Washington: The White House on Monday declined to criticize Israel’s handling of deadly unrest on the Gaza border, instead putting the blame “squarely on Hamas” as senior administration officials attended the opening of the controversial US embassy in Jerusalem.
At least 52 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in clashes prompted in part by fury over Trump’s sensitive relocation of the diplomatic mission, whose inauguration went ahead despite the violence.
Though US President Donald Trump did not go to Israel himself, sending his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as part of a somewhat low-key delegation, he was clearly happy about the fulfillment of his campaign pledge to recognize Jerusalem as its capital.
The Republican president announced the embassy move on December 6, which immediately drew a chorus of international disapproval — and violent protests.
“Big day for Israel. Congratulations!” Trump said via Twitter.
“We celebrate history in the making,” said Vice President Mike Pence. “America stands with Israel!”
But their tweets made no mention of the deadly reality on the ground, and for hours, official Washington remained silent about the bloodshed.
Eventually, in an afternoon press briefing, the White House addressed the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in years — and blamed the fatalities on the enclave’s Islamist rulers Hamas.
“The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told reporters.
“Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response,” he said, adding that “Israel has the right to defend itself.”
– ‘Proud to celebrate’ –
Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the thorniest of issues in any final status negotiations to resolve Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Israel considers the entire city its capital, while the Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
The deadly unrest has sparked an international outcry, and calls by Western nations such as Britain for Israel to use restraint.
The White House was focused elsewhere. In a statement, it stressed how “quickly and efficiently” Trump’s vision to relocate the embassy was realized, after several of his predecessors had sided with diplomatic tradition and left the embassy in Tel Aviv.
Many in the American political class, including top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, applauded Trump’s move, widely interpreted as a gesture to his electoral base including evangelicals.
The tone contrasted with images of the bloody Gaza protests occurring less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Jerusalem embassy inauguration ceremony.
In a statement issued after the death toll had exceeded 40, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no mention of the violence, preferring instead to announce he was “proud to celebrate the opening” of the embassy.
– ‘Kushner Plan’ –
Kushner, speaking in Jerusalem, addressed the unrest, saying “those provoking violence are part of the problem, and not part of the solution.”
US officials have reaffirmed their support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even saying Trump’s embassy decision would help advance resolution of the conflict.
“We remain committed to advancing a lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” Pompeo said.
Trump, who addressed the embassy opening via video message, had pledged to jumpstart a moribund peace process.
He entrusted the delicate mission to Kushner, his senior aide, who began negotiations with the two sides and was, according to several sources, set to unveil in early 2018 a peace plan that was being drafted in secret.
But the December 6 announcement on Jerusalem essentially froze the negotiations.
Furious Palestinian leaders are now refusing to speak to the American side.
And the “Kushner Plan” has never been presented, leading foreign diplomats to doubt its very existence.
The White House insisted it would release its peace plan in due time, and stressed it would not be derailed by Monday’s deaths, which Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas condemned as Israeli “massacres.”
“I don’t think it hurts the peace plan,” Shah said of the violence. “The peace plan will be introduced at the appropriate time.”