Jerusalem (AFP) – Israelis basked in national pride and prepared for a Jerusalem march expected to draw tens of thousands Sunday, a day ahead of the controversial US embassy move to the disputed city.
Palestinians meanwhile readied for their own protests on Monday over the embassy’s inauguration, including another mass demonstration in the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel.
Sunday’s Jerusalem march begins a week of high tension between Israelis and Palestinians, highlighted by the embassy inauguration to be attended by a Washington delegation including US President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
Both arrived in Israel on Sunday.
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.
Palestinian protests are also planned for Tuesday.
For Israelis, Sunday is Jerusalem Day, an annual celebration of the “reunification” of the city following the 1967 Six-Day War.
Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognised by the international community.
This year’s celebration takes on added significance due to the embassy move the following day.
The annual march to the Western Wall includes many hardline religious nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state, often resulting in clashes as they pass through mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.
– ‘Capital of our people’ –
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — bolstered in recent days by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — opened a special cabinet meeting at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum by again lauding the embassy move.
“Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible approximately 650 times,” Netanyahu said.
“The reason is simple: For over 3,000 years it has been the capital of our people, and only of our people.”
Police and the Israeli military planned major security deployments.
Around 1,000 police officers will be positioned around the US embassy and surrounding neighbourhoods for Monday’s inauguration, said spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Israel’s army said it would almost double the number of troops surrounding the Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.
On Sunday, scuffles broke out between Israelis visiting the Haram al-Sharif holy compound in east Jerusalem’s Old City, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and Muslim security officers.
Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there to avoid provoking tensions and police said a number of visitors were removed for not following the rules.
“It is not a provocation. It’s our property,” said Nili Naoun, 42, an Israeli who arrived at the holy site with her family at 7:00 am.
A number of Palestinian shop owners in the Old City said they planned to close when the march passed through in case anyone tried to vandalise their shops, as has occurred in the past.
– Weeks of tension –
There were already tensions in the weeks before the embassy move.
Fifty-four Palestinians have been killed in protests and clashes since March 30 along the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel.
No Israelis have been wounded and the military has faced criticism over the use of live fire.
Israel says it only opens fire when necessary to stop infiltrations, attacks and damage to the border fence, while accusing Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the blockaded Gaza Strip, of seeking to use the protests as cover to carry out violence.
On Sunday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya headed to Cairo for talks amid speculation over whether Egypt is attempting to calm the situation.
The embassy move has provoked Palestinian anger and led them to freeze ties with the White House.
But US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who has been a supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, said he believed the Palestinians’ position “will change over time.”
He told Fox News the United States “is there to help the Palestinians” and “there is no basis” to think the embassy move will work against peace.
Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the 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.
Like Friedman, he has argued that it helps make peace possible by taking Jerusalem “off the table”, but many have pointed out that he has not announced any concessions in return from Israel.