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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Surreal scenes as US opens Jerusalem embassy

Israeli PM hails 'great day for peace' as Gazans killed by the score

White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump speaks during the opening ceremony at the US consulate that will act as the new US embassy in Jerusalem, Israel, 14 May 2018. The decision, condemned by Palestinians who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, prompted worldwide protests and was met with widespread international criticism. Abir Sultan / EPA
White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump speaks during the opening ceremony at the US consulate that will act as the new US embassy in Jerusalem, Israel, 14 May 2018. The decision, condemned by Palestinians who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, prompted worldwide protests and was met with widespread international criticism. Abir Sultan / EPA

In one of the more surreal moments of Monday’s inauguration of the new American embassy in Jerusalem, Hagit Yasso performed a song for peace. “Salaam, for us and for all the world,” the striking Ethiopian-Israeli sang, using the Arabic designation.

Meanwhile, 70 kilometres away on the Gazan border, Israeli soldiers were killing 52 Palestinian protesters as tens of thousands massed at the frontier in the worst violence since 2014. The fatalities, including eight children under 16, threaten to ignite rocket attacks from Gaza, which could in turn put Israel and Hamas back on a war footing.

But there was little acknowledgment of this during the 90-minute ceremony, which was instead marked by standing ovations for US President Donald Trump in a joyous celebration of American support for Israeli nationalism and its acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital.

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The event culminated with the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump helping US Treasury Secretary Steven Menuchin to unveil the new embassy plaque. Despite the move being made under his order, President Trump did not attend.

Gaza was so far away that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could say "this is a great day for Israel, America and the fantastic partnership between them. It is also a great day for peace."

He went on to say that peace can only be built on truth, "and the truth is that Jerusalem has always been and will always be the capital of the Jewish people."

During the ceremony, a Jewish blessing said on joyous occasions and holidays was recited three times: Once by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, once by Netanyahu and once by US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an orthodox Jew and strong supporter of the Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. The blessing they invoked praised god for "keeping us alive and sustaining us to reach this moment."

President Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner referred to Jerusalem as the "eternal heart of the Jewish people." Israel, he said – invoking a favourite line of Israeli spokesmen – "is the only land in the Middle East where people of all faiths worship freely."

Of the Palestinians in Gaza protesting – and being killed – Mr Kushner said: "Those provoking violence are part of the problem, not the solution.”

Mr Netanyahu's only reference to Gaza came after he applauded the Israeli army's 1967 capture of the Noble Sanctuary, known to Palestinians as the Haram Al Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. "Our brave soldiers are protecting the border of Israel today,” he said. “We salute them all."

In a nod to Mr Trump’s evangelical Christian support base, US Baptist pastor John Hagee was called upon to give the closing benediction. "We thank you lord for the joy of living and seeing this glorious and historic day,” he said. “Jerusalem is the city of God, the heartbeat of Israel. Jerusalem is where the messiah will come and establish the kingdom that never ends. Thank you lord for the courage of our President Donald Trump in establishing the truth of 3000 years ago that Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of the Jewish people."

Rather than heralding the second coming of the messiah, analysts predicted the embassy move would mark a new and dangerous era for the Palestinians. A unilateralist US may embolden an unbridled Israel towards steamrolling Palestinian statehood prospects and consolidating Israeli lordship over the occupied West Bank.

"Israel will have a free hand, it will consolidate the occupation transferring it from temporary to permanent," said vice president of Bir Zeit University Ghassan Khatib. "There will be extensive expansion of settlements. What Israel thought it could consolidate in fifty years it now feels it can do in five years."

The embassy opening also forecloses the notion of a compromise solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, analysts suggest. According to the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian agreement that Washington witnessed, Jerusalem's final status was to be negotiated. But in Trump's own words, the US has taken Jerusalem "off the table" of negotiations. "Israel and the United States realise they can enforce their vision without negotiations," said Khatib.

Although the Trump administration speaks of preparing a peace initiative, the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem suggests the political process is dead, said Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "The political process since 1993 was designed on UN resolutions and international law, not unilateralism and imposition of one side on the other. Here Trump has decided to lay down his own rules."

In announcing his embassy decision in December, Mr Trump said it amounted to "nothing more and nothing less than a recognition of reality." The same logic is to be applied to Israeli settlements, which are illegal but are "real" facts on the ground. A harbinger of the new approach came last month when the State Department dropped the designation "occupied" with reference to the West Bank.

The embassy opening has hastened a drift towards “an apartheid reality,” Mr Khatib said, in which Palestinians and Israelis will live under one government with different systems and laws. Israel will get away with this thanks to US backing, he believes.

"Apartheid is being consolidated further," Khatib said. "Israel realises it has a historic opportunity."

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