13 May 2018 – 18:45
Jerusalem: Israelis basked in national pride and pro-American fervour on Sunday as tens of thousands participated in a Jerusalem march, a day ahead of the controversial US embassy move to the disputed city.
Palestinians meanwhile readied for their own protests on Monday over the embassy’s inauguration, including another mass demonstration in the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel.
Sunday’s Jerusalem march began a week of high tension between Israelis and Palestinians, highlighted by the embassy inauguration to be attended by a Washington delegation including US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
Both arrived in Israel on Sunday.
The embassy move will take place on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, while the following day Palestinians will mark the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel’s creation.
Palestinian protests are also planned for Tuesday.
For Israelis, Sunday was Jerusalem Day, an annual celebration of the “reunification” of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.
This year’s celebration took on added significance due to the embassy move the following day.
The annual march to the Western Wall included many hardline religious nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state.
Marchers dressed in white held Israeli flags as they filed through central Jerusalem toward the Old City with music blaring, including the song “Toy” by Israel’s Netta Barzilai, who won the Eurovision Song Contest early Sunday.
Some had American flags, while banners celebrating US President Donald Trump were hung by a pro-Israel evangelical Christian organisation.
Speaking to journalists in the Old City, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat hailed the US embassy move as the beginning of “a new world order and new order in the Middle East”.
He called on more countries to join Guatemala and Paraguay in “following the US leadership” and moving their embassies.
‘Capital of our people’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — bolstered in recent days by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — opened a special cabinet meeting at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum by again lauding the embassy move.
“Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible approximately 650 times,” Netanyahu said.
“The reason is simple: For over 3,000 years it has been the capital of our people, and only of our people.”
Police and the Israeli military planned major security deployments.
Around 1,000 police officers will be positioned around the US embassy and surrounding neighbourhoods for Monday’s inauguration, said spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Israel’s army said it would almost double the number of troops surrounding the Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.
On Sunday, scuffles broke out between Israelis visiting the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem’s Old City, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and Palestinian security officers.
The government of Jordan, which is the custodian of the site, sent a letter of protest to the Israeli foreign ministry condemning this as a “provocation by extremists”, a spokesman said.
Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions and police said a number of visitors were removed for not following the rules.
“It is not a provocation. It’s our property,” said Nili Naoun, 42, an Israeli who arrived at the holy site with her family at 7:00 am.
Weeks of tension
There were already tensions in the weeks before the embassy move.
Fifty-four Palestinians have been killed in protests and clashes since March 30 along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.
No Israelis have been wounded and the military has faced criticism over the use of live fire.
Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, attacks and damage to the border fence, while accusing Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the blockaded Gaza Strip, of seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence.
On Sunday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya headed to Cairo for talks amid speculation over whether Egypt is attempting to calm the situation.
The embassy move has provoked Palestinian anger and led them to freeze ties with the White House.
Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
In the decades since 1967, international consensus has been that the city’s status must be negotiated between the two sides, but Trump broke with that to global outrage.
He has argued that it helps make peace possible by taking Jerusalem “off the table”, but many have pointed out he has not announced concessions in return from Israel.