Clashes in Jerusalem as Israeli nationalists march through Muslim Quarter

Israelis march through the Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City on the annual 'Flag March' (Hazem Bader - AFP)

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Guardian  /  May 29, 2022

Israeli media estimated around 25,000 people took part in contentious annual flag march through Muslim parts of Old City.

Thousands of Israeli religious nationalists have paraded through Muslim parts of the Old City of Jerusalem, putting the city on edge after violence during the same event last year helped spark an 11-day-war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip.

The annual flag march, in which Israelis enter the highly symbolic Damascus Gate and walk through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall waving the national flag, takes place around sunset on what Israel calls Jerusalem Day, the celebration of the capture and annexation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, a move that is not internationally recognized.

Often accompanied by violence, the march through the bustling Muslim thoroughfare is seen as deeply provocative by the Palestinians. The decision to let it go ahead on Sunday despite a recent wave of violence across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories drew criticism from both the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority and neighbouring Jordan, which remains the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, who warned that it could set off further violence.

Crowds, mostly made up of young Orthodox Jewish men, began gathering at the Damascus Gate around 3pm, chanting and dancing. As the afternoon wore on and their numbers grew, local Palestinians began retreating from public spaces and closing their businesses.

Several scuffles broke out as the marchers tried to make their way into the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter; both sides threw glass bottles, and the fighting was broken up by Israeli police using teargas, rubber bullets and batons.

One ultra-Orthodox man spat at and attacked an elderly Muslim woman, and the crowd jeered as the Palestinian Red Crescent tried to evacuate an injured Palestinian through the mass of people. The rescue service said 62 people were injured by Israeli police, including 23 who needed hospitalization.

Israeli police said they arrested more than 60 people suspected of disorderly conduct or assaulting police officers, and that five officers had been injured. Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett later issued a statement instructing police to show “no tolerance” toward racist behaviour.

As the afternoon call to prayer rang out, the crowd began chanting “Death to the Arabs” while banging on the metal shutters of Palestinian shops and restaurants with sticks and flag poles. Israeli media estimated that 25,000 people were in attendance. After the marchers had moved on towards the Western Wall, Israeli flag stickers and graffiti featuring the Star of David in blue paint and pen had been left behind on doors and walls as well as in the plaza in front of Damascus Gate.

This year the flag march comes at a particularly tense time: in the last two months Israel has suffered its worst wave of terrorist attacks for years, which have killed 19 people, while retaliatory Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raids in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank have left about 35 Palestinians dead, including the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh.

There were also counter rallies held in the occupied West Bank, with Israeli security forces clashing at several sites with Palestinians, who set tyres alight.

The Red Crescent reported more than 100 Palestinians were wounded across the West Bank.

Earlier, clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters injured hundreds of people at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who call it the Temple Mount.

“Last year it was not like this. The [Israelis] were afraid to come,” said restaurant owner Nidal Hajjar, whom soldiers did not allow to walk through the Muslim Quarter. “People from the US, UK, can come and pass by, but not me, even though I was born here,” the 65-year-old said. “It’s always a mess here, but today is worse.”

About 3,000 Israeli police were deployed throughout Jerusalem on Sunday, with snipers patrolling the turrets of the Damascus Gate. According to the Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, the IDF is on a heightened state of alert across the occupied Palestinian territories, and has adjusted its deployment of anti-missile batteries in anticipation of possible rocket fire from both Gaza and Lebanon.

“We are here every day, but today is especially important because it symbolizes everything about living in Israel,” said Yael Mishan, 28, an Israeli settler living in occupied East Jerusalem, who was walking past the scuffles with her husband and three young children. “We are grateful to the army and the police for keeping us safe. If anyone is afraid of violence today it should be them, not us.”

Earlier on Sunday, about 2,600 Jewish pilgrims visited the Temple Mount accompanied by Israeli police, a much higher number than usual. The visit prompted about 40 Palestinians, who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque overnight, to throw rocks and fireworks. Israel’s police said in a statement that they locked the building’s gates and made several arrests before the situation quietened around midday.

Informally, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray at the site. In recent years, however, growing numbers of Jewish visitors, sometimes praying or with police escorts, have inflamed longstanding Palestinian fears that Israel plans to annex the area. Israel says it is committed to maintaining the status quo, and accuses Hamas of inciting the recent violence.

Last year, amid weeks of unrest in Jerusalem, the Israeli government changed the route of the flag march at the last minute to avoid the Muslim Quarter, but it was not enough to prevent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Temple Mount. The violence at the site led Hamas to fire a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem, sparking last May’s war.

Despite calls for cancellation or rerouting of the march this year from some of his own coalition allies, Bennett decided to allow the parade to proceed as planned.

A Hamas spokesperson praised what they called “the great heroism” shown by Palestinians at Aqsa on Sunday, but the group appears wary of reengaging Israel in another round of fighting as it struggles to rebuild after last year’s war and keep the besieged Gaza Strip’s devastated economy afloat.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem