The Middle East was braced for violence Thursday, amid warnings about potential fallout from President Donald Trump’s contentious decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
There were angry clashes between Israeli police and demonstrators in the West Bank, with tear gas fired in Bethlehem and tires set alight in Ramallah. In Jerusalem, about 20 changting protesters chanting at the historic Damascus Gate were ordered to leave by police.
There were no immediate reports of injuries. But Friday, the Muslim holy day, could provide an important test when Palestinians gather for weekly mass prayers.
Powerful Palestinian Islamist group Hamas called for a new intifada — or uprising — against Israel while a prominent Iraqi militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, said Trump’s “stupid decision” could become a “legitimate reason” to attack U.S. forces in Iraq.
American flags were burned at protests outside the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul and in Cairo and Gaza City late Wednesday, while Iraq on Thursday summoned the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad over the issue.
The State Department updated its “worldwide caution” advice late Wednesday and sent a internal cable deferring non-essential travel to Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank through Dec. 20, officials told NBC News.
The U.S. Embassy in Jordan said it had “temporarily suspended routine public services” and that “all embassy travel outside Amman, both official and personal, has been prohibited until further notice.”
Turkey said America had dropped a grenade in the Middle East. “The United States has pulled the pin on a bomb ready to blow in the region,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told a conference in Ankara.
Trump also said he was putting in motion a move of the U.S. embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv — a process that aides have said could take several years — by “directing State Department to begin preparations” for the move.
That includes “hiring architects, engineers and planners, so that a new embassy, when completed would be a magnificent tribute to peace,” he said. The move marked a follow-through by Trump on a major campaign promise he’d made that had been closely followed by Israel and by evangelical Christians in the U.S.
Ahead of the announcement, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had voiced concerns about the threat the change would create for American personnel stationed in the region.
Protests broke out in parts of Amman, Jordan, inhabited by Palestinian refugees, with youths chanting anti-American slogans. In the Baqaa refugee camp on Amman’s outskirts, hundreds roamed the streets denouncing Trump and urging Jordan to scrap its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. “Down with America … America is the mother of terror,” they chanted.
Angry Palestinians switched off Christmas lights at Jesus’ traditional birthplace in the West Bank town of Bethlehem and in Ramallah. A tree adorned with lights outside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, and another in Ramallah, next to the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, were plunged into darkness.
Since the 1979 Camp David Accords, U.S. presidents have refused to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel or move the U.S. embassy. The U.S. approach has been that Jerusalem’s status should be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The Palestinians have sought the city’s eastern sector, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of a future independent state. They fear Trump’s declaration essentially imposes on them a disastrous solution for one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. ally Saudi Arabia joined the chorus of concern Thursday, saying it followed Trump’s decision “with deep sorrow” and warned of “dangerous consequences.”
Tillerson on Thursday defended Trump’s move, saying it reflected a longstanding reality. Speaking on the sidelines of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference in Vienna, Austria, he said the U.S. would still support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “if that’s the desire of the two parties.”
Israel’s security force, the IDF, sent reinforcements to Judea and Samaria as part of “readiness to possible developments” in response to the decision.