killing of dozens, injury of hundreds by Israeli live fire,” and said that “the right to life must be respected.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the German foreign ministry called on Israel to respect the principle of proportionality and “respect the right to peaceful protest”.
British prime minister Theresa May and French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian expressed concern about the violence.
Egypt and other Muslim and Arab countries joined the chorus of denunciations, with Turkey’s foreign ministry calling Israel’s actions a “massacre” against “Palestinians participating in peaceful demonstrations”. Turkey later announced that it was recalling its ambassadors from Tel Aviv and Washington for consultations.
The recent events in Gaza and Jerusalem highlight the schism in world opinion, and further the gap between the right-wing camp and the voices of justice.
These events may signal a shift in international policy, but they certainly present a critical moment for the international community to move beyond lip service and take genuine action to achieve a just peace.
Seventy years on, world leaders must uphold international law and human rights, and counter the extremist direction in which the Trump-Netanyahu alliance is taking the region and world.
It is time to move the conversation on, and hold Israel accountable for its abuses and violations. Contrary to Kushner’s words, Trump’s embassy move is not “doing the right thing,” but doing the right-wing thing.
This article was first published in The New Arab on May 15, 2018