Palestine youths take to the streets in wake of Trump declaration
Violence erupts amid call for a ‘new intifada’ over plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem
ISRAELI security forces clashed with young Palestinians in street battles across the occupied West Bank yesterday as Hamas called for a “new intifada” in response to Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Israeli military have called for reinforcements in anticipation of further clashes today as thousands of young men are expected to take to the streets in protest following traditional Friday prayers.
The UN Security Council is to convene to discuss the inflamed situation in the Middle East after Britain and seven other states requested an emergency meeting to debate Mr Trump’s announcement.
Aftershocks of the US decision were felt far beyond the region. In Amsterdam, a man carrying a Palestinian flag attacked a Jewish kosher restaurant, and demonstrators gathered in cities across Pakistan.
Around 50 Palestinians suffered minor injuries during clashes with Israeli troops in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem. Young men hurled stones and set tyres alight to block roads, while Israeli troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets. In Bethlehem, smoke rose from among the Christmas decorations adorning the streets leading to the Church of the Nativity, built upon the site where Jesus Christ is said to have been born.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said two rockets were fired from Gaza on Thursday evening but both projectiles fell short. The rockets were believed to have been fired by the Salafist group and not Hamas. But later a “projectile” landed inside Israel from Gaza and the Israeli military retaliated by striking two Hamas posts, the army said.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, said yesterday: “This Zionist policy supported by the US cannot be confronted unless we ignite a new intifada.” Speaking in Gaza, he added: “The US decision is an aggression, a declaration of war on us, on the best Muslim and Christian shrines in the heart of Palestine, Jerusalem.” Soon after the speech, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant group backed by Iran, said he supported the call for a new Palestinian intifada.
Both Hizbollah and Hamas have considerable arsenals but neither group said that they planned to turn them on Israel in retaliation for Mr Trump’s announcement.
Israeli intelligence has said in the past that it believes neither Hamas nor Hizbollah is eager for direct military confrontation with Israeli forces but both would like to incite a mass uprising by ordinary Palestinians.
Mr Trump’s declaration was met with broad condemnation from US allies in the West and in the Middle East.
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday said the move was “not helpful”. Federica Mogherini, the EU’S foreign policy chief, warned the announcement could “send us backwards to even darker times”.
The Palestinian leadership said last night it was still formulating a response.
Mike Pence, the US vice-president, is due to visit Bethlehem in 10 days’ time but Muhammad Shtayyeh, a senior official in the governing Fatah party, said Palestinians were deciding whether to withdraw their invitation. “President Trump has made the US totally irrelevant when it comes to the peace process,” Dr Shtayyeh said.
The US embassy in Jordan suspended services after facing protests in the capital, Amman. US diplomatic posts across the Muslim world are expecting protests today and warned US citizens that some of the demonstrations “have the potential to become violent”.
Israelis continued to celebrate the US recognition of Jerusalem as their capital. The headline “Thank You, Mr President” was splashed across the front of the Israel Hayom newspaper, which is owned by Sheldon Adelson, a pro-israel US casino mogul who urged Mr Trump to make the move.
The Israeli city of Kiryat Yam announced that it would name a park after Mr Trump as a sign of its gratitude for his decision. “Donald Trump proved to the entire world that Jerusalem is in his heart and we will prove to him in this way that he is in our hearts,” said David Even Zur, the city’s mayor.
The Czech Republic yesterday announced it would partially follow the US lead and recognise west Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said he had been contacted by “other countries which will issue a similar recognition”.
Israeli media reported that both the Philippines and Hungary – which are both led by authoritarian leaders who admire Mr Trump – were also considering moving their embassies.
Theresa May is now getting quite adept at slapping down Donald Trump, losing no time in attacking his decision this week to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It was “unhelpful in terms of prospects for peace in the region,” she said: why hand the Israelis a prize that ought to come as an incentive to agree a peace deal with the Palestinians? She stopped short of saying what her ministers have been thinking for some time now – that their best hope for peace in the region isn’t in the White House, but in Riyadh.
Their hopes are pinned on Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-yearold Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and perhaps one of the most influential leaders in the world. His recent decision to let women drive was a test, to see if he could challenge the authority of the clerics. It was a success, and since then the pace of change has been extraordinary. Prince Mohammed is reshaping Saudi Arabia so quickly that one British official who was there recently told me he felt he had “got off at the wrong country”.
