JERUSALEM — Israel on Sunday kicked off festivities to celebrate the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, even as it bolstered its forces along the Gaza border and in the West Bank in anticipation of mass Palestinian protests of the move.
A day before the embassy’s formal opening, Israel hosted a gala party at its Foreign Ministry with President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, her husband, Jared Kushner, and other American VIPs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Trump’s “bold decision” in upending decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “It’s the right thing to do,” a smiling Netanyahu told the jubilant crowd.
Trump announced his decision on Jerusalem in December, triggering a joyous reaction from Netanyahu’s nationalist government. The move infuriated the Palestinians, who claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas halted ties with the Trump administration and declared it unfit to remain in its role as the sole mediator in peace talks.
The rival Hamas movement, which controls the Gaza Strip, has been staging a series of weekly demonstrations against a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory. Those protests are to climax Monday, with tens of thousands of people expected to gather along the Israeli border in an event timed to coincide with the U.S. Embassy move.
Hamas has signaled that large crowds, numbering perhaps in the thousands, might try to break through the border fence to realize the “right of return” to lost homes.
Both the embassy move and the protests have symbolic timing. Trump has said the opening is meant to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment. The Palestinian protests also mark the date as the anniversary of their “naqba,” or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of people fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding the event. About two-thirds of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinian refugees.
A mass border breach could trigger potentially lethal Israeli force. Forty-two Palestinians have been killed and over 1,800 have been wounded by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began on March 30. The U.N., European Union and rights groups have accused Israel of using excessive force against unarmed protesters.
Israel says it is protecting a sovereign border and accuses Hamas of using the unrest to plan and carry out attacks. Marchers have thrown stones and burned tires at the fence and flown flaming kites over it to try to set Israeli fields on fire.
On Friday, a Palestinian crowd attacked the main cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza, disrupting shipments of cooking fuel, gasoline and building materials, and causing millions of dollars in damage. Israeli officials said it could take weeks or months to repair the crossing.
“Unfortunately, the crossing is closed today and will remain closed until the foreseeable future due to severe damage caused by Palestinian rioters,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman. “It is still unclear how long it will take to fix and replace the necessary parts.”
The Israeli military announced that it bolstered forces on the Gaza border with combat battalions, special units, intelligence forces and snipers. Israeli warplanes also dropped leaflets in Gaza, urging residents to stay far from the fence.
“You deserve a better government. You deserve a better future,” the leaflets said. “Do not approach the security fence nor participate in the Hamas display that is putting you in risk.”