Today's the day: US set for deeply controversial Jerusalem embassy move
THOMAS COEX (AFP)
The United States is set to inaugurate its controversial new embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, capping off months of global outcry and Palestinian outrage over President Donald Trump's upending of decades of careful policy regarding the disputed holy city.
Monday's inauguration ceremony at 4:00 pm (1300 GMT) will include some 800 guests at what until now had been a US consulate building in Jerusalem.
US Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will lead the Washington delegation that includes Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House aides, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
US Ambassador David Friedman will preside over the dedication ceremony. President Trump will not attend the opening, and will instead address invitees by video.
While Israelis and White House officials have exuberantly praised the move, Palestinians are expected to hold mass demonstrations along the Gaza border and in the West Bank.
There is concern that the Gaza protests could turn deadly, as the Hamas rulers of the blockaded enclave called for thousands to breach the heavily fortified border security fence.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that it would almost double the number of troops deployed to the Gaza border and in the West Bank to tackle Palestinian protests against the Jerusalem embassy opening.
- 'Capital for all time' -
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly called Trump's decision "historic", welcomed the US delegation at a foreign ministry reception on Sunday evening.
"Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years," he said. "It's been the capital of our state for the past 70 years. It will remain our capital for all time."
Sullivan called the embassy "a long overdue recognition of reality."
Israelis began celebrating on Sunday, as tens of thousands of marched in Jerusalem, some holding American flags, to mark Jerusalem Day.
The annual event is an Israeli celebration of the "reunification" of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War, following which Israel annexed East Jerusalem and declared the city as its undivided capital in a move never recognized by the international community.
Beyond the disputed nature of Jerusalem, the date of the embassy move is also key.
The embassy move will take place on the 70th anniversary of Israel's founding, while the following day Palestinians will mark the Nakba, or "catastrophe," commemorating the more than 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.
Jerusalem's status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see Arab-majority east Jerusalem as the desired capital of their future state.
In the decades since 1967, international consensus has been that the city's status must be negotiated between the two sides, but Trump broke with that to global outrage.
- 'Off the table' -
The Trump administration has vowed to restart the moribund Middle East peace process but the embassy move has inflamed feelings across the globe.
But Trump has argued that the move helps make peace possible by taking Jerusalem "off the table", though many have pointed out he has not announced any concessions in return from Israel.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was "hard at work" on the peace process, which he declared was "most decidedly not dead".
The US was the first country to recognize the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 under president Harry S. Truman. In turn, an exchange of missions was announced.
However, the US did not officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital until 1995, when Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act ordering the relocation of the embassy from Israel’s commercial capital of Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But the move was repeatedly delayed by subsequent US Presidents who invoked a rolling waiver reissued every six months postponing it on grounds of “national security.”
In June 2017, the newly appointed US President Donald Trump also signed the waiver despite much speculation and repeated campaign promises that he would break with the decades-old policy and move the embassy.
However, in December, Trump followed through with the promise by official declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He again signed the embassy waiver shortly after the groundbreaking announcement, delaying the move another six months, but vowed that the US embassy would begin planning its move by 2019.
The new embassy will be initially located in a US consular building in Jerusalem's Arnona neighborhood while Washington searches for a permanent location.
This first phase of the move -- which has so far involved modifications to the consulate building including the hanging of a stone plaque on its exterior, the relocation of Friedman and his core staff (less than six people), as well as increased security -- has cost less than $400,000 a US official told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Trump had boasted about his reducing the price tag associated with the embassy's relocation from an estimated $1 billion, saying in late April that he has budgeted around $400,000 for the move.
AFP contributed to this report.
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