Politics

Junk Explained: Israel Just Opened Fire On Thousands Of Palestinian Protestors, Thanks To Trump

Everything you need to know.

Earlier today, Israeli soldiers fired shots into a thousands-strong crowd of Palestinians protesting along the border between Gaza and Israel: according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, the death toll is at least 58. Some 2,700 others have been injured.

Just 90 kilometres away, US officials joined Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to open a new American embassy in Jerusalem.

The two events are connected, and together contributed towards the deadliest single day in the Gaza strip since the conflict back in 2014. If you haven’t been paying attention, it’s time to get up to speed.

Here’s what’s going on.

What’s The Big Deal About An Embassy Being Moved?

Almost every Israeli foreign embassy is in the country’s second largest city, Tel Aviv.

Usually, foreign embassies are in a country’s capital. But while Israel says its capital is Jerusalem, there’s a lot of political baggage that comes with agreeing with that. That’s because Israel isn’t the only nation that claims Jerusalem as its capital — Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital, and hope to set up east Jerusalem as their seat of power in future.

In the hope that one day some kind of peaceful compromise will be struck, most countries have refrained from taking sides and publicly backing either claim: that’s why most foreign embassies in Israel are in Tel Aviv.

But in the lead up to the US presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump repeatedly said that he wanted to move the US’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, taking a pretty strong stand in favour of Israel’s claim to the city. It’s something that multiple recent US presidents, such as Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have promised to do yet never actually done.

The issue of whether Jerusalem is Israel’s capital — or even its land — is so hotly contested that the US has gone to extreme lengths in the past to remain diplomatic. In September 2016, when Obama went to Jerusalem to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres, his White House staff released a transcript of the eulogy which placed the location of his comments as “Jerusalem, Israel”. Hours later, that was corrected to just “Israel“.

So when Trump announced that he would move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, it was a big deal.

While Netanyahu thanked Trump for keeping his promises, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas criticised the embassy as an “American settlement outpost in east Jerusalem”.

Why Were Palestinians Protesting?

Jerusalem isn’t just holy for Israelis.

East Jerusalem is one of the holiest Islamic sites in the world: the Dome of the Rock, the golden hemisphere that forms part of Jerusalem’s skyline, is believed to be the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Maintaining a connection to east Jerusalem is hugely important to Palestinians, and so the US embassy move in favour of Israel was seen as a threat to negotiation efforts.

What’s more, the embassy was opened on a tragic day in Palestinian history, known as Nakba Day, or the Day of Catastrophe. On this day in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were pushed from their homes as part of the Arab-Israeli war of that year.

Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah criticised the timing of the opening ceremony:

“Choosing a tragic day in Palestinian history [to open the Jerusalem embassy] shows great insensibility and disrespect for the core principles of the peace process.”

A huge number — some are saying thousands, others are saying tens of thousands — of Palestinians have since massed along the Gaza border with Israel and are protesting. Protests have been going on for weeks, and today is not the first time Israel has opened fire.

It’s being called the ‘march of return’.

Why Did Israel Open Fire?

The Israeli military claims that Palestinians have made a few antagonistic moves. It says that Hamas, the terrorist organisation that runs Gaza, was attempting to breach the border by using civilians as cover, and that explosive devices were being planted at the foot of the border fence.

“The rioters are hurling firebombs and explosive devices towards the security fence and IDF forces, and are burning tires, throwing rocks and launching flaming objects in order to ignite fires in Israeli territory and harm IDF troops,” the Israel Defence Forces said in a statement.

In response, Israel has conducted air strikes, and used snipers to fire into the protests. Drones have also dumped tear gas into the crowds.

UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein condemned the “shocking killing of dozens”, and Amnesty International called the deaths “another horrific example of the Israeli military using excessive force and live ammunition in a totally deplorable way.” Turkey and South Africa have recalled their ambassadors to Israel over the violence, with Turkey calling the events “a massacre”.

Meanwhile, at the new US embassy in Jerusalem, there was a flashy and peaceful opening event that made little reference to the violence. Trump has tweeted congratulations to Israel, but hasn’t mentioned the violence.