The religious police have been called off. Restaurants and cafes now play music; women can go the gym; young Saudis can now be seen on dates in coffee shops. Saudi National Day, which fell a few weeks ago, was celebrated not only with public dancing but women in attendance, for the first time. The Crown Prince says he is betting on demographics: two thirds of his countrymen are under the age of 30 and, he says, they’ve have had enough of religious extremists. This was all sure to arouse opposition, so he took the precaution of locking up critics and their potential sponsors in the Riyadh Ritz-carlton, all on charges of corruption (fairly easy to trump up in a nation where corruption is endemic).
The audacity is extraordinary, and it has Theresa May’s government in thrall. “We have been talking for years about liberalising the region, but he is succeeding where war would have failed,” says one senior minister. “If there were crowds there, we’d call it a Saudi spring”. There’s huge optimism, not just about potential British involvement in his vast plans to build new cities and rebuild the nation but in his ability to recast the Middle East as well. For the Crown Prince also believes that he can broker an Israeli-palestinian peace deal, and his allies in London think he just might do it.
Fairly soon, Iraq will declare victory in the war against the Islamic State, whose jihadists have finally been cleared (and in some cases, bussed) out of Mosul and Raqqa. Britain has been second only to America in helping with this mission, but the military has a very tight remit: to neutralise – that is, kill – the jihadists and then go home. This is a huge frustration for the British generals who have been involved in the campaign: they want to stay and help stabilise these regions. Some feel that the Iranians, who were heavily involved on the ground, will now move into areas conveniently cleared by the UK and US.
At the Ministry of Defence, the feeling is that the hasty retreat will create the conditions for a new conflict, because the Saudis would not stand for a situation where the government in Baghdad becomes a puppet of Tehran. As one official puts it: “don’t be surprised if we’re dragged back there in another few years”.
This is why Prince Mohammed wants to act now: to push back Iranian proxies, in Iraq and Yemen, before they make too much progress. When Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh last month, he said it could be an “act of war”
– and he is looking for allies in this war.
The hope in the Foreign Office is that the Crown Prince would create a coalition of the willing that unites Israel with the Sunni Arab states, who sponsor the Palestinians. “The deal, waiting to be done, is peace-for-land,” says one senior British official. “And Salman can do it. He has the power, the will and the impatience. He’s a history maker.”
A land-for-peace deal has been proposed by the Saudis before, in a 10-sentence plan where Israel would give up its post-1967 conquests in return for a ceasefire and a two-state solution. At the time, the Israelis said any surrendered ground would be used as a launch pad for rocket attacks, so the deal came to nothing. But three factors have changed: the sense of a common and urgent Iranian threat, the hard-charging style of the young Crown Prince and finally (according to British officials) the new prospect of plenty of Saudi money for both Israeli evictees and Palestinians, should they accept.
Prince Mohammed, like Donald Trump, sees himself as a dealmaker who succeeds because he flouts and rewrites the rules of diplomacy. Last month, he summoned Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, for talks in Riyadh and apparently told him to accept a pretty bad deal: he’d have his independent Palestinian state, but he’d have to let Israel keep quite a lot of the disputed territory. And if Abbas wouldn’t accept the deal, then the Saudis would replace him with someone who would.
It’s a long shot: one Cabinet member estimates that there is about a one-in-five chance of Prince Mohammed’s gambit succeeding. And it’s all very hard to tell: was his initial offer to Abbas a bluff, to be replaced with a later one? Are the Americans playing along, pretending to fall out with the Saudis over plans to build an embassy in Jerusalem? Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, has made several trips to Riyadh which suggests quite a degree of co-ordination.
This form of diplomacy – secretive meetings, forced resignations, sweeping statements, mass imprisonment of critics – makes the peace process hard to predict. The prospect of it all backfiring is quite high; a misjudgment from the White House could well ruin everything.
But Donald Trump is right to say that the diplomatic approaches of the past 15 years have not achieved much for Israel or Palestine and that the “ultimate deal” between the two is there, waiting to be done. Even if it is a Saudi prince who ends up doing it.
Israeli police scuffle with a protester outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City
A mural depicting the US president is defaced at an Israeli barrier in Bethlehem in the West Bank