On May 14, dignitaries gathered to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the formation of the state of Israel and the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. At the same time, thousands of Palestinians gathered at the border fence of Gaza to protest the opening of the US Embassy.
The opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem was a cheerful and upbeat event attended by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with US President Donald Trump speaking to the crowds by way of a live satellite link. There were speeches made about peace and allowing people to live and pursue their dreams. Songs of peace were sung, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the day as a historic day.
Simultaneously, Palestinians gathered at the Gaza border to protest the US Embassy opening in Jerusalem, braving sniper fire and tear gas. The Israeli military shot and killed 60 people during the protest.
The Great March of Return began on March 30th and Palestinians demanded the right of return and an end to blockade of Gaza. March 30th is Land Day in Palestine. The day commemorates March 30th, 1976 when six Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli forces after protesting the confiscation of their land. The protests culminated on May 15th which the Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) which is described as the ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were forced out of their homes during the 1948 Palestine war.
As of this writing, May 22nd, 2018, the total number of Palestinian casualties now stands at 111 dead, and 12,733 injured. Israel reported zero casualties. May 14th was the single bloodiest day with 60 reported dead and 2,771 injured. Since March 30th, 488 women, 1129 children under 18, 228 medics, and 124 journalists were among the dead or injured.
In a May 11th statement, Jason Cone, the US director of Doctors Without Borders said that “Even though there is not a war in Gaza, the injuries sustained by our patients are terribly similar to what we see in conflict zones.”
“Ninety-one percent of our trauma patients were shot in the legs, many at close range. Several will be handicapped for life, putting tremendous pressure on the already beleaguered health system, impoverished families, and the whole society.”
The statement also explained that; “The ongoing Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip and recent US funding cuts to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, or UNRWA, exacerbate the dire situation.”
Doctors Without Borders also reported that Gaza hospitals have emptied inpatient wards to make space for the influx of wounded. They also emphasize that patients with chronic health issues were already struggling from the lack of chemotherapy drugs, kidney dialysis, and diabetes management. Now they have been displaced, and either do not have access to health care or will be forced to turn to expensive private clinics.
“Most of our wounded patients say they have nothing to lose, no hope, no jobs, nothing. They tell our staff that they just want to go back and die at protest sites,” said Cone. “Some are returning to the demonstrations with casts, on crutches, or with external fixators holding together shattered bones.”
Cone reported that the severity of the injuries demonstrated that Israeli forces were using disproportionate force to incapacitate the protesters. The result was unnecessary damage and suffering.
A diplomatic disaster
The Israeli response to the Palestinian demonstrations drew international condemnation with Turkey expelling the Israeli Ambassador, and recalling their own from Israel and the US. The Israeli ambassador, Eitan Naveh, was subjected to a frisking at the airport which was shown on Turkish TV. Israel protested the treatment of its ambassador as “unbecoming treatment”. Turkey also declared three days of national mourning in solidarity with the Palestinians.
On Monday, May 14, South Africa condemned the actions of the Israeli military and recalled its ambassador from Israel. The South Africa Department of International Relations and Cooperation released a statement which read: “The South Africa government condemns in the strongest terms possible the latest act of violent aggression carried out by Israeli armed forces along the Gaza border,”
On May 15th, the Irish minister for foreign affairs met Israeli ambassador Zeev Bokar after summoning him to express “outrage” at the deaths and injuries in Gaza. The Irish opposition has called for Bokar to be expelled over the violence in Gaza, but the Irish Prime Minister has stated that this will not happen.
The United Kingdom called for an “independent and transparent investigation” into the Gaza border deaths “in recent weeks,” the British envoy said at an emergency UN Security Council session. The probe should include “the extent to which Israeli security forces’ rules of engagement are in line with international law.”
Belgium too has called for a UN backed investigation into the violence in Gaza and summoned the Israeli ambassador. Prime Minister Charles Michel and Deputy Prime Minister Didier Reynders released a statement on May 15th which stated that the events in Gaza were a “clear” use of “disproportionate force against civilians,” but also condemned anyone who encouraged Palestinians to protest at the Gaza border on Monday.
“In any self-respecting democratic state, there are other non-lethal means than using live ammunition to contain the masses, but encouraging Gazans to try to illegally cross the border while causing damage is also reprehensible,” the statement said. “Belgium strongly urges both sides to make every effort possible to de-escalate and prevent more bloodshed. We call for an international investigation led by the United Nations.”
