Tuesday 19 March 2019

Dozens of Palestinians killed as new US embassy opens in Jerusalem

Soldiers have opened fire on Palestinian demonstrators, leaving hundreds injured, during mass protests along the border.

A Palestinian woman hurls stones towards Israeli troops (AP)
A Palestinian woman hurls stones towards Israeli troops (AP)

By Fares Akram, Anne Flaherty, Catherine Lucey and Ilan Ben Zion

Israeli soldiers have shot and killed at least 41 Palestinians during mass protests along the Gaza border, overshadowing the inauguration of the new US embassy in Jerusalem.

In a show of anger fuelled by the embassy move, protesters set tyres ablaze and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops across the border.

The Israeli military said its troops had come under fire, and accused protesters of trying to break through the border fence. It said troops shot and killed three Palestinians who were trying to plant a bomb.

The steadily climbing death toll and wall-to-wall condemnation of the embassy move by the Arab world has raised new doubts about US president Donald Trump’s ambitions to broker what he once said would be the Middle East “deal of the century”.

By mid-afternoon, at least 41 Palestinians – including five minors – were killed, the Gaza health ministry said. At least 772 other protesters were wounded, including 86 who were in a serious or critical condition.

At the same time, just 45 miles away in Jerusalem, the opening ceremony of the embassy got under way, with Mr Trump saying in a video address that the move had been “a long time coming”.

(PA Graphics)

US ambassador David Friedman welcomed the crowd as he declared the new embassy open.

Jared Kushner and his wife Ivanka Trump, both senior aides to the president, led a high-powered American delegation that also included the treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and four Republican senators.

In Gaza, the Hamas-led protest was meant to be the biggest yet in a campaign against a decade-old blockade of the territory. The Israeli military estimated a turnout of about 40,000, saying this fell short of what Hamas had hoped for.

The march was also directed at the inauguration of the embassy.

Mr Trump added in his video address that the new embassy was opening “many, many years ahead of schedule”, adding that the US had “failed to acknowledge the obvious” for many years.

Palestinian protesters carry an injured man who was shot by Israeli troops (AP)

He said that he remains committed to “facilitating a lasting peace agreement”, and that he was “extending a hand of friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and to all of their neighbours”.

Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a key Trump campaign promise – infuriated the Palestinians, who seek east Jerusalem as a future capital.

The clash is the biggest showdown in years between Israel’s military and Gaza’s Hamas rulers along the volatile border. The sides have largely observed a ceasefire since the 2014 cross-border war – their third in a decade.

The protests mark the culmination of a campaign, led by Hamas and fuelled by despair among Gaza’s two million people, to break the blockade of the territory imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Since weekly border marches began in late March, 83 Palestinian protesters have been killed and more than 2,500 wounded by Israeli army fire. Hamas said four members, including three security men, were among the dead on Monday.

Mr Trump's daughter Ivanka and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner arrive for the opening ceremony (AP)

Ismail Radwan, a senior Hamas figure, said the mass border protests against Israel will continue “until the rights of the Palestinian people are achieved”.

Most of the casualties were in the southern Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah. Israeli forces were firing volleys of tear gas to disperse the crowds, and the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard. Sirens were constantly wailing as the wounded were carried to nearby ambulances. Groups of young activists repeatedly approached the fence, but were quickly scattered by gunfire and tear gas.

The timing of Monday’s events was deeply symbolic, both to Israel and the Palestinians.

A Palestinian woman walks past burning tyres near the Israeli border fence, east of Khan Younis (AP)

The US said it chose the date to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment. But it also marks the anniversary of what Palestinians call their “nakba”, or catastrophe, a reference to the uprooting of hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled from present-day Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.

Mr Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was welcomed by Israel and condemned by the Palestinians.

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community. The Palestinians seek the city’s eastern half as the capital of a future state.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has cut ties with the Trump administration and declared it unfit to mediate peace talks.

Palestinian protesters hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest on the border (AP)

Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as a capital and view the Trump administration’s change in policy as a blatant show of pro-Israel bias. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly praised Mr Trump’s decision to upend decades of US policy by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

European foreign ministers have said the embassy move is unwise and likely to exacerbate tensions in the region. Their comments come after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania blocked the full 28-nation European Union from publishing a statement about the US move.

Press Association

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