As criticism for Israel mounts, Guatemala opens its embassy in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday welcomed another new embassy in Jerusalem, even as the diplomatic fallout over Gaza bloodshed intensified with Israel and Turkey trading bitter recriminations.

The international denunciations cast a shadow over what Israel had hoped would be another showcase moment this week: Guatemala’s president cutting the ribbon on its new embassy in Jerusalem in a tidy office park on the other side of the city from the newly minted U.S. Embassy.

It was the first nation to join the United States in making the move and formally recognizing the contested city as Israel’s capital, and brought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a list of prominent U.S. delegates.

Beyond the toasts and congratulations, however, Israel was locked in widening diplomatic confrontations — led by domino-style expulsions and insults with Turkey.

Turkey on Tuesday expelled Israel’s ambassador and consul. That promoted Israel to retaliate with its own expulsions of top Turkish diplomats.

On Wednesday, Israel’s departing ambassador, Eitan Na’eh, received an uncustomary search at Israel’s airport in an apparent attempt at public humiliation, including being forced to take off his shoes. Members of the Turkish media had been invited to witness the event.

“This is an inappropriate treatment of Israeli Ambassador Eitan Na’eh,” Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in a statement. It summoned the Turkish diplomat hours later. And invited journalists.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Netanyahu had already exchanged insults on Twitter after Monday’s chaos along Gaza’s border fence with Israel, which has blockaded the coastal enclave for more than a decade.

[Israel, U.S. face world anger after Gaza deaths]

Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinian protests in Gaza trying to breach the border, killing some 60 people and wounding thousands. Israel and the United States claim the protests were engineered by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza. But many Palestinians say they only hope to draw attention to the worsening conditions under Israel’s blockade.

In a further poke at Turkey, Israeli lawmakers then called on the government to formally recognize the Turkish mass killing of Armenians a century ago as genocide — a move certain to bring sharp anger in Turkey.

“The man who sends thousands of Turkish soldiers to maintain the occupation of northern Cyprus and invades Syria, will not preach to us when we defend ourselves against invasion by Hamas,” wrote Netanyahu on Twitter. “A man whose hands are drenched in the blood of countless Kurdish civilians in Turkey and Syria is the last one who can preach to us about military ethics.”

Meanwhile, condemnations from Europe showed no signs of easing.

Ireland, Belgium and Luxembourg summoned Israeli ambassadors to express concern over what many view as excessive force by Israeli troops against unarmed Palestinian civilians. 

Israel has said that a significant number of those killed were members of various militant Islamist factions in the Gaza Strip, using the mass demonstrations as cover to infiltrate into Israel and carry out terrorist attacks against its civilians.

“Lethal force may only be used as a measure of last, not first, resort, and only when there is an immediate threat to life or serious injury. An attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement.

On Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called the killings in Gaza “a massacre,” and blamed both Israel and the United States. On Tuesday, he recalled Hussom Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador in Washington.

More moves came Wednesday with the Palestinian Authority calling back ambassadors in Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria — four E.U. members that have expressed an interest in opening embassies in Jerusalem. 

Palestinians were angry that ambassadors of those countries attended an event Sunday organized by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to honor the U.S. move to Jerusalem, a city that Palestinians also view as capital of a possible future state.

“Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was not only a hostile act against the people of Palestine as we mourn 70 years of ‘nakba,’ but is as well a violation of international law,” said Amal Jadou, deputy minister for European Affairs in the Palestinian foreign ministry. Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, a term used for the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians seven decades ago upon Israel’s creation.

For Israelis the opening of the U.S. and Guatemalan embassies in Jerusalem are a cause for celebration. They are the first countries to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan 51 years ago following the Arab-Israeli war. Most countries have refrained from recognizing Israel’s rule over the city, where a third of the residents are Palestinian, until Israelis and Palestinians reach some sort of peace agreement. 

But such moves have only served to alienate Palestinians. They see the U.S. Embassy opening as the ultimate slap by America and Abbas has warned that the move would galvanize the Palestinian struggle for independence. 

None of the diplomatic fallout appeared to dampen celebrations Wednesday at the new Guatemalan embassy, however. 

Morales, who flew to Israel especially, was accompanied by a handful of his ministers, congressmen and other dignitaries from his country. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, GOP mega donor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, as well as a smattering of Evangelical leaders were also present.

Speaking the event, which did not have open media coverage, Netanyahu said it was not a coincidence that Guatemala was the second country to open its embassy in Jerusalem, after the United States. 

“You were the second country to recognize Israel,” he said, referring to Guatemala’s role in lobbying for Israel’s establishment 70 years ago during a United Nations vote. 

Guatemalan congressman Marcos Fenando Yax, who said he had come to Israel specially for the event, said that most people in his country believed this was the right thing to do. “Eighty percent of Guatemala is Catholic and they support this move by Morales.”

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, he said, was a separate, internal issue. 

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