Jerusalem — Guatemala inaugurated its Israeli embassy in Jerusalem on Wednesday, becoming the first country to follow in the footsteps of the US’s deeply controversial move that was accompanied by deadly violence on the Gaza border.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales were among officials who attended a ceremony inaugurating the new embassy at an office park in the disputed city, which is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The US and Guatemalan moves break with decades of international consensus. US ambassador to Israel David Friedman also attended Wednesday’s ceremony.
Previously Guatemala’s embassy was in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, like that of Paraguay, so far the only other mission with immediate plans to move to Jerusalem. Paraguay’s embassy is expected to relocate before the end of May.
Netanyahu profusely praised Guatemala for making the move and noted that it came only two days after the US opened its embassy in Jerusalem.
The Israeli premier spoke of Guatemala’s early recognition of the state of Israel after its creation in 1948 and said he would visit the country of 16-million on his next visit to Latin America.
"I look forward to assessing with you the practical ways ... that we can advance this friendship and this alliance," Netanyahu said. "But today, I just want to say how delighted we are to have you."
Morales called it a "transcendental moment for future generations" who will "remember that friendly countries took courageous decisions in favour of Israel and we do this because you have a special place in our hearts".
The US embassy move on Monday was accompanied by mass protests and clashes along the Gaza border in which Israeli forces killed about 60 Palestinians.
Israel has faced international criticism over its use of live fire. It says its actions are necessary to defend the border and stop mass infiltrations from the Palestinian enclave, which is run by Islamist movement Hamas.
On Monday, tens of thousands had gathered near the border while smaller numbers of stone-throwing Palestinians approached the fence and sought to break through, with Israeli snipers positioned on the other side.
Most of those killed were shot by Israeli snipers, the Gazan health ministry said, in the bloodiest day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since a 2014 Gaza war.
Israel’s army said "it appears that at least 24" of those killed were militants, mainly from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It said explosive devices and firebombs were used, while Israeli soldiers were also shot at.
But there were numerous calls for an independent investigation into the deaths, with Britain, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium among those supporting such action.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the EU have previously called for an independent probe, with 116 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since a campaign of protests on the Gaza-Israel border was launched on March 30.
Morales’s decision to move Guatemala’s embassy has been seen as partly influenced by his evangelical religious beliefs.
Evangelicals want to see Jews rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, which according to their beliefs would facilitate the second coming of Jesus.
The move is also seen by some as a gesture to elicit US support at a time when Morales stands accused by Guatemalan prosecutors of accepting illegal campaign contributions.
Senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat made reference to those allegations in a scathing attack on Wednesday.
"The Guatemalan government has chosen to stand on the wrong side of history, to side with violations of international law and human rights, and to take a hostile step against the Palestinian people and the Arab world," he wrote in a statement.
"We are not surprised that a president that has objected to UN investigations into corruption and abuses of power has decided to further violate international resolutions."
Former Guatemalan foreign minister Gabriel Orellana has said Morales’s embassy move has the effect of banishing his country "to the fringes of the UN".
Jerusalem’s status is perhaps the thorniest issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US embassy relocation infuriated the Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority said Wednesday it was recalling its envoys to Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria after their ambassadors attended an Israeli reception marking the US embassy move.
On Tuesday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas withdrew his top representative to the US.