GAZA CITY - "We will not give up on our capital!" the demonstrators in Gaza's Unknown Soldier Square yelled.
Mahmoud Qasim, one of the protestors, told me Wednesday evening that U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital was no less than the end of the Palestinian case and the Palestinian dream of an independent state. "Today’s decision broke my heart. I can’t even comment. We lost our soul. We lost Jerusalem."
Millions of Palestinians and Israelis are now waiting in nervous anticipation following Trump's pronouncement to see if the Palestinian territories will ignite, and whether this will also inflame a related field of conflict - between Israel and the wider Arab and Muslim world, a relationship marked in recent months (especially between Israel and the Gulf states) by warming ties.
Palestinians are well aware that Trump's step appears to overwrite their legal, historical and moral claims to the Holy City with solely Israeli sovereignty. Despite Jerusalem, together with the West Bank, being territory occupied by Israel, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians and many international organizations consider East Jerusalem as the only future capital for Palestine.
It is a shared and foundational policy objective from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian responses have been vigorous across the political spectrum, from Hamas calling for a new Intifada to the chief PLO negotiator declaring the end of the two-state solution. "The decision is a declaration that the U.S. has withdrawn from its role from the peace process," Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said.
Straight after Trump's declaration Wednesday, hundreds of Palestinians poured on to the streets of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip to protest, waving Palestinian flags, and burning Donald Trump’s photo and the American and Israeli flags. The protesters held signs declaring the decision was a "new Balfour Declaration" - a reviled designation - for the Palestinian people.
Another protestor, Abbas Abu Zakareya, said that it was a purely destructive decision that humiliated Palestinians and demeaned their own agency. "Today’s decision is shocking. Does Trump own Jerusalem, that he can gift it to the Israelis? Does he?"
Among the few female protestors I met an older woman, crying. Her interpretation of Trump’s act: the end of the Palestinian national project writ large. "I'm a refugee from Haifa. After this decision, every dream we have is gone - a state including Jerusalem and my dream - to return."
"Where are the world leaders?" an old and angry man interrupted. "Jerusalem is our capital. We will never recognize the capital of Israeli occupation. I will die for it." He cried. "Nothing matters to me now, not the [Palestinian] reconciliation [process] or my life."
Comments like these may sound melodramatic – but they’re a fair representation of the depth of feeling I found in Gaza after the announcement, depression mixed with anxiety and much anger, a state of mind inextricably linked to the harsh effects of the long blockade on Gaza.
All through Thursday the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Fatah, held press conferences and expressed their anger regarding Trump’s decision. This time, the leadership is reflecting popular opinion. The clashes with Israeli forces on the borders of the Gaza Strip, which injured dozens, and rocket launches towards Israel are likely to only be a foretaste of Friday. Almost all the Palestinian factions have called publicly for their activists to engage with Israeli forces on Gaza’s borders.
There were few expectations that Arab leaders would speak out in solidarity with the Palestinians, Abu-Mo'taz, a protestor, pointed out that those leaders haven't spoken out in recent years: "After this decision, I believe the Arab leaders will do nothing. In every city of Palestine, Muslims and Christians are suffering – and our Arab leaders will do nothing, as always."
The only Palestinians who maintain some faint hope heard the muffled references to a two-state outcome from future negotiations in Trump's remarks. But that feels worlds away from the accelerated pace of protests in Gaza today and from the expected spike for the weekend's days of rage.