Tensions escalate as US embassy prepares to open in Jerusalem

Fears are high that Monday's inauguration ceremony, followed by the 70th anniversary of Palestinian displacement with Nakba on Tuesday, will trigger mass protests

Isreali nationalist settlers wave their national flags in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on May 13, 2018, as they celebrate the Jerusalem Day with the dome of the Rock in the background. For Israelis, Sunday is Jerusalem Day, an annual celebration of the "reunification" of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War. / AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA
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Amid high tensions on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, the United States will on Monday deal a huge blow to Palestinian statehood aspirations by following through on Donald Trump's promise to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Ahead of the opening, Israel celebrated on Sunday the Jerusalem Day holiday, marking the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967. As flag-waving Israeli nationalists staged a provocative march through the Muslim quarter of the Old City enroute to the Western Wall, leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat made clear there would be no division of the city with Palestinians.

Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniya headed to Cairo to confer with Egyptian security officials who are concerned that mass protests called along the Gaza-Israel border on Monday and Tuesday could lead to more fatalities and a major conflict with Israel.

The protests are part of what is known as the Great March of Return which underscores the aspirations of refugees to return to their homes inside Israel that were lost in the Nakba in 1948, when 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled. Senior Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar indicated to foreign journalists last week that there may be a mass storming of the border fence. "What's the problem if hundreds of thousands storm this fence which is not a border of a state?" he asked.

Mr Trump, who was hailed in posters hung throughout the city as a "friend of Zion", will address by video link dignitaries and guests in the grounds of what is currently the US consulate in the Arnona neighbourhood of West Jerusalem. The embassy move shores up his administration's close alliance with Mr Netanyahu's hard-right government and, despite US disclaimers, gives tacit approval to Israel's expansionist agenda in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

While the US State Department insists that the embassy move does not prejudge final status negotiations on East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to establish their capital, Mr Trump himself declared otherwise in January, saying his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital had taken the issue "off the table".

PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi pointed up the Trump remark in a statement. "Trump and his administration are becoming complicit in Israeli lawlessness and war crimes and are allowing the Nakba to continue unfettered."

She called on global leaders to "respect international law and human values and not participate in tomorrow's ceremony at the US embassy in occupied Jerusalem".


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Mr Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is ostensibly drafting a Middle East peace plan, met Mr Netanyahu on Sunday shortly after the prime minister chaired a cabinet meeting at which it was decided to allocate US$500 million (Dh1.83 billion) to strengthen Israel's grip on East Jerusalem. Much of the money is to develop Jewish settlement in the Old City and on the Mount of Olives, according to the Times of Israel. "The government plans to build up and develop Jerusalem east and west, north and south, in all directions, to both reveal its past and build its future," Mr Netanyahu said.

He negated the Palestinian ties to the city. "Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible approximately 650 times. The reason is simple: for over 3,000 years it has been the capital of our people and only our people. We dreamed of returning to rebuild it and this is exactly what we are doing today."

Mr Barkat, the Jerusalem mayor, said in a press conference at David's Tower in East Jerusalem: "Jerusalem was never a Palestinian capital. I as mayor take care of Christian, Muslim and Jewish children but Jerusalem will never be divided or function as a divided city. We won't accept that demand of the Palestinian Authority. If they want to establish an embassy in Jerusalem they can, but Jerusalem will not be divided."

The city streets were thronged with crowds of Israelis celebrating on Sunday - mostly teenagers, dressed in the national colours and wearing skullcaps. Some danced in circles, singing among other things: "The temple will be rebuilt, the city of Zion will overflow."

Boaz Greenwood, a high-school teacher who joined in the celebrations, said the embassy move was "part of the progress of the Israeli nation. Trump is a good friend, who supports us in politics and with the settlements. I'm happy with Trump and he is happy with us."

Thousands later marched and danced their way through the Muslim quarter, many of them brandishing flags. Israeli media reported that several Palestinians were arrested after scuffles broke out and that six marchers were taken into custody for singing anti-Arab songs.

On the Palestinian side there was dejection as they grappled with the Nakba anniversary and the US embassy move.

"I know many Palestinians who simply decided not to be in Jerusalem today and tomorrow. They went to Ramallah and Bethlehem," said bookstore manager Mahmoud Muna. "It's quite depressing to walk around Jerusalem and see all the Israeli flags and pictures of Trump. It's quite a sad moment for us."