U.S. embassy in Jerusalem

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

US Embassy Opens In Jerusalem Amid Deadly Gaza Protests

May 14, 2018 - 12:14 pm
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (WCBS 880/AP) — Amid deadly clashes along the Israeli-Palestinian border, President Donald Trump's top aides and supporters are celebrating the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem as a campaign promised fulfilled. 

Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, along with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, were leading the ceremonies. Also on hand were Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

In a videotaped message to the opening ceremony Monday — which took place only about 45 miles from the bloodshed on the Gaza border, Trump said the new embassy has been a long time coming.'' Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv was one of Trump's key campaign promise that was welcomed by Israel. He said his "greatest hope'' is for peace and that the United States "remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement.''

"A great day for Israel!" Trump tweeted earlier.

But the move has infuriated the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as their capital and have said that the move disqualifies the U.S. as a Mideast peace mediator.

Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least 52 Palestinians during mass protests along the Gaza border on Monday. Another 1,200 were wounded.

It was the deadliest day there since a devastating 2014 cross-border war and cast a shadow over Israel's festive inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem.

In a show of anger fueled by the embassy move, protesters set tires on fire, sending plumes of black smoke into the air, and hurled firebombs and stones toward Israeli troops across the border. Later on Monday, Israeli forces fired from tanks, sending protesters fleeing to take cover.

The military said its troops came under fire in some areas, and said protesters tried to break through the border fence. It said troops shot and killed three Palestinians trying to plant a bomb.

Monday's steadily climbing death toll and wall-to-wall condemnation of the embassy move by the Arab world raised new doubts about Trump's ambitions to broker what he once said would be the Mideast "deal of the century."

Gaza Protests
AP Photo/Adel Hana

By late in the day, at least 52 Palestinians, including some minors, were killed, the Gaza Health Ministry said. One of the minors was identified as a girl.

Dozens of the wounded were in serious or critical condition.

At the embassy ceremony in Jerusalem, Trump son-in-law and chief Mideast adviser Jared Kushner placed the blame on the Gaza protesters.

"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," he said.

But CBS News Correspondent Seth Doane told WCBS 880’s Steve Scott and Michael Wallace the ceremony felt for the most part like being in a bubble. It was held under a tent in front of the new embassy, watching “this very sober, reflective event filled with kind of national pride.”

“It was interesting, as we were there, the press was all seated to one side, and it was this very kind of quiet event,” Doane said, “and as more and more reports came out of more and more deaths, the reporters started reporting that, so you started on one side to hear death toll rising, just in these little conversations; little reports that the others were making, and on the other side, you were hearing a completely different story.”

Kushner and Trump daughter Ivanka led a high-powered American delegation that also included the treasury secretary and four Republican senators at the ceremony.

The new embassy will temporarily operate from an existing U.S. consulate, until a decision has been made on a permanent location.

In Gaza, the Hamas-led protest was meant to be the biggest yet in a weeks-long 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.

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

Monday marked the biggest showdown in years between Israel's military and Gaza's Hamas rulers along the volatile border. The sides have largely observed a cease-fire since the 2014 war — their third in a decade.

The protests mark the culmination of a campaign, led by Hamas and fueled by despair among Gaza's 2 million people, to break the decade-old border 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, 79 Palestinian protesters have been killed and more than 2,300 wounded by Israeli army fire. Hamas said four members, including three security men, were among the dead Monday.

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

"Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem will be a disaster on the American administration and a black day in the history of the American people because they are partners with the occupation and its aggression against the Palestinian people," he added.

Throughout the day, sirens wailed 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.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the army had set up additional "layers" of security in and around communities near the border to defend Israeli civilians. He said there already had been several "significant attempts" to break through the fence.

"Even if the fence is breached, we will be able to protect Israeli civilians from attempts to massacre or kidnap or kill them," he said.

In a statement, the army said troops had shot and killed three Palestinians who attempted to plant a bomb along the fence. It also said an aircraft had targeted a Hamas post in northern Gaza after Israeli troops came under fire.

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

The U.S. 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 what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding Israel's independence.

A majority of Gaza's 2 million people are descendants of refugees, and the protests have been billed as the "Great March of Return" to long-lost homes in what is now Israel.

In one of the border areas east of Gaza City, Mohammed Hamami, a 40-year-old civil servant, joined a crowd of hundreds of protesters, along with his mother and five children.

"Today we are here to send a message to Israel and its allies that we will never give up on our land," he said.

Some protesters moved to within about 150 meters of the border fence. A reporter saw two men who tried to advance further being shot in the legs by Israeli troops.

Clouds of black smoke from burning tires rose into the air. Earlier Monday, Israeli drones dropping incendiary material had pre-emptively set ablaze some of the tires collected by activists.

Protesters have used the thick smoke as cover against Israeli snipers perched on high sand berms on the other side of the border. The army accuses Hamas of using the protests as cover to plan or carry out attacks.

Leaflets dropped over Gaza by army jets warned that those approaching the border "jeopardize" their lives. The warning said the army is "prepared to face all scenarios and will act against every attempt to damage the security fence or harm IDF soldiers or Israeli civilians."

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 Mideast war and annexed it in a move not recognized by the international community. The Palestinians seek the city's eastern half as the capital of a future state.

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

Saeb Erekat, a senior Abbas aide, said Monday that Trump had violated a promise to hold off on moving the embassy to give peace talks a chance and that his administration is "based on lies."

Erekat said the Trump administration has "become part of the problem, not part of the solution."

In the West Bank, several dozen Palestinian stone-throwers clashed with Israeli troops on the outskirts of Jerusalem, with no immediate reports of injuries. Earlier Monday, several thousand gathered in the West Bank city of Ramallah to protest the inauguration of the new embassy.

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 Trump's decision to upend decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Although Trump has said his declaration does not set the final borders of the city, it is seen by both Israel and the Palestinians as taking Israel's side in the most sensitive issue in their conflict.

Only two countries, Guatemala and Paraguay, have said they will follow suit. Most of the world maintains embassies in Tel Aviv, saying the Jerusalem issue must first be resolved.

In a reflection of the deep sensitivities, dozens of countries — including Britain, France and Germany — skipped a celebration Sunday night at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.European foreign ministers said Monday the embassy move was unwise and likely to exacerbate tensions. Their comments come after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania blocked the full 28-nation European Union from publishing a statement about the U.S. move.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)