Israeli forces yesterday fired on protesters trying to breach the Gaza border fence, killing more than 60 and injuring 2,400. It was the deadliest day in Gaza since 2014. The violence came as Israeli and American officials celebrated the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem: Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump both attended, and President Donald Trump gave a televised address.
Watching these events unfold together on the news, the contrast is striking. We spoke with Michael Koplow, policy director at Israel Policy Forum, about what yesterday’s events will mean—for Gaza, for the two-state solution, and for how Israel and the United States’ actions are viewed on the world stage.
How did we get to such a boiling point yesterday?
There were the protests today, and more obviously there was the week-long Great March of Return that has been planned to culminate with these events, including the embassy move yesterday and then Nakba Day on Tuesday. And while the embassy opening wasn’t the cause of the protests and the riots and the marches, it also exacerbated the feeling of the Palestinians that they are getting shafted on all sides by Israel and by the United States. Part of it is the Trump administration policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which certainly has not made the Palestinians feel that there is any real end to the situation in sight. And finally, it’s no coincidence that this is called the Great March of Return; the notion of return is very strong. There have not been Palestinian leaders who have ever been willing to stand up and give ordinary Palestinians a sense of what is and is not possible.
So when you have all these factors together, it creates a toxic brew. And it contributes to a horrific situation on the border, where obviously the Israel Defense Forces cannot allow Palestinians—whether armed or not—to breach the fence, and it certainly cannot tolerate gunmen shooting toward the Israeli side, but you very clearly also have Palestinians who are there to protest peacefully and are caught in the crossfire. So it’s not an ideal situation on any side, to vastly understate.
In the news, the world is watching Palestinians being killed while American and Israeli officials celebrate the embassy opening. What will be the effect of this contrast?
There’s a huge contrast, and the optics are terrible. Even though there are very good reasons for Israeli and U.S. officials to celebrate the embassy move today—we should understand the legitimate joy that Israelis feel over recognition of Jerusalem as the capital—the optics of these celebrations going on while the Palestinians are being injured at the border is only going to convince Palestinians that the U.S. is not a fair broker, and it is only going to push more Palestinians toward violence.
How will these events affect the perception of the U.S. and Israel on the world stage?
Turkey already withdrew its ambassador to Israel and to the U.S., so that’s reaction number one. In general it’s going to make things more difficult on the Israeli policy front, and it’s going to make it more difficult for the states that have shown a willingness to engage with Israel more than they have in the past. It’s going to make it difficult for them politically to keep on doing so to the same extent, because even though this is obviously a U.S. move and not an Israeli move, most countries look at this as something coordinated between the U.S. and Israel knowingly. And while moving the embassy to West Jerusalem on its own could have been productive had it been accompanied with some sort of acknowledgment of the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem, it wasn’t done that way. So it’s going to make it more difficult for some states to justify engagement with Israel until there is some sort of real progress or real momentum on the policy front. And obviously the embassy move is not going to be seen as progress in regard to the Palestinians.
What will this mean for the peace process—and for the two-state solution?
The peace process has essentially been dead ever since the December 6 announcement. Once the Jerusalem announcement was made, the Palestinians have been unwilling to engage with the current administration, not just over the peace process or the talks themselves, but also by boycotting all Trump administration officials. They seized upon the Jerusalem issue as a new red line. I think it’s going to be impossible—certainly for the current Palestinian position—to walk that back until and unless there is some sort of decision made for them on Jerusalem, as well.
So whatever the Trump administration’s intentions were—and they’ve talked about this as a way to further the peace process—I think that in reality it does the opposite. And while there are many different reasons to move the embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s rightful capital, we should all be clear headed that it’s not going to advance the cause of a two-state solution, and it’s certainly not going to make it easier for the Palestinians to engage with Israel (or with the U.S. as a mediator) going forward.
South Africa also pulled its ambassador out of Israel yesterday because of the violence in Gaza. What does this mean, and will we see similar reactions from other countries?
South Africa is a bit of a special case, and Turkey was another. I’ll be surprised if we see many more countries that have relations with Israel pull their ambassadors from Israel over this—or pull their ambassadors from the U.S. over this—simply because the countries that would be likely to do it don’t have formal diplomatic relations with Israel. The Egyptians and Jordanians I suppose would be candidates, but I don’t think they’re going to want to offend the Trump administration. So I’d be surprised if too many more countries pull ambassadors, but it’s going to make it really difficult for countries that have been trying to have better relations under the table to keep it up.
What are your thoughts on pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress, who participated in the embassy’s opening ceremony?
I understand that many people view them as friends of Israel because of the enormous amounts of public and rhetorical support they give to the state, but I think that their true intentions are certainly in question, and their past remarks about Jews and Judaism make them inappropriate choices to be speaking at the official embassy ceremony in Jerusalem.
Looking ahead, do you think this level of violence is an isolated incident, or will we see more violence at this level in the future?
The Palestinians have really been building up to today now for months; today might end up being the climax. On the other hand there were so many casualties yesterday, and I expect just as many if not more today. One can easily see how this might be part of a larger reaction that leads to another war in Gaza, which happened in 2008 and 2012 and 2014. There’s certainly a good chance that the violence yesterday and today might be a spark for something much bigger.
How should liberal Zionists react?
It’s very tough. On one hand, I think liberal Zionists should be just as outspoken and strong in their defense of Israeli security as their counterparts on the right—and certainly no country can abide breaches at their border, such as the attempts taking place in Gaza—but it’s also difficult when it is not coupled with an Israeli and U.S. government push to have a fair resolution to the conflict and a two-state solution. The issues of Israeli security and a diplomatic horizon for the Palestinians shouldn’t and can’t be separated. And so liberal Zionists should defend Israeli security with every fiber of their being; they should also be advocating for a two-state solution with every fiber of their being, and they shouldn’t let one affect the other.
Will we look back on this as a turning point?
I don’t know if it will be a turning point, but I do think that the violence in Gaza yesterday will certainly be seen as one of the lower points in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And while there certainly is reason to celebrate the Jerusalem embassy opening, there would be more reason to celebrate had it been done in a different—and wiser—fashion.