Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2018. (Xinhua/JINI)
by Keren Setton, Chen Wenxian, Yang Yuanyuan
JERUSALEM, May 15 (Xinhua) -- The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem officially opened on Monday despite international criticism. Many Israelis and Americans celebrated the event at the temporary venue of the mission in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona.
In stark contrast to the festive mood in the city, dozens of Palestinians were killed on the border with Gaza in clashes with Israeli forces while protesting the opening of the embassy.
As the holy sites to three religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- Jerusalem is a highly contested city at the heart of not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast War. Before that, it made the western part of the city its capital. In 1980, Israel annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem, a move condemned widely by the world, which has not recognized its sovereignty over both parts of the city till today.
For Palestinians, East Jerusalem is the capital of their future state.
CONTROVERSIAL U.S. EMBASSY MOVE
Throughout his presidential campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
It was a promise made by many candidates before, yet it was never delivered upon. But on Dec. 6 last year, Trump announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
For the international community, it was a sharp departure from decades of American and international policy based on the premise that Jerusalem' s status should be determined during negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The U.S. move is another phase in the elongated conflict in which facts on the ground are constantly shifting.
The European Union ambassadors to Israel did not attend the ceremony in Jerusalem on Monday to protest the decision.
"It's a very problematic move," said Professor Naomi Chazan with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "The message it emits is very clear ...more facts can be made on the ground without any sensitivity to Palestinian interests and rights."
Up until now, the U.S. embassy was located in Tel Aviv, Israel's financial capital. Almost all other foreign embassies are located there.
The timing of the transition from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was moved forward to coincide with Israel's 70th Independence Day. Hence, the embassy building was not a new one. What was once the U.S. consulate in the city has been upgraded and will function as the embassy in the interim period. A new and larger venue is expected to be bought and completed in the coming years.
Several Latin American countries and a few European countries are expected to follow suit, but most embassies will stay in Tel Aviv, highlighting the isolated position Israel and the United States are in.
But the significance of the move should not be underestimated.
"Never underestimate the power of symbolism," Chazan told Xinhua. "It changes the discourse and ... inevitably affects the future of negotiations and possible outcomes. It also affects ... the nature of resistance."
DEADLOCK OF PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI PEACE PROCESS LIKELY TO CONTINUE
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have not met in four years, with the peace process frozen.
In the immediate future, the embassy move is not expected to defrost the situation. Yet Trump believes the opposite is true.
After his December announcement, Trump said the contentious issue had now been taken "off the table" and would pave the way for renewed dialogue.
"Maybe it will pave the way ... for a positive process and for a negotiation where the Palestinians would have to accept the Jewish state and it doesn't negate the fact that they can have their own state and negotiate in East Jerusalem about the borders," said Amira Halperin, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
For now, Palestinian officials are refusing to meet with American officials.
Perhaps the prize that Israel has received in the form of the much coveted recognition of Jerusalem as its capital will come at a heavy price for the right-wing government currently in power.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may now be asked to make some major concessions to the Palestinians. These could be, for example, in the form of a freeze on settlement building.
But chances for the resumption of negotiations seem slim.
"Moving the embassy to Jerusalem after recognizing the city as the capital of Israel paves the way for the imposture of Israel's solutions to the conflict," said Hani al-Masri, director general of Masarat, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies.
Americans may have lost their position as an honest broker between the two sides.
"Negotiations will resume at some point, the question is when," said Gerald Steinberg, a professor who specializes in politics and Middle Eastern affairs, and Israel, U.S. and Europe relations at the Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
"There is no mutual point of understanding, the embassy issue ... forces the Palestinians to become more realistic but that will take some time," Steinberg told Xinhua.
Time will tell whether the Trump strategy to strike what he called "the ultimate deal" will materialize.
MORE CHAOS AND UNCERTAINTY EXPECTED FOR MIDEAST
In keeping with the contradictions that define the region, TV broadcasts around the world showed split screens during the inauguration ceremony.
While Netanyahu was celebrating in Jerusalem, the other side of the screen showed large billows of smoke rising in the Gaza skyline.
The death toll keeps rising, with at least 61 Palestinians killed and about 2,800 injured in the Gaza Strip. This was the result of a violent clash with Israeli forces.
It was the culmination of weekly demonstrations being held in recent weeks aimed at what Hamas has called an attempt to end the blockade on Gaza.
There was worldwide condemnation of events on the border, with accusations that the Israeli military had used excessive force.
Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, but still retains control of its air and maritime space.
Together with Egypt, it maintains a strict blockade on the territory since 2007, when Hamas wrested power from the more moderate Palestinian faction, the Fatah.
Funerals for Gaza's dead will be held and probably fuel further protest.
Hamada Faraana, a Palestinian news analyst and author, believes the region can expect an upsurge in violence.
"Waves of popular Palestinian protests are expected to escalate in light of understandings between the Palestinian factions on the need to confront the U.S. step on Jerusalem in all possible ways," he told Xinhua.
So far, the West Bank and East Jerusalem have remained relatively calm.
Last week on the heels of what it viewed as a major policy success, the Israeli government rejoiced at the U.S. withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear plan.
Israeli air force planes conducted a strike on alleged Iranian military positions in neighboring Syria.
Chazan told Xinhua that the Israelis gloating may lead to more friction with the Palestinians, a scenario which could get out of hand.
The region, however, is used to the cyclical violence.
As the Israeli euphoria from the embassy move subsides, the Jewish state will find itself yet again dealing with a tricky and lethal situation that might last days or even months.
"One of the things we know about the Middle East is how unpredictable and unstable it is," said Steinberg.
(Xinhua reporters Du Zhen, Wang Bowen and Liu Xue in Jerusalem, Zhao Yue and Emad Drimly in Gaza also contributed to the story.)
(Video editors: Zhao Yuchao, Geng Linlin)