The U.S. Embassy moves to Jerusalem this May. Tourists and religious pilgrims alike are being turned away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Joint drills between the U.S. and Israeli military are preparing for missiles. This and more in this week’s Israel News Recap (Without the Rhetoric).

U.S. Embassy Move to Commence in May

It’s official. The U.S. Embassy to Israel will, for the first time, open its doors in Jerusalem on May 14, not unintentionally coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

Here’s a quick recap to catch you up.

  1. For decades the U.S. Congress recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, but every presidency had delayed moving the embassy to Jerusalem, effectively refusing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital.
  2. In December 2017, President Trump announced that he was not going to resign the order delaying the embassy move, thereby recognizing Israel’s stake in Jerusalem.
  3. That decision was met with accolades from Israel but harsh criticism from most global leaders.

Moving an embassy is no easy thing. The physical move, which was expected to take at least a year, seems to have been fast-tracked by the White House given that the U.S. doesn’t even have an embassy building in Jerusalem. Initially, the embassy staff will have to operate out of the U.S. consulate in South Jerusalem, which deals primarily with passport and visa issues. A small office will accommodate a couple of embassy officials, but the majority of the staff will still operate out of Tel Aviv.

But plans to construct a new embassy building in Jerusalem are underway.

In fact, the Associated Press reports that one of the wealthiest and most vocal American supporters of Israel, Sheldon Adelson, has offered to pay for at least part of the construction of the new embassy, an offer the U.S. officials are reportedly taking seriously.

The construction and final move of the entire embassy are likely to take much longer, but the symbolic ribbon-cutting on the anniversary of Israeli independence is reflective of the White House’s commitment to strengthening ties with Israel.

Tax Debacle Results in Rare Closure of Holy Sepulchre

Photo-snapping tourists and religious pilgrims alike were turned away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday after the management closed the doors in protest of what church leaders say is a "discriminatory" Israeli policy designed to weaken Christian presence in the holy city.

Locking the doors of one of Christianity’s holiest sites in Jerusalem, where it is believed that Yeshua was crucified and buried, is no small gesture. So what exactly is the church protesting?

There are three things you should know about this policy.

  1. The Jerusalem local government plans to tax church assets for the first time, and cabinet ministers are thinking about a bill that would allow government seizure of land in Jerusalem that churches have sold in recent years to anonymous buyers.
  2. The proposed taxes will not apply to houses of worship, such as the Holy Sepulchre, but to other properties the churches own such as hotels, halls, and businesses.
  3. It is still a proposed policy and has yet to be implemented. The closure is an act of protest in hopes of dissuading Israeli legislators.

A letter penned by leaders of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches accused Israel of a “systematic and offensive campaign” against Christians. Bloomberg reports that “the Greek Orthodox Church is one of the biggest landowners in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and its quiet sale of land to anonymous investors in recent years has attracted controversy.”

An Israeli lawmaker behind the proposed legislation said that the purpose is to protect people who own homes on leased land the churches have sold to unknown parties. The homeowners don’t know who their landlords are and are exposed to eviction or significantly higher leases. The goal is to protect the homeowners by seizing the land and compensating the new landlords. Church leaders, however, argue that this is a thinly veiled attempt to take away Christian holdings and cut back on their revenue streams with the new taxation.

Regardless of who is in the right in this power game, thousands of pilgrims and tourists are indefinitely denied entry to one of Jerusalem’s holy sites.

U.S. Military, IDF Join Forces for Large-Scale Exercise

Thousands of U.S. and IDF soldiers will be simulating a massive missile attack on Israel amid heightening tensions with Iran.

The drill is part of the biannual exercises that the U.S. and Israel have run together since 2001. Codenamed Juniper-Cobra, the exercise run March 4 through 15, though some U.S. soldiers will be staying through the end of the month to continue training.

The U.S. military news source Stars and Stripes reports that the exercise will involve close to 2,500 U.S. personnel and about 2,000 IDF members, a significant increase since the 2016 drill, which only had 3,200 combined participants.

Despite the increase in troop numbers, the exercises are going to take place mostly on computer screens rather than in the field, as is the nature of a modern missile defense drill. To practice defending Israel from a missile barrage is not happenstance. Hezbollah is suspected of maintaining a stockpile of some 150,000 missiles, which it could rain down on Israel at a rate of over 1,000 missiles a day. In Gaza, terror groups are estimated to have their own arsenals with upwards of 10,000 rockets and mortars, according to Times of Israel. Additionally, the drill is taking place just weeks after the Israeli Air Force squared off with Iran in a steep escalation.

Other Things to Keep an Eye On

Here are several other Israel stories that merit your ongoing attention.

  1. Seal inscription of the Prophet Isaiah found in Jerusalem
  2. 15,000 protest deportation of asylum-seekers in Tel Aviv
  3. Swastikas, slurs daubed on Polish embassy in Tel Aviv
  4. Egypt signs $15b gas deal with Israel