(Bloomberg) -- Fifty-five Palestinians were killed in confrontations with Israeli troops Monday after tens of thousands converged on the Gaza Strip border, throwing a pall over President Donald Trump’s contentious inauguration of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
It was the deadliest day in Gaza since Hamas’s last war with Israel in 2014. More than 1,200 people were wounded by live fire, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Health officials say more than 100 Palestinians have been killed since Gazans began a campaign of weekly protests March 30 to draw attention to worsening conditions in the seaside enclave. Gaza has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas, considered a terrorist group by much of the West, took power in 2007.
The U.S. decision to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv was a diplomatic victory for Israel but a blow to the Palestinians, who say it undermines their own claim to east Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state. Direct peace talks have been stalled for years but Palestinians say the embassy move further hurts chances of a breakthrough.
Egged on by loudspeakers and transported in buses, Gazans streamed to the border with Israel, where some threw rocks, burned tires, and flew kites and balloons outfitted with firebombs into Israeli territory.
Carnage and Celebration
Scenes of stone-throwing Palestinians surrounded by the black smoke of burning tires contrasted starkly with the celebratory atmosphere at the embassy inauguration in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, where the streets were draped with U.S. and Israeli flags and posters saying, “Trump: Make Israel Great.” Pro-Palestinian demonstrators waiting outside the embassy gave the finger to buses carrying guests to and from the event.
The president congratulated Israelis and said in a video message that the embassy opening was a “long time coming.” Trump has said the move doesn’t prejudge the city’s contested final status and stressed that the U.S. is still committed to helping the sides negotiate peace. The move has angered much of the Middle East and disappointed European allies.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas broke off all contact with the Trump administration after the embassy move was announced in December. On Monday, Abbas called the new U.S. embassy an “American settlement.”
Later in the evening, the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership called on the United Nations to investigate Israel’s actions in Gaza and said it would ask the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel’s West Bank settlements. South Africa recalled its ambassador for consultations given the day’s casualty toll.
Israel accuses Hamas of using the protests as cover to attack the Jewish state, and has vowed to prevent any attempts to breach the border, Hamas’s stated goal. The Israeli military said it stopped militants from laying an explosive device and that aircraft targeted Hamas security posts after troops were fired upon.
White House spokesman Raj Shah backed Israel’s right to defend itself. He called the protests a “gruesome and unfortunate propaganda attempt” and said responsibility for the deaths “rests squarely with Hamas.”
At the embassy inauguration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the military, praising soldiers protecting the Gaza border. Israeli peace groups condemned the government’s response, with B’tselem saying Israeli political and military leaders had shown “appalling indifference to human life” by firing live ammunition.
The embassy inauguration was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence but also came a day before Palestinians mark the “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” of their displacement by Israel’s birth. Protests are expected to continue Tuesday, when Palestinians have declared a general strike.
The “March of Return,” as the weeks-long protest movement is known, began as an effort by grassroots groups to draw attention to the Palestinian demand to return to homes lost in the fight against Israel’s 1948 creation. The campaign was quickly co-opted by Hamas, which was eager to divert popular anger away from its management of Gaza.
Senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar blamed Trump for the Palestinian deaths.
“Trump, who is today moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem without any concerns or deterrence, bears sole responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinian people and the shedding of their blood today,” he said at a border-area rally.
Trump, who vowed to move the embassy from Tel Aviv during his campaign, defended his decision in the video address broadcast at the ceremony. “Israel is a sovereign nation, with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital,” he said.
Representing Trump at the ceremony were his daughter, Ivanka, her husband, Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
“By recognizing history, you have made history,” Netanyahu said of Trump.
While the ceremony was in progress, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini issued her own statement: “The ties of the Jewish people to Jerusalem are irrefutable, and must not be denied,” she said. “And the same is true for the ties of the Palestinian people to the city.”
Presidential candidates before Trump had also vowed to transfer the embassy, but waived the move once in office out of concern it would disrupt peace prospects.
The Trump administration bypassed years of construction on a new embassy by repurposing an existing consular building for the time being. Since the compound isn’t large enough to host all the staff currently based in Tel Aviv, officials will commute back and forth.
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