Israel begins celebrations to mark Jerusalem US Embassy opening

Israel's government prepared enthusiastically Sunday for the formal opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem with a gala party at its Foreign Ministry that included President Trump's daughter Ivanka, her husband, Jared Kushner, and other American VIPs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told revelers that Trump's December declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital was "the right thing to do."

Netanyahu said, "Thank you, President Trump, for your bold decision. Thank you for making the alliance between Israel and the United States stronger than ever."

The prime minister said Trump's decision recognized a 3,000-year Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the "truth" that Jerusalem would be Israel's capital under any future peace deal.

"It's been the capital of our state for the past 70 years. It will remain our capital for all time," he said.

Kushner and Ivanka Trump sat in the front row near Netanyahu during the ceremony but did not speak. Netanyahu called their presence a "national and international statement" that "touches our hearts."

Although Trump has said his declaration does not set the final borders of the city, his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital has been perceived by both Israel and the Palestinians as taking Israel's side in the most sensitive issue in their conflict. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

Only two countries, Guatemala and Paraguay, have said they will follow the U.S. lead. Most of the world maintains embassies in Tel Aviv, saying the Jerusalem issue must first be resolved.

In a reflection of the deep sensitivities, dozens of countries — including Britain, France and Germany — skipped Sunday night's celebration.

Meanwhile, Israel said it had bolster its forces on the border with the Gaza Strip ahead of mass protests expected to draw tens of thousands of people. The mobilization includes 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."

Israel has accused Hamas of using the unrest to 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."

A high-ranking delegation of Gaza's Hamas rulers headed Sunday to Egypt, amid diplomatic efforts aimed at containing the mass rally. But one of the Hamas participants, Khalil al-Hayya, said there were no breakthroughs and the march would go on as planned Monday.

The army said it also was reinforcing its troops in the West Bank with several combat battalions and intelligence units in case of possible unrest there as well.

Sunday marked what Israel calls "Jerusalem Day," the 51st anniversary of the annexation of east Jerusalem — home to the city's most sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites — during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In an annual ritual, tens of thousands of Israelis marched through Jerusalem's Old City to mark the day. Many sang, danced and waved Israeli flags.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu told his Cabinet that there would be a "series of decisions" to build up Jerusalem, including its contested eastern sector. Shortly after, the government approved construction of a $57 million cable car system that will link west Jerusalem to the Old City.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.