In the past seven weeks, the Israeli military has killed at least 113 Palestinian protesters on the border with Gaza and injured over 12,000 more.
The deadliest day was May 14, when Israel killed 62 Palestinians. The majority of the victims that day were under 30, and at least ten were under 18. That same day, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was in Jerusalem with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as well as other representatives of the Trump administration, celebrating the opening of the US’s new embassy in the city.
Many writers have cited the embassy move as the reason behind the protests in Gaza. But while the move certainly hasn’t helped Israeli-Palestinian relations, the reasoning for the protests go back much further than the embassy’s opening. The current protests in Gaza began on March 30th, and mark 70 years since the beginning of the Nakba, or “the Catastrophe.”
In 1948, 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel to make way for the founding of the new state. As Israel has expanded its borders, more Palestinians have been displaced and forced out of their homes.
Today, the UN estimates that of the 1.9 million people living in the Gaza strip, 1.3 million of them are Palestinian refugees. The protest of the past two months, and particularly the fact that protesters were deliberately marching to the fence that marks the border with Israel, was called the Great March of Return. It asserted the ongoing belief in a Palestinian right of return: the idea that they have a legal and political right to go home after all these years. As it stands, the conditions under which Israel operates largely resembles apartheid – in fact, the UN once described it as such.
The right of return has always been a flashpoint in negotiations for peace between Israel and Palestine. There is a persistent belief on the part of right-wing Israelis in particular that conceding the right of return would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. It is true that such a policy would hugely alter the demographics of the current state of Israel. But it is also true that the ongoing occupation and blockade of Gaza and the violence it inflicts on the Palestinian people directly challenges another part of Israel’s identity: its claim to be a modern democracy. Through its blockade of Gaza, Israel already controls the lives of nearly 2 million who don’t get a say in Israeli policy.
And Palestinians living in the state of Israel are in many ways second-class citizens, subject to indignities that don’t affect their Jewish Israeli neighbors.
The result? 72 percent of Gazans are food insecure. 80 percent rely on humanitarian aid to survive. On average, they get about four hours of electricity a day, and hospitals depend on generators for power. Palestinians living in Israel face problems like housing and employment discrimination.
In contrast, Israel grants its own version of the right of return to anyone Jewish born anywhere in the world, a practice that leads to the expansion of Israel’s borders into Palestinian territory as new settlements are built.
So how does the US embassy’s relocation fit into this bigger picture? The status of Jerusalem is a key point in the possibility of ultimately creating a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine. Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their capital. In a series of ultimately unsuccessful peace talks throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Israel has sometimes shown a willingness to concede Palestinian control of East Jerusalem.
As far back as the 1940s, when Israel was founded, the UN pushed for a deal that would establish a state of Israel, a state of Palestine, and a UN-administered City of Jerusalem that could allow both sides access to the holy and cultural sites of the city. The embassy move is so controversial because it seems like an affirmation that Jerusalem belongs solely to Israel. Past administrations kept the embassy in Tel Aviv (where the rest of the international community also maintained their embassies) as a way of recognizing the centrality of Jerusalem’s status to any prospect of peace.
For years, American politicians have claimed to be brokers of peace between Israel and Palestine, even when billions of dollars in American military aid to Israel over the years has been used against Palestinians. The embassy move is like rubbing salt in that open wound, doing away with the pretense of impartiality.