Israeli forces killed at least 55 Palestinians in protests along the Gaza border on Monday in a wave of gunfire condemned as a “massacre” that overshadowed the inauguration of the new United States embassy in Jerusalem.
The move to recognise the contested city as Israel’s capitalfulfilled US President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge that energised the Israeli far-right but enraged the Palestinians who said his decision had destroyed any hope of peace.
It was the deadliest day of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 2014 Gaza War between Israel and Hamas, the territory’s rulers.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned Israeli "massacres" and announced three days of mourning for those killed. He said the relocation of the US embassy had "insulted the world," creating a new "American settler outpost" in Jerusalem and fostering instability in the region.
The Pentagon, bracing for a backlash after the embassy move, increased security at embassies in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, according to Arabic broadcaster Alhurra.
Monday’s victims were all shot dead by Israeli forces, the Gaza Health Ministry said, as violent clashes broke out in five spots along the border. The toll included eight children under-16, the ministry said. One was identified as a girl and another, a 14-year-old. On Tuesday it was announced that an eight-month-old girl had died as a result of inhaling tear gas.
At least 2,400 people were wounded by Israeli fire or injured through other means, such as tear gas, with some canisters dropped from hovering Israeli drones.
Palestinian health officials said 1,204 Palestinians were shot and wounded, a toll that included 116 who were in serious or critical condition. About 1,200 others suffered other injuries.
Anger among Palestinians erupted against the new diplomatic mission which they view as a tacit US backing of Israeli rule over the contested city. The Gaza protest was the largest in a round of weekly demonstrations in the coastal enclave, with tens of thousands participating, many of whom rushed the Israeli fence close to where soldiers were firing.
Protesters threw stones towards Israeli troops, flew kites they had set on fire and burned tyres that set streams of black smoke into the sky. The Israeli military said some of the crowd threw or planted explosives near the border. Israel’s air force conducted strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza after alleged militant fire across the border.
The unrest came a day before the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the day that Palestinians commemorate as their day of “catastrophe,” when 700,000 Arabs were expelled or fled during the creation of Israel as a state in 1948.
There have been weeks of protests leading up to Monday’s opening ceremony, timed to coincide with that anniversary. In total, at least 90 Palestinians – including journalists – have now been shot and killed by Israeli forces since the weekly demonstrations began on March 30. Hundreds more have been wounded.
At the same time, Israeli officials and senior aides to US President Donald Trump celebrated in Jerusalem as the embassy move was confirmed at an inauguration ceremony that took place 70 kilometres from the bloodshed. It was marked by standing ovations, Israeli symbols of nationalism and a presence of the Christian evangelical base that Mr Trump has played to in the early years of his presidency.
In a pre-recorded message, Mr Trump said he remained committed to peace between Israel and Palestine. He promptly tweeted: “Big day for Israel. Congratulations!”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long lobbied for the embassy move, hailed a “glorious day for Israel”.
Both US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, a prominent supporter of Israel's West Bank settlements, and Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner also spoke at the ceremony. None made a direct reference to the shootings in Gaza, although Mr Kushner said protesters were "part of the problem".
Mr Netanyahu took to social media to defend the use of force by Israeli soldiers.
"Every country has the obligation to defend its borders," Netanyahu said on Twitter.
"The Hamas terror organisation declares its intention to destroy Israel and send thousands to break through the border fence in order to achieve this aim. We will continue to act firmly in order to defend our sovereignty and our citizens".
The US State Department did not return a request for comment on unfolding events in Gaza, but the bloody picture juxtaposed what was planned to be a remarkable day for the Trump administration. There were also demonstrations outside the new US embassy, where left-wing Israelis clashed with police.
The president’s move broke with 70 years of both US foreign policy and an international consensus that the status of the holy city should be negotiated between both parties.
Jerusalem is a city revered by Muslims, Jews and Christians, hosting some of the holiest sites for each faith.
The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state, which would also include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Hamas, the Islamist rulers of Gaza, called for a new intifada, or uprising, in response to the killings.
"The Palestinian response must be clear in Gaza and in the West Bank. There is no other choice but to light the fire in Gaza and in the West Bank in response to what happened," said Deputy Leader Khalil Al Hayya.
Middle Eastern leaders and European officials were quick to round on Israel and condemn its use of force.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the US had lost its Middle East mediating role after following through with the move. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri said: “On the eve of Nakba Day on May 15, the US administration declares another catastrophe day, May 14," in reference to the Palestinian day of "disaster" that followed the creation of Israel in 1948.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called Monday for all parties to "act responsibly to prevent a new flare-up" while British Prime Minister Theresa May's spokesman said London was "concerned by the reports of violence and loss of life in Gaza" and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini demanded “utmost restraint” by all parties.
The Arab League will hold emergency talks on Wednesday to discuss Washington's "illegal" decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a senior official said.
The meeting will focus on "ways of countering the illegal decision by the United States to move the embassy to Jerusalem", the organisation's deputy secretary general for Palestinian affairs, Saeed Abu Ali, said.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking to reporters in Vienna, said the Gaza bloodshed showed the need for a political solution.
"There is no Plan B to a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace," he said.
The protests are scheduled to culminate on Tuesday, which will mark the commemoration of the Nakba, or "catastrophe," that has underpinned the six weeks of protests.