In an official statement released on May 14, French President Emmanuel Macron said he deplored the large number of Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza today and in recent weeks and condemned the Israeli armed forces’ violence against Palestinian demonstrators. He called for restraint and de-escalation by all those responsible and stressed the need for demonstrations to remain peaceful.
The French President also reiterated France’s disapproval of the American decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem’s status can be determined only between the parties, in a negotiated framework under the aegis of the international community,” he said. Macron went on to emphasize that the Palestinians have a right to peace and security. He also reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s security and the steadfast French position of support for a two-state solution.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe released a statement on May 16 in which he said; “France evidently and categorically condemns this violence for, although we set absolute store by Israel’s security, we cannot accept such levels of violence in the face of Palestinians’ fundamental right to protest peacefully.”
Germany also had words for the Israelis use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that “The right to peaceful protest must also apply in Gaza,” and that “Israel has the right to defend itself and secure its (border) fence against violent intrusions, but the principle of proportionality applies.”
In a statement released by his office, UN Secretary General António Guterres said he was ‘profoundly alarmed’ by the sharp escalation of violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the high number of Palestinians killed and injured in the Gaza protests.
An emergency summit of the OIC took place in Turkey on May 18th and in their official communique condemned in the strongest possible terms the actions of Israeli forces against the Palestinian people. The OIC declared that Israel committed ‘savage crimes’ against the Palestinians and accused the US administration of shielding Israel from accountability in the UN security council.
The OIC has also called on the international community, in particular the UN Security Council, to defend the international law and order as they relate to Palestine,” and “to provide international protection for the Palestinian people.”
Earlier in May, the Israeli government said the ongoing border protests constituted a “state of war” in which international humanitarian law did not apply.
On May 15th, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, the international spokesman and head of social media for the Israel Defense Forces, speaking at a Jewish community briefing organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) stated that Israel failed to minimize the number of Palestinian casualties during the protests on the Gaza border, and that some were hit by mistake. He added that Hamas won the PR war by a “knockout.”
He also noted that “Hamas wanted the casualties. Hamas wanted people to die. Hamas wanted the pictures of the wounded and the overflowing hospitals … and they had no problems sending the human shields forward. That is the sad reality of what we have been facing,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman took to twitter on May 17th to denounce the United Nations Human Rights Council, which held an emergency session on May 18th regarding the Gaza situation and the use of deadly force by the Israeli military. “Israel is under a double attack,” Liberman wrote in the post. “A terror attack from Gaza and an attack of hypocrisy headed by the United Nations Human Rights Council.”
The Human Rights Council’s condemnations of Israel, Liberman wrote, “are meant to deter Israel from protecting itself. They will not succeed… We must stop permitting this celebration of hypocrisy… and immediately withdraw from the Human Rights Council, and work diligently so that the United States joins us in this step.”
Possible War Crimes
On May 18th, a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) was called on “the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem,” in which it heard addresses by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Micheal Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein deplored the appalling recent events that had occurred in the occupied Palestinian territories, killing dozens and injuring thousands of people.
Al Hussein said in his statement: “This was not “a PR victory for Hamas”, in the reported words of a senior Israeli military spokesman; it was a tragedy for thousands of families. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has also described the demonstrators as being “paid by Hamas”, and has said the Israeli security forces “try to minimize casualties”. But there is little evidence of any attempt to minimize casualties on [May 14th]. Although some of the demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, used sling-shots to throw stones, flew burning kites into Israel, and attempted to use wire-cutters against the two fences between Gaza and Israel, these actions alone do not appear to constitute the imminent threat to life or deadly injury which could justify the use of lethal force.”
In his statement Michael Lynk said that: “Israel, as the occupying power, was obliged to uphold and respect the human rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territory. Palestinians were entitled to their human rights, which included the right to peaceful assembly.”
Lynk reiterated his concern about Israel’s excessive use of force, and he pointed out that; “wilful killing” and the “wilful causing of great suffering or serious injury to body and health” of civilians was both a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and a war crime under the Rome Statute.
“An attempt to approach the fence, damage the fence, or even cross the fence, by an unarmed individual faced with heavily armed soldiers, did not constitute a threat to life or serious injury that would justify the use of lethal force,” Lynk said.
UNHCR Resolution and condemnation
After its May 18th meeting, the UNHCR adopted a resolution by a vote of 29 in favour, two against, and 14 abstentions, to urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council to investigate all alleged violations and abuses of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military assaults on the large-scale civilian protests that began on 30 March 2018. The Commission of Inquiry was to present an oral update to the Council at its thirty-ninth session and a final, written report at its fortieth session.
