Tuesday 24 September 2019

Joy in Jerusalem, despair in Gaza: the jarring juxtaposition that threatens further chaos

Palestinian demonstrators burn representations of US flags. Photo: Reuters
Palestinian demonstrators burn representations of US flags. Photo: Reuters

Adam Taylor in Washington

On Monday afternoon, a US delegation that included President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and other White House officials celebrated the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "glorious day" that had "made history".

Mr Trump himself appeared via video link and asked God to bless the embassy. "May there be peace," he said.

There was not. At the same time, along Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, a humanitarian nightmare was unfolding. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were protesting not only the opening of the embassy but also the desperate decline in living standards in Gaza.

Near Gaza City, protesters were urged by organisers to breach the fence to enter Israel. Israeli soldiers responded not only with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets but also live ammunition.

At least 61 Palestinians were dead, according to local health officials, making Monday the bloodiest day in the enclave since the 2014 war with Israel.

The two simultaneous events created a jarring juxtaposition. On social media and cable news, footage of Trump administration officials laughing and celebrating with Israeli leaders appeared next to footage of largely unarmed protesters in Gaza wounded or dying as the result of Israeli gunfire.

The images threatened to spark chaos in the region, and perhaps further afield. South Africa and Turkey have so far recalled their ambassadors to Israel, according to reports. Ankara also withdrew its ambassador to Washington. The US military has sent additional Marines to guard a number of embassies in the region.

There is plenty of Palestinian anger at Mr Trump's decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He did so while recognising the ancient city as Israel's capital, causing outrage among Palestinians who believe he is ignoring their claim to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

But the main reason for the current protest movement is the dire living conditions inside Gaza. Both Israel and Egypt have blockaded the territory since 2007, and border-crossing points between Gaza and its neighbours are virtually sealed. As a result, the Gaza Strip's economy has all but crumbled.

People's lives are coming to a standstill as they lose jobs, educational opportunities and any semblance of hope for the future. For weeks, people have been taking out their anger by attending protests that frequently turned violent.

No matter why they are protesting, though, the sight of Palestinians being shot dead on Mr Trump's big day in Jerusalem will be a problem for the US - and his reaction probably won't help.

Mr Trump, ever alert to news coverage, implored Twitter followers to watch Fox News's live airing of the embassy opening.

But as cable news coverage began shifting to the violence in Gaza, the administration had little response. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "turned his back and walked away" when asked about the scenes, according to CNN.

White House deputy communications director Raj Shah called the bloodshed a "gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt" by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

Even before Monday's violence, the Trump administration's handling of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was causing regional problems. Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal Washington think-tank, said he had travelled in the region and believes Mr Trump's actions have undercut attempts to build closer ties with US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

"Because the move doesn't yet seem to be linked to any clear strategy aimed at resolving the conflict, it exposes these partners to criticisms from their own publics as well as their regional adversaries like Iran," said Mr Katulis.

Even among those who support Mr Trump's embassy move, there was discomfort at the way the administration has handled the issue.

Dan Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, has spoken out in favour of the decision to move the US embassy. On Monday, however, he said the Trump administration had missed an opportunity to announce the move as part of a broader two-state peace plan that would have made clear Jerusalem would be the Palestinian capital, too.

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, sounded a pessimistic note. The Trump administration, he argued, is now "unapologetically supportive of Israel's denial of Palestinian rights, dropping all pretences of peace-making".

But is there anything the Trump administration could do to regain the trust of Palestinians?

"No," Mr Munayyer said, "you can't expect the arsonists to put out the fire". (© The Washington Post)

Irish Independent

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