The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under banner of peace, U.S. opens embassy in Jerusalem. Sixty miles away, dozens of Palestinians are killed.

Israeli soldiers clashed with Palestinian protesters on May 14, the same day the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem opened. The move upended decades-long U.S. policy. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

JERUSALEM — A joyous ceremony marked the inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, a largely symbolic step that nonetheless is of deep political significance, here and in the Palestinian territories, as well as farther away.

Amid the happy bustle of about 800 guests, as Jared Kushner spoke, the controversial evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress blessed the occasion and President Trump delivered a prerecorded video address, there was little indication of what was unfolding less than 60 miles away on the border between Israel and Gaza. There, protests against the embassy opening and Israel’s continued blockade of the Palestinian enclave were met with gunfire by Israeli troops. Dozens of Palestinians were shot dead and thousands were injured.

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In his video address Monday, Trump said that he was still hopeful for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, despite almost universal criticism of the embassy move from some of the United States’s closest allies in Europe, from Arab nations and from the Palestinians. 

The Arab League called a crisis meeting to discuss the “illegal” U.S. Embassy shift, and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation called it an “attack on the historical, legal, natural and national rights of the Palestinian people.”

In Ramallah, at a hastily convened news conference, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declared the new embassy “an illegal outpost,” a term used to refer to Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land in the West Bank. 

Calling Monday’s killings in Gaza “a massacre,” Abbas said that the United States had “excluded itself as an intermediate broker.” 

But successive speakers who took the stage at Monday’s ceremony said that they firmly believed the embassy move was long overdue and was, in fact, a positive step toward peace. 

The death toll from the May 14 Gaza protests climbed to 61 Palestinians on May 15. Thousands of protesters had gathered along the Gaza border fence on May 14. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, kicked off the proceedings by recalling the declaration of the state of Israel by the country’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, on May 14, 1948.

“Seventy years later, the United States is taking the next step of moving the embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

In his video address, Trump said the move was a long time in coming and added that the “United States remains fully committed to facilitating a lasting peace agreement.” 

Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, echoed those sentiments, saying: “We believe it is possible for both sides to gain more than they give — so that all people can live in peace, safe from danger, free from fear, and able to pursue their dreams.”

Trump has boasted of how he has kept costs down for the embassy move. In an apparent nod to the bottom line, only pretzels and water were served to guests, who included some top-tier Republican donors such as the GOP mega-donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Who is Robert Jeffress, the pastor at the embassy ceremony?

He told The Washington Post that “this was an important event for all Jews.” 

For now, the embassy move is mostly symbolic — really just the addition of a plaque on the wall of the existing consulate in Jerusalem. Only the ambassador and a core staff will move to Jerusalem during the first phase. And less than $400,000 has been spent so far to increase security and to enable the embassy to start functioning. 

Yet the newly chiseled sign has brought with it clear vindication for Israel, which united the western and eastern sides of Jerusalem 51 years ago following its victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In the 1980s, Israel formally declared sovereignty over the entire city, including Palestinian neighborhoods. Most countries still refuse to recognize that move and say their embassies will remain in Tel Aviv until Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement.

In 1995, Congress reached a compromise on the issue of Jerusalem. Trump is poised to end it.

Speaking at the event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a “glorious day.” 

“Remember this moment, this is history,” he said. “President Trump, by recognizing history, you have made history.”

Later, he tweeted a photograph of himself and his wife, Sara, with Ivanka Trump and Kushner and the new plaque. 

“What a great day for the great American-Israeli alliance,” he wrote. 

But just a few blocks from the site, scuffles broke out between Israeli forces and protesters, including Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Israeli-Arab members of Israel’s parliament. Fourteen people were arrested, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. 

“As someone who lives in Jerusalem and who cares about this city and the people who live in it, this feels like a dangerous game that Trump is playing with our lives,” said Maya Rosen, an American-born resident of the city. 

 Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab faction in the Knesset, drew a direct line between the embassy opening and the deaths in Gaza. 

“The opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem and its grand ceremony is part of the same policy that has claimed the lives of dozens of Gazans,” he said. “Today, there is nothing to celebrate. The opening of the embassy is yet another provocative step that signals the destruction of the notion of peace.” 

Former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, now a member of the official opposition in Israel, said the embassy opening was bittersweet. 

“This is a happy day for us in Israel but simultaneously we have to take care of the situation in Gaza,” she said.

As Ivanka and Jared join embassy party in Jerusalem, Gaza braces for violence

“It has been a day of dilemma,” said Minister of Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi. “We wanted this to happen for 70 years and we don’t want the celebrations to end.” 

Asked for his reaction to events along the Gaza border, Hanegbi said: “It is very sad and tragic that Hamas has learned nothing over the last 70 years. So many decades have passed since they made the wrong decision in 1948 and now 70 years later they still can’t accept Israel.”

Hanegbi was referring to Palestinian resistance to the creation of the Israeli state; Hamas, the Islamic organization that is in control of Gaza, was founded in 1987.

Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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