Trump's Jerusalem Embassy Could Cause a Bloodbath in Gaza as Israeli Military Deploys Sharpshooters

As Palestinians in the Gaza Strip prepare to stage mass demonstrations on the border with Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces is deploying 100 sharpshooters to man the area, an Israeli general announced Wednesday. The army has been authorized to open fire on protesters in cases of extreme danger.

The showdown could start on Friday, when thousands of people are expected to gather in tent cities in five locations along the security barrier that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel for an event known as the Nakba March. Entire families are expected to participate in weeks of demonstrations, which are being held in opposition to President Donald Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Activists also hope the protests will call attention to the plight of Palestinian refugees.

Israeli officials say they are prepared for some demonstrators to attempt to cross the border from Gaza into Jerusalem, and the deployment of sharpshooters is meant to discourage these advances. Skirmishes have already taken place in recent weeks between Israeli forces and protesters, and in one case three armed Palestinians succeeded in entering Israel.

Human rights advocates have expressed concern that the upcoming rallies could devolve into a bloodbath. "It looks like the Israeli army is preparing a massive firing squad to unleash on Palestinian civilian protesters and have been given orders to use live fire," Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of organizations that oppose Israel's policies toward Palestinians, told Newsweek.

Palestinian men help evacuate an injured protester during clashes with Israeli troops near Khan Younis refugee camp by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip, on March 16. As Palestinians in Gaza prepare to stage mass demonstrations on the border with Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces is deploying 100 sharpshooters to man the area, an Israeli general announced Wednesday. Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has developed a strong relationship with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past year. With his characteristic superlatives, Trump has called the U.S.-Israeli relationship "the best we've ever had." This was solidified in December when Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without extracting any concessions from the Israelis with regard to a peace settlement with the Palestinians. East Jerusalem has long been viewed as the potential capital of a Palestinian state, if and when a peace deal is brokered. For many regional analysts, Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital put an end to any chance of a peace deal.

Palestinians have been protesting the decision ever since, and the protests have led to violent scuffles and some deaths. In December, Israeli snipers like the ones to be deployed along the border with Gaza killed four Palestinians, including a wheelchair-bound activist. The U.S. plans to inaugurate the new embassy around May 14, and protests are expected throughout the weeks leading up to the event.

Experts say the chance for conflict during the coming weeks of protest is heightened now that a peace settlement looks further out of reach. "I think it's pretty clear that the Israeli military views the situation as pretty tense because of the lack of any prospect of negotiations for a two-state solution. So the situation is very volatile. The Palestinians will encourage protests and will call attention to their cause. And the possibilities for tragedy and bloodshed are numerous," Ambassador Richard LeBaron, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former career diplomat who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv from 2001 to 2004, told Newsweek, adding that the Israeli Defense Force is "cognizant of the volatility" of the situation.

"They are engaging in some psychological conditioning to discourage people from coming to the border. I would hope they aren't seriously considering opening fire," LeBaron added.

Wheelchair-bound Palestinian demonstrator Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, who was killed during clashes with Israeli troops, gestures during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on December 15, 2017. Reuters

Israeli defense officials have said they also plan to prevent protesters from damaging the separation barriers during the protest. Gaza is controlled by the Islamic organization Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and has fought several wars against the country.

"We won't allow mass infiltration into Israel and to damage the fence, and certainly not to reach the communities," Israeli Lieutenent General Gadi Eisenkot told the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"The instructions are to use a lot of force," he said.