On May 15, at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem, John Hagee, an evangelical from Texas said that Donald Trump would “historically step into immortality”. A few dozen kilometres away, on the “border” with Gaza, 59 civilians were killed and about 2,700 injured by Israeli troops firing across a fence at protesters, reportedly unarmed. The protests were triggered by Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv and may, in fact, end up cementing his place in history. But not in the way Hagee imagined.
The contrast in how Palestine and Israel commemorate May 15 is symptomatic of the complexity of the fissures in the region. What is celebrated as its Independence Day by Israel is al Nakba (“The Catastrophe”) for Palestinians, because more than 7,50,000 of them were displaced as a new state took shape in their midst. Since that time, “peace in the middle east” has been a goal that many American presidents have sought to facilitate, and East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine for any prospective two-state agreement has been essential to that. When Trump announced in December 2017 his unilateral decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, US allies, from Saudi Arabia to Great Britain, warned of the consequences of such a decision. The deaths on Tuesday, including allegedly of a nine-month-old infant, are a ghastly but predictable outcome of the December decision.
Trump’s decision fits neatly with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideological inclinations and policies, and the latter was recently in the US to lobby for his version of Israel’s best interests. A hawk by any measure, Netanyahu has opposed the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, in place since the early ’90s. He has also been one of the few supporters of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, a move widely decried as contributing to instability in West Asia.
The decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the widely publicised celebration of the new embassy, has only drawn greater attention to the killings in Gaza, especially since both events took place almost simultaneously. Rather than attempt to soften Israel’s stand, especially its blockade of Gaza, the Trump administration has only deepened the anger in the region and increased fears of a greater number of Palestinians taking to extremist, violent tactics to achieve political ends. The US president may indeed enter the history books for the direction he has taken in Israel and Palestine. But as things stand, it is unlikely to be for furthering either Israel’s security interests or the human rights of Palestinians.