US President Donald Trump set off protests throughout the Middle East on Wednesday as he announced that America formally recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city.
Mr Trump described the move as “a long overdue step” to advance the Middle East peace process.
The fate of the ancient city is one of the thorniest issues between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel called Mr Trump’s move “historic” but there has been sharp international criticism.
Mr Trump said the US still supported a two-state solution to the longstanding conflict, if approved by both sides, which would essentially see the creation of an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel.
He changed decades of U.S. policy in a brief afternoon speech and cast the move as a bid to preserve, not derail, aspirations for regional peace.
Appearing in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room against an elaborate backdrop of Christmas decorations, he also said the United States embassy in Israel would, over time, be moved there from Tel Aviv.
Israel is the only country where the United States has an embassy in a city that the host nation does not consider its capital.
But his speech was greeted by demonstrations and a threat from Hamas, who called Thursday and Friday ‘days of rage’ that he had ‘opened the gates of hell’.
In Gaza thousands flooded the streets and burned U.S. flags. Palestinian secular and Islamist factions called a general strike on Thursday after tens of thousands took to the streets on Wednesday night.
Israeli security forces braced for possible violence for days to come and the U.S. embassy in Jordan was effectively locked down.
World leaders including the Pope spoke out against the measure, saying that it jeopardized the peace process. But Trump was unrepentant that he was doing the ‘right thing’.
‘I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,’ Trump said. ‘While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today I am delivering.’
‘When I came into office I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking,’ he said, leaning heavily on a mid-1990s federal law that demanded the embassy’s relocation.
‘We have declined to acknowledge any Israeli capital – at all,’ Trump added. ‘But today we finally acknowledge the obvious, that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.’
‘It is also the right thing to do. It is something that has to be done.’
Every president since Bill Clinton has exercised a waiver in the Jerusalem Embassy Act, effectively kicking the can down the road. Trump said that has brought the world ‘no closer to a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.’
A major theme in Trump’s unprecedented statement was his claim that it shouldn’t interfere with longer-term peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
What the speech did not spell out was how that could be the case – and there was no briefing from the White House afterwards to expand on Trump’s case.
His son-in-law Jared Kushner is currently drawing up a Middle East peace plan, but when it will appear and how Wednesday’s dramatic announcement will play a part in it is unknown.
Notably Kushner, 36, a former property developer, was not present for Trump’s speech and proclamation signing.
But the Palestine Liberation Organization said after his speech that it had destroyed hopes for a two-state solution.
The terror group Hamas said Trump had opened ‘the gates of hell.’
Sami Abu Zuhri, the leader of Hamas, said that Trump’s decision ‘will not succeed in changing the reality of Jerusalem being Islamic Arab land.’
‘This decision is foolish and time will tell that the biggest losers are Trump and Netanyahu.’
But Trump insisted that ‘this decision is not intended in any way to reflect a departure from our strong commitment to facilitate a lasting peace agreement. ‘We want an agreement that is a great deal for the Israelis and a great deal for the Palestinians.’
‘We are not taking a position of any final status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the resolution of contested borders,’ he continued.
‘Those questions are up to the parties involved. The United States remains deeply committed to helping facilitate a peace agreement that is acceptable to both sides. I intend to do everything in my power to help forge such an agreement.’
Trump said the United States will continue to support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, ‘if agreed to by both sides.’
‘In the meantime, I call on all parties to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites,’ he said.
Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross and where Muslims pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque,’ Trump added.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trump’s policy shift ‘historic’ and quickly pledged to continue giving Muslims and Christians access to their sacred places in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The US decision comes despite vocal opposition in the Muslim world, even among US allies.
On Tuesday Saudi Arabia’s King Salman had said that the move “would constitute a flagrant provocation of Muslims, all over the world”.
Demonstrations have already taken place in Gaza and outside the US consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said it was “a moment of great anxiety”.
“There is no alternative to the two-state solution. There is no Plan B,” he said.