JERUSALEM (AFP) – The United States moves its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Monday after months of global outcry, Palestinian anger and exuberant praise from Israelis over President Donald Trump’s decision tossing aside decades of precedent.
While a White House delegation and Israeli officials gather for the inauguration ceremony Monday afternoon, Palestinians are expected to protest in large numbers near the Gaza border with Israel and perhaps elsewhere.
Hundreds were already beginning to gather in Gaza on Monday morning and preparations were being made. Piles of tyres were being delivered to the border to be set alight and buses were shuttling demonstrators from cities to the border area.
There are concerns the Gaza protests less than 100 kilometres (60 miles) away will turn deadly if Palestinians attempt to damage or cross the fence with Israeli snipers positioned on the other side.
The inauguration that follows Trump’s December 6 recognition of the disputed city as Israel’s capital also comes at a time of heightened regional tensions.
It follows Trump’s announcement last week that the United States is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and Israeli strikes two days later on dozens of Iranian targets in Syria.
Those strikes came after rocket fire toward Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights that Israel blamed on Iran.
The Trump administration has vowed to restart the moribund Middle East peace process but the embassy move has inflamed feelings.
On Sunday, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a new message saying America’s decision was evidence that “appeasement” has failed Palestinians, as he urged Muslims to carry out jihad against the United States, according to a transcript provided by the SITE monitoring agency.
Monday’s inauguration ceremony at 4:00 pm (1300 GMT) will include some 800 guests — though not Trump himself — at what until now had been a US consulate building in Jerusalem.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will lead the Washington delegation that includes Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
‘Capital for all time’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called Trump’s decision “historic”, welcomed them at a reception on Sunday.
“Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years,” he said.
“It’s been the capital of our state for the past 70 years. It will remain our capital for all time.” Sullivan called the embassy “a long overdue recognition of reality.”
Saeb Erekat, Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary-general, called it a “hostile act against international law”.
It “places the US on the side of the occupying power, Israel, which continues to oppress the Palestinian people and to colonise their lands towards destroying the very possibility of reaching a just, comprehensive and lasting peace,” he said in a statement.
Police and the Israeli military planned major security deployments. Around 1,000 police officers will be positioned around the embassy for the inauguration, said spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Israel’s army said it would almost double the number of troops surrounding Gaza and in the occupied West Bank.
It also dropped leaflets warning Gazans to stay away from the fence, including one with a photo of the Champs-Elysees boulevard in Paris and the caption: “Gaza 2025? The choice is in your hands.”
Israelis began celebrating on Sunday, as tens of thousands of marched in Jerusalem, some holding American flags, to mark Jerusalem Day.
The annual event is an Israeli 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.
Beyond the disputed nature of Jerusalem, the date of the embassy move is also key. May 14 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel.
The following day, Palestinians mark the “Nakba”, or catastrophe, commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Palestinian protests are planned on both days.
‘Off the table’
There have already been weeks of protests and clashes along the Gaza border, with 54 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire there since March 30.
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
Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
In the decades since 1967, international consensus has been that the city’s status must be negotiated between the two sides, but Trump broke with that to global outrage.
He has argued that it helps make peace possible by taking Jerusalem “off the table”, but many have pointed out he has not announced any concessions in return from Israel.
Trump’s initial decision led to a series of protests in various Middle Eastern and Muslim countries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday insisted the US was “hard at work” on the peace process, which he declared was “most decidedly not dead”.