Israelis march in national pride as Palestinians ready protest ahead of US embassy move to Jerusalem
Israelis basked in national pride and pro-American fervour on Sunday as tens of thousands marched in Jerusalem, a day ahead of the controversial US embassy move to the disputed city.
Palestinians readied for their own protests on Monday over the embassy’s inauguration, including another mass demonstration in the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel.
The march began a week of high tension between Israelis and Palestinians, highlighted by the embassy inauguration to be attended by a Washington delegation including US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House advisers.
They arrived in Israel on Sunday.
The embassy move will take place on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, while the following day Palestinians will mark the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Palestinian protests are also planned for Tuesday.
For Israelis, Sunday was Jerusalem Day, an annual celebration of the “reunification” of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.
This year’s celebration took on added significance due to the embassy move, and the march to the Western Wall included many hardline religious nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state.
Dressed in white and waving Israeli flags, marchers filed through central Jerusalem toward the Old City with music blaring, including the song “Toy” by Israel’s Netta Barzilai, who won the Eurovision Song Contest.
Some had American flags, while banners celebrating US President Donald Trump were hung by a pro-Israel evangelical Christian organisation.
Speaking to journalists in the Old City, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat hailed the US embassy move as the beginning of “a new world order”.
And Jerusalem premier league football club Beitar Jerusalem said it was renaming itself “Beitar Trump Jerusalem”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – bolstered in recent days by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal – opened a special cabinet meeting at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum by again lauding the embassy move.
He later spoke at a reception welcoming the US delegation.
“Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years,” Netanyahu said.
“It’s been the capital of our state for the past 70 years. It will remain our capital for all time.”
US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, the head of the Washington delegation, called the embassy move “a long overdue recognition of reality.”
Police and the Israeli military planned major security deployments.
Around 1,000 police officers will be positioned around the US embassy and surrounding neighbourhoods for Monday’s inauguration, said spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Israel’s army said it would almost double the number of troops surrounding the Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.
On Sunday, scuffles broke out between Israelis visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem’s Old City, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and Palestinian security officers.
Jordan, the custodian of the site, sent a letter of protest to Israel condemning this as a “provocation by extremists”, a spokesman said.
Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions and police said a number of visitors were removed for not following the rules.
“It is not a provocation. It’s our property,” said Nili Naoun, 42, an Israeli who arrived at the holy site with her family at 7.00am.
There were already tensions in the weeks before the embassy move.
Fifty-four Palestinians have been killed in protests and clashes since March 30 along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.
No Israelis have been wounded and the military has faced criticism over the use of live fire.
Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, attacks and damage to the border fence, while accusing Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the blockaded Gaza Strip, of seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence.
On Sunday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya travelled to Cairo for talks amid speculation over whether Egypt is attempting to calm the situation.
The embassy move has provoked Palestinian anger and led them to freeze ties with the White House.
But on Sunday top US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said they could still push forward the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“We’re hard at work on it,” said Pompeo.
Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the conflict.
Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.