The Council condemned the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by the Israeli occupying forces against Palestinian civilians, including in the context of peaceful protests, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and called for an immediate cessation of all attacks, incitement and violence against civilians throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and it called on all parties to ensure that future demonstrations remain peaceful and to abstain from actions that could endanger the lives of civilians. Finally, the Council called upon Israel, the occupying power, and all relevant parties to cooperate fully with the commission of inquiry and facilitate its access.
The US and Australia were the only two countries that voted against the resolution.
Continued US support for Israel
On May 14th, the US blocked a UN Security Council statement supporting the right of Palestinians to “demonstrate peacefully” and endorsing Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ call for an independent investigation into the deadly protests in Gaza. (The US has used its veto power 43 times against resolutions concerning Israel.)
During a White House press briefing on May 14th, deputy press secretary Raj Shah was asked by a reporter whether the United States was calling on Israel to “use restraint in dealing with these protests.”
Shah responded by saying: “We believe that Hamas is responsible for these tragic deaths, that their rather cynical exploitation of the situation is what’s leading to these deaths, and we want them to stop.”
The reporter asked again, “So there’s no burden on Israel to do something to sort of rein it in?”
Shah answered: “No. We think that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Hamas is the one that, frankly, bear [sic] responsibility for the dire situation right now in Gaza.”
Another reporter asked a similar question: “So there’s no responsibility beyond that on the Israeli authorities, kill at will?”
Again, Shah responded, “We believe Hamas, as an organization, is engaged in cynical action that’s leading to these deaths.” and added: “This is a gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt,” Shah also noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo agrees that “Israel has the right to self-defense.”
Nikki Haley walks out of the Security Council
Later in the UN Security Council chamber, US envoy Nikki Haley gave a speech echoing the remarks made by Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah in which the US lays the blame for the Gaza violence solely on Hamas.
“I ask my colleagues here in the Security Council, who among us would accept this type of activity on your border? No one would.” Haley said. “No country in this chamber would act with more restraint than Israel has. In fact, the records of several countries here today suggest they would be much less restrained.”
“Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was the right thing to do,” Haley added later. “It reflects the will of the American people. It reflects our sovereign right to decide the location of our embassy, a right that everyone in this room claims for their own country. Importantly, moving our embassy to Jerusalem also reflects the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It has served as Israel’s capital since the founding of the state. It is the ancient capital of the Jewish people. There is no plausible peace agreement under which Jerusalem would no longer remain the capital of Israel. Recognizing this reality makes peace more achievable, not less.
In December, the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the Trump administrations recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with a landslide. 128 countries voted in favor while only nine (including the US and Israel) voted against, 35 abstained and 21 did not participate. The vote took place despite threats from the US to pull funding from the UN.
“The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out for attack in this assembly,” Haley said. “We will remember it when we are called upon to once again make the world’s largest contribution” to the UN and when other member nations ask Washington “to pay even more and to use our influence for their benefit.”
She then walked out of the Security Council chambers when the Palestinian Envoy Riyad Mansour began to speak.
Extremist Pastors Preaching at opening
At the White House Press Briefing, Deputy Communications Director Raj Shah also had no answers to offer on how or why two far right wing extremist pastors were selected to preach at the opening celebration ceremony of the new US embassy in Jerusalem.
The first is Robert Jeffress, who spoke at President Trump’s private inaugural prayer service, and is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Jeffress is on record stating his belief that Gays, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and Hindus will all go to hell. He is also on record with harsh criticisms of Islam.
During a 2010 lecture tour, Jeffress said: “God sends good people to Hell. Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism—not only do they lead people away from from God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell. You know Jesus was very clear: Hell is not only going to be populated by murderers, and drug dealers, and child dealers; Hell is going to be filled with good religious people who have rejected the truth of Christ.”
During First Baptist Dallas’ annual “Ask The Pastor” event in 2010, Jeffress also said that “the dark dirty secret of Islam” is that “it is a religion that promotes pedophilia,” and that Islam is “a heresy from the pit of hell.”
The second is John Hagee who in his book Jerusalem Countdown, claims that Adolf Hitler was born from a lineage of “accursed, genocidally murderous half-breed Jews.” Hagee has also stated that Hitler was fulfilling God’s plan when he slaughtered millions of Jews.
At the Briefing, Shah said he did not know who invited them to speak at the embassy opening, but he did offer to find out. However he did not condemn their remarks. He questioned if they had made them, and then said that they do not reflect the Trump White House’s positions.
(Photo credit: Israeli Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit.)