Israel kills 55 Palestinians as US opens Jerusalem embassy
The opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem was overshadowed yesterday by bloodshed in Gaza, where at least 55 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in the deadliest day since the end of the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Less than 80km from where Ivanka Trump and other American dignitaries gathered in the afternoon sun to celebrate the embassy opening, the Gaza border was transformed into a scene of fire and chaos as tens of thousands of protesters faced Israeli snipers.
Israel's military said that it opened fire to stop Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, from using the protests as a distraction to break through the border fence and carry out attacks inside Israel.
Palestinians said the overwhelming majority of those killed were unarmed demonstrators while the Palestinian Authority accused Israel of carrying out "a terrible massacre" and called for international intervention to stop the killing.
Despite the bloodshed, US President Donald Trump hailed the opening as "a great day for Israel" and said he believed his decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would ultimately help forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
"For many years we failed to acknowledge the obvious. The plain reality that Israel's capital is Jerusalem," Mr Trump said in a video played at the ceremony. "Our greatest hope is for peace. The US remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement."
Many Arab and Muslim countries strongly condemned both the US and Israel.
"The United States has chosen to be a part of the problem rather than the solution with its latest step and has lost its mediating role in the peace process," said Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, in a speech in London.
Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary, pointed the finger at Hamas and said "Israel has the right to defend itself".
He told a press briefing: "The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response."
He later added: "This is a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt. I think the Israeli government has spent weeks trying to handle this without violence."
Palestinian health officials said 55 people were killed along the Gaza border, including six children under the age of 18. The youngest fatality appeared to be a 14-year-old boy named Ezzaldeen al-sammak. More than 1,200 others were shot and wounded during yesterday's protests, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
Around 100 Palestinians have now been killed in Gaza since protesters began a series of marches six weeks ago demanding the "Right of Return" - the right for Palestinians to go back to their forefathers' homes in what is today Israel.
Around 40,000 protesters gathered at 13 different locations along the barbwire fence which separates Israeli from Gaza, according to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), a far larger crowd than seen previously.
The IDF said it opened fire to prevent to stop the crowd from bursting through the fence. While the fence was damaged in places, no Palestinians came through. "We do not target anyone who does not pose a threat, either by trying to tear down the fence or running into Israel," said Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an IDF spokesman.
Human Rights Watch criticised Israel for using live rounds when there was no immediate threat to Israeli troops or civilians and said the policy had "resulted in a bloodbath that anyone could have foreseen".
Several Palestinian journalists were reportedly shot while covering the demonstrations.
Israel carried out a series of airstrikes on Hamas positions in response what it said were Hamas activities along the border, but the majority of the Palestinian fatalities were caused by sniper fire. The IDF said it had opened fire on three "terrorist squads" of Hamas operatives who were carrying guns and explosives and trying to breach the fence.
One Israeli soldier was lightly injured by a rock or a piece of shrapnel.
Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said that the protests would continue on today. "We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood," he said.
The idea of the weekly marches were originally conceived by independent Palestinian activists, but Hamas quickly put its organisational muscle behind them. The Islamist group is struggling with widespread discontent over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, but lacks the military strength to confront Israel and so has embraced the idea of large scale demonstrations.
Few of the speakers at the embassy ceremony made any mention of the violence in Gaza even as television networks carried the two events simultaneously in a jarring split screen.
"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," said Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law and point man on Middle East peace, in one of the few references to the situation in Gaza. (© Daily Telegraph, London)