The US formally inaugurated its embassy in Jerusalem on Monday — the concrete culmination of President Donald Trump’s recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.
Simultaneously, Hamas intensified its riots at the Israel-Gaza border — the violent manifestation of its opposition to the very fact of Israel’s existence.
Here are six takeaways from a historic, tumultuous afternoon.
1. No evident American consensus
From an Israeli perspective, Monday’s festive opening of the embassy was a relatively multi-partisan, politically consensual affair. Not only did President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak at the ceremony, but centrist leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid warmly praised the relocation, and the leader of the opposition, Labor’s Isaac Herzog, was in supportive attendance.
From an American perspective, by contrast, there was no parallel near-consensus. Naturally, the proceedings were dominated by members of the Trump administration, with Ambassador David Friedman presiding. President Trump — the man who broke with his predecessors and ordered the embassy moved from Tel Aviv — sent a video message, his son-in-law Jared Kushner spoke, his Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin unveiled the seal, and his daughter Ivanka was the first to issue a welcome to the new facility.
But while the American dignitaries included numerous Republican legislators and supporters, no prominent Democratic lawmakers were known to be present. Even former president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who stayed on in Israel with his family through the end of the school year after his term ended in January, was providing commentary on Hadashot TV news. Although he was invited to Sunday evening’s pre-inauguration event at the Foreign Ministry, he did not get an invitation to the main show.
In interviews on Monday, Shapiro stressed his support for the embassy move, but said he wished it had been presented in the context of an effort to advance negotiations on a two-state solution.
Asked why Democrats had stayed away from the event, he speculated that they too were concerned about the absence of strategic emphasis on a two-state accord.
Outside the new embassy compound, not everything Israeli was quite consensual, it should be noted. A demonstration by Israeli opponents of the move, with the presence of several Arab Knesset members, which had been authorized by police, flared out of control, when some of the protesters raised Palestinian flags and, according to Hadashot TV, shouted slogans for the liberation of Palestine. At that point, the police waded in to disperse the gathering.
2. Hamas’s split screen ‘victory’
For weeks, Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers have been doing their utmost to encourage the Strip’s masses — men, women, and children — to march on the border. On Monday, in the largest such protest, Hamas mobilized an estimated 50,000 people. According to its figures, about 50 Gazans were killed in the ensuing violent clashes; the IDF said at least 10 of the fatalities had been identified as Hamas members by Monday evening. Ironically, a death toll of that order is considered by the cynical Islamist movement to be a victory of sorts, since it focuses global attention on the Palestinians.
Hamas’s overall goal, as its leaders have repeatedly told Gazans in recent weeks, is to “liberate Palestine” — as in, to eliminate Israel. It recently disseminated a video in Hebrew showing young Gaza children vowing they would be “returning to our homeland.”
Hamas has been losing its attack tunnels — underground terrorist routes into Israel that the IDF is gradually managing to locate. The Iron Dome defense system generally takes out its rockets. Hence the new tactic — mass protests, as cover for violent attacks on the border, and as a distraction from the misery its rule is imposing on Gaza. On Friday, Hamas leaders reportedly encouraged Gazans to trash their own fuel supply lines and other infrastructure at the main Kerem Shalom aid entry point — bringing more suffering to the populace.
Hamas on Monday was seeking, as it has been seeking for weeks, to breach the border and get into Israel, as a symbolic step toward that goal of “liberation.” Its hope, according to Palestinian sources quoted in Hebrew media, was to breach the fence at around the time that the United States was formally declaring its new embassy open. Indeed, between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m., as the ceremonies in Jerusalem were about to get under way, Israeli military correspondents reported several attempted attacks along the border.
Numerous TV stations — including Al-Jazeera, regional Arabic broadcasters, Israeli TV, the BBC, CNN, and SKY — split their screens for parts of the embassy event, showing the speeches on one side and the clashes at the Gaza border on the other. As Channel 10’s Alon Ben-David noted, the “split screen” was a victory of sorts for Hamas.
