Gaza has had its bloodiest day in years after Israeli forces shot and killed 55 Palestinians and wounded at least 1,200 as tens of thousands protested along the frontier against the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
The violent scenes contrasted sharply with the glossy inauguration of Washington’s new mission around 60 miles away in an affluent Jerusalem neighbourhood. The US president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, celebrated the opening to clapping and cheering from American and Israeli VIPs.
In Gaza’s hospitals, dozens of casualties were in a critical condition, and medics said the dead included a 14-year-old boy. There were reports that a man in a wheelchair who had been pictured using a slingshot had also been killed.
The sky was blackened with thick smoke as protesters lit tyres. Intermittent sniper fire was heard and crowds of protesters were seen rushing towards the fence, although Israel’s military said none had managed to breach it.
Fury and desperation at Trump’s December declaration on the embassy helped to ignite the six-week protest movement. To international condemnation, Israeli snipers have regularly fired on demonstrators in past rallies. Monday’s shootings raised the total deaths close to 100.
Demonstrations were set to culminate in a mass outcry against the embassy event on Monday, which soon became the bloodiest day in the coastal enclave since the 2014 war.
Gaza’s rulers Hamas has fought three conflicts with Israel but say they support peaceful ideals advocated by civilian protest leaders.
Donald Trump, who had tweeted that Monday was a “great day for Israel”, did not attend the embassy opening but spoke in a video message, saying he extended “a hand in friendship to Israel, the Palestinians and to all of their neighbours. May there be peace.”
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The bloodshed prompted international condemnation. The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, decried the “shocking killing of dozens,” while Amnesty International said the shootings were “another horrific example of the Israeli military using excessive force and live ammunition in a totally deplorable way”.
Turkey described the US embassy move as “legally null and void” and said it was recalling its ambassadors to the United States and Israel. South Africa also recalled its ambassador in protest at the “violent aggression carried out by Israeli armed forces” against a peaceful protest.
At the ceremony in Jerusalem, Washington’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, stood on a stage painted with the US flag and said: “Today’s historic event is attributed to the vision, courage, and moral clarity of one person to whom we owe an enormous and eternal debt of gratitude: President Donald J Trump.” The crowd cheered and gave a standing ovation.
The only direct reference to the bloodshed came from Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who said: “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.”
In Washington, the White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah was repeatedly challenged to condemn the Israeli response. “We believe Hamas is responsible for these tragic deaths,” he told reporters. “Their rather cynical exploitation of the situation is what’s leading to these deaths and we want it stopped.”
Israel has portrayed the protests as a terrorist ploy by Hamas. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister, told Israel Radio that anyone who approached the fence would be considered a terrorist. A foreign ministry spokesman labelled protesters “murderous rioters”.
The army said it had almost doubled the number of troops surrounding Gaza and in the occupied West Bank on Monday.
The Israel Defence Forces said in a statement: “The rioters are hurling firebombs and explosive devices towards the security fence and IDF forces, and are burning tires, throwing rocks and launching flaming objects in order to ignite fires in Israeli territory and harm IDF troops.”
Israel’s military said its troops had killed three “terrorists” attempting to place an explosive device adjacent to the fence in the southern area of the strip “under the cover of violent riots”.
Hamas has encouraged and funded the protests and said it would not stop people from attempting to break the metal fence. Loudspeakers at the frontier called for people to push through as Israeli drones dropped teargas on the crowds.
Until this week, no Israeli had been harmed since protests began on 30 March. An IDF spokesman, Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, said one soldier had been “slightly wounded by shrapnel” on Monday but he did not have details on the source of the injury.
No one had crossed the fence despite several attempts, Conricus said. “Our troops have not taken any sustained direct fire,” he added.
Protest organisers have called for an end to a decade-old Israeli-imposed blockade, and for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to be allowed to return to their ancestral homes.
Mosques in Gaza called for people to protest as a general strike was observed. Buses ferried residents to the perimeter. Black clouds billowed from piles of burning tyres – which organisers say are used as a smokescreen against Israeli snipers. People have been shot tens of metres from the fence.
“I’m here because of our land that we want back. We have nothing to lose,” said 25-year-old Mohammed Nabieh, who said he was the descendant of refugees from a village near the Israeli city of Ashdod. “Nobody cares about us. Why should we wait to die slowly?”
Large protests also took place throughout the occupied West Bank and inside Jerusalem at the same time as the embassy event.
Trump’s Jerusalem recognition dismayed Palestinians, who see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The holy city has been one of the most contentious issues in past negotiations, and broad international consensus has been that its status will be settled under a peace deal, although Trump has said Jerusalem is now “off the table”.
About 800 people attended the inauguration ceremony for the Jerusalem embassy. US ambassador Friedman, has moved his office from Tel Aviv into what had been a US consulate building.
Many Israelis have praised the decision to move the diplomatic mission. The Friends of Zion Museum has put up posters in Jerusalem saying: “Make Israel Great Again” and US flags have been hung from buildings in the city.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said Monday was a “glorious day”. “Remember this moment. This is history. President Trump, by recognising history you have made history,” he said to applause.
Palestinians, however, see the scheduling as an insult. This week they 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.
(c) Guardian News 2018