Skirmishes break out in West Bank, Gaza Strip over US decision on Jerusalem move

Thursday , December 07, 2017 - 1:10 PM

Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash

(c) 2017, The Washington Post.

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli soldiers Thursday in Jerusalem, Ramallah and other places in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, burning posters of President Donald Trump and American flags a day after Trump decisively sided with Israel by announcing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as its capital.

Israeli police said three protesters were arrested in Jerusalem and that the situation was under control. The big test, however, comes Friday when large crowds leave mosques after their weekly prayers.

The Palestinian Authority called for a general strike in Palestinian cities. In Gaza, the Islamist Hamas movement urged its followers to ignite a third intifada, or uprising, against Israel. Shops in Jerusalem’s Old City were shuttered.

The Israeli military reported that at least three projectiles were fired at its territory Thursday from Gaza but that both fell short, causing no damage.

In response, Israeli jets and tanks struck two Hamas military sites in Gaza, the Israeli army said in a statement. The army “holds Hamas responsible for hostile activity . . . against Israel from the Gaza Strip,” it said.

On the edge of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Israeli forces fired dozens of rounds of tear gas and stun grenades at hundreds of Palestinian protesters gathering to air their anger over Trump’s statement. In some places, notably in Gaza, protesters set fire to images of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to U.S. and Israeli flags.

“This will be bad,” said an ambulance driver in Ramallah as young men burned tires and pelted the soldiers with stones. Emergency vehicles ferried out the injured. The Palestinian Red Crescent reporting that more than 100 people were hurt.

“Donald Trump said Jerusalem is for Israel, and I tell him, ‘No way, go to hell,‘” said one 43-year-old woman in the crowd, a traditional Palestinian scarf wrapped around her face. “Jerusalem is for Palestine, forever,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

“Trump made the wrong decision,” said 15-year-old Sarah Louay, who was making her way toward the demonstration carrying a Palestinian flag. “We will raise our voices for Jerusalem.”

Clashes also erupted in East Jerusalem and at the border fence between Israel and Gaza. In Bethlehem, tear gas filled streets strung with festive lights for Christmas. At one of the main checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah, soldiers fired sponge bullets at children throwing stones from behind metal trash cans.

Trump’s announcement Wednesday that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his declaration that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reversed a decades-old U.S. policy. Many fear that the step could spark another bloody conflict in the region, but it remains unclear how long the demonstrations will last. Some Palestinians said they felt emboldened after a perceived victory last summer following two weeks of protests over metal detectors installed at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called for a new uprising in the Palestinian territories and declared Friday a day of rage.

“Tomorrow should be a day of rage and the beginning of a broad movement for an uprising that I call the intifada of freedom of Jerusalem,” he said.

He called on the Palestinian Authority to stop security coordination with Israel and “enable the resistance in the occupied West Bank to respond to this blatant aggression.”

Israel’s army said it was preparing for an increase in violence in the coming days and that it has beefed up its troops in the West Bank, adding reinforcements to its combat intelligence and territorial defense units.

U.S. institutions in the region were also preparing for possible violent fallout. Reuters reported that a State Department communique was sent to diplomats at the embassy in Tel Aviv with talking points to convey to Israeli officials.

“While I recognize that you will publicly welcome this news, I ask that you restrain your official response,” Reuters quoted the document dated Dec. 6 as saying. “We expect there to be resistance to this news in the Middle East and around the world. We are still judging the impact this decision will have on U.S. facilities and personnel overseas.”

The State Department restricted travel for U.S. government employees in Jerusalem and the West Bank, warning its citizens to avoid crowed areas.

Israelis see Jerusalem as their eternal and undivided capital, while Palestinians envision the predominantly Arab eastern part of the city as the future capital of a Palestinian state. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said the U.S. move would galvanize the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Following Trump’s announcement, Abbas said the United States could no longer be a fair mediator in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

With backing from Turkey, the Palestinians said recognizing Jerusalem was in breach of both international law and U.N. resolutions. Eight countries on the 15-member U.N. Security Council called for an emergency meeting to discuss the matter on Friday.

Despite the note of caution from the State Department, the mood in Israel was buoyant, with government ministers and commentators declaring a diplomatic victory for the Jewish state and for Netanyahu.

Speaking at a Foreign Ministry conference in Jerusalem on Thursday, the prime minister heralded Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as a “historic statement.”

“President Trump has always linked himself to the history of our capital,” he said. “His name will now float along with other names in the context of the glorious history of Jerusalem and our people.”

Netanyahu said he has already been in contact with other countries that were also ready to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“I have no doubt that as soon as the American Embassy moves to Jerusalem, and even before that, many embassies will move to Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s about time.”

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Eglash reported from Jerusalem. The Washington Post’s Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.

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