When night began to fall, Hamas had not managed to breach the border. This, the IDF said, despite sending 12 separate cells to try to break through at different locations. And the Israeli army, which said it had been facing efforts to place explosives at the border and attempts to fire on troops, began targeting Hamas training bases and other Hamas assets, in an effort to deter further attacks. Evidently unfazed, Hamas announced that Monday’s protests, and more set for Tuesday — Nakba Day, when the Palestinians mourn what they call the “catastrophe” that befell them with the revival of Jewish sovereignty in 1948 — would not mark the end of its campaign.
3. Why the gunmen stay back
Shortly before the embassy opening, and as the violence escalated at the Gaza border, Israel’s Shin Bet security agency released details of intelligence it had gleaned from arrested Hamas terror suspects that, it said, threw light on the Hamas border tactics.
According to this information, Hamas has been telling its gunmen not to venture too near to the border, where they can be identified and targeted by Israeli troops; on the first Friday of protests in March, Hamas confirmed that five of its members were killed, and the Israeli army identified several others. Since then, Hamas has stopped acknowledging such fatalities.
Instead, according to the Shin Bet evidence, Hamas encourages Gaza civilians to get close to the fence, and keeps its armed forces back and ready — ready to bust through the border into Israel should the opportunity arise.
The Shin Bet also said that Iran has been providing funds for the Gaza border campaign, which was initially, risibly, presented by some of its organizers as non-violent.
4. Eyes on the West Bank
Hamas has also been trying to foment violence in the West Bank. In this, it has had some support from its rival/partner, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. Hadashot TV news said the PA was encouraging protests on Monday, including by showing the Gaza border clashes on television in a live feed.
Monday did see a surge in West Bank violence. At the Qalandiya crossing, north of Jerusalem, hundreds marched and threw stones at Israeli soldiers, who responded with live fire, tear gas, and rubber-coated steel pellets. Clashes were also reported south of Jerusalem, near Bethlehem and in Hebron.
Those protests were not of the intensity that Hamas is seeking. It will keep trying, however. Abbas’s PA will play a key role in determining how things unfold.
On Monday, the PA’s security personnel were conspicuous in their absence from some hot spots. Its former chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, meanwhile, was condemning the US Embassy move as hostile, illegal, and, according to an Israel TV report, the equivalent of the establishment of an illegal outpost in Palestinian territory.
Speeches by President Trump and Kushner insisting that the US seeks to broker a viable peace treaty, and highlighting the status quo in Jerusalem as an indication that not all of Jerusalem is off the table for the Palestinians, are emphatically falling on deaf ears.
5. Heady days for Netanyahu
The embassy inauguration was an American event, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a central feature — hailing Trump’s courage in making the move, declaring that “we are here in Jerusalem, and we are here to stay.”
These are heady days for the Israeli prime minister, especially given his alliance with Trump. The Americans have recognized Jerusalem. Allies in the EU prevented a European denunciation of the embassy move. A trickle of other countries are moving legations to the capital. Over 30 countries sent representatives to the Foreign Ministry event on Sunday.
At the same time, Iran is under pressure — its nuclear weapons secrets conclusively exposed by the Mossad’s extraordinary raid on its Tehran archive. Trump has quit the 2015 Iran deal. Israel has set back Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria. Saudi Arabia is sounding somewhat more well-disposed toward Israel. Netanyahu gets to chat with Gulf ambassadors. Opponents such as Yesh Atid and Labor are simply being marginalized. Nobody is talking about the corruption allegations against him. He is rising in the polls.
Not much in this part of the world is permanent, however. Iran is a patient and pernicious enemy. It has not abandoned its nuclear quest. It has a highly armed military tool in the shape of Hezbollah, with immense missile capabilities and Syrian battle experience. Hamas is vicious, cynical, and creative. The West Bank is thoroughly unpredictable; Abbas, 82, is on his last legs and, however unpalatable he has become, any successor will be still less comfortable for Israel.
6. And finally
Not much in this part of the world is permanent. But the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, underlined in Monday’s embassy move and so widely resisted among the Palestinians, comes pretty close.