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White House backs Kushner, blames Hamas for Palestinian deaths

The comments came as more than 50 Palestinians were killed Monday in border clashes between protesters and the Israeli military.
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WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday blamed Hamas for the deaths of dozens of Palestinians in clashes between protesters and the Israeli military.

The protests on the border between the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip and Israel, in which some participants burned tires and hurled rocks, came as the U.S. held a ceremony marking the opening of its new embassy in Jerusalem, reflecting the Trump administration's recognition of that city as the capital of Israel.

"We believe that Hamas is responsible for what's going on," White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said when NBC's Peter Alexander asked whether the U.S. agreed with France's call for Israel to exercise "discretion" and "restraint" in its response to the Palestinian demonstrations in which tens of thousands took part.

Pressed on whether that means the U.S. advice to Israel is "kill at will," Shah replied, "We believe that Hamas as an organization is engaged in cynical action that is leading to these deaths."

He added, "The responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response. And as the Secretary of State said, Israel has the right to defend itself."

Shah did not elaborate on why Hamas, an organization designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, bears responsibility for the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, opening fire on the crowd. In addition to the deaths, more than 2,700 Palestinians were wounded.

The IDF characterized the protests as cover for a "terrorist operation" in which "firebombs and explosive devices" were mixed in with rocks.

Several high-ranking Trump administration officials, including Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and adviser, attended the embassy opening in Jerusalem Monday.

Her husband, Jared Kushner, spoke briefly about the protests at the event.

"As we have seen from the protests of the last month, and even today, those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution," he said.

Those remarks, which appear to dovetail with Shah's assessment of blame, were not included in an official White House transcript of Kushner's speech.

The White House also declined to explain why American ministers Robert Jeffress and John Hagee had been invited to participate in Monday's embassy event given past controversial statements, including a remark by Jeffress that "religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism...lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell" and a comment by Hagee that seemed to suggest Hitler had been part of a divine plan to force Jews to move to the land of Israel.

Shah did distance Trump from that rhetoric. "Those aren't remarks that the president agrees with," he said.