Israel shuts down Palestinian life in Jerusalem for ‘Flag March’

Zena al-Tahhan

Al-Jazeera  /  May 18, 2023

Palestinian life in and around the Old City comes to a halt ahead of provocative Israeli march celebrating Israel’s illegal 1967 occupation.

Occupied East Jerusalem Hundreds of Palestinian stores in the Old City of Jerusalem have been forced to shut their doors ahead of an annual Israeli far-right march, which has witnessed violence in the past.

The event, which will take place on Thursday afternoon to mark the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, is known as the “flag march” and is notorious for scenes of Israelis chanting racist slogans such as “Death to the Arabs [Paestinians]” and harassing Palestinians as they parade through the Old City.

The eastern half of Jerusalem houses the Old City, which was illegally occupied and annexed by Israel in 1967. It is where the vast majority of the Palestinian population in Jerusalem live after they were expelled from the western half during the “Nakba” or catastrophe in 1948.

On Thursday, thousands of Israeli police and paramilitary officers were deployed in the Old City from the early morning hours.

Three hours ahead of the march which begins at 4pm local time (13 GMT), Israeli forces imposed hundreds of closures and checkpoints in and around the Old City in order to secure the march, cutting off Palestinian presence and activity in the area. Officers also forced Palestinian stores to close their doors, while others chose to do so on their own.

“At least 1,400 stores will close their doors in and outside the Old City,” the Palestinian Authority’s Governor of Jerusalem Adnan Ghaith said.

“We are also talking about hundreds of stores beyond these areas whose owners will not be able to reach because the traffic jams caused by the occupation which has turned the area into a military base,” he told Al Jazeera, noting that dozens of Palestinian neighbourhoods will be directly affected on Thursday.

“All of these closures impede the ability of an employee to get to work, the shop owner from reaching his store, the students from going to school,” he added.

The Old City and the surrounding northern areas make up the main commercial and economic centre of life for Palestinians in Jerusalem, and include the central bus stop as well as schools and medical centres.

Dozens of roads from Palestinian neighbourhoods leading to the Old City are shut off to vehicles, creating heavy traffic, with residents made to wait for hours, if they are allowed to pass at all. Even those living inside the Old City are prevented from accessing their homes or moving around in the area.

‘The city is under siege’

Palestinian residents and storeowners in Jerusalem say they are greatly affected by the flag march.

Hassan Omar al-Hroub, who owns a clothing shop in the Old City, said he chose to close his business on Thursday to avoid harassment and violence. He will spend the day at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound instead.

“I am 70 years old, how can I resist the occupation? How can I resist their flags? Or people like this?” Al-Hroub, a father of 12, said.

“The occupiers try to provoke us and we do not have the power to deter them. They come in large numbers. I prefer to close my store,” he told Al-Jazeera from the Old City.

“When the Old City is closed, it is like all of Palestine is closed. We call on the Arab Muslim world not to leave Al-Aqsa, not to leave Palestinians on their own. The city is under siege,” said Al-Hroub.

The flag march is seen as an attempt by Israel to assert its control over the occupied eastern half of the city.

In previous years, the “flag march” came during periods of heated tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. In 2021, Israel was forced to reroute the march after violence erupted after the storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – Islam’s third holiest site – by Israeli forces and the forced displacement of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of the Old City. Israel launched a 11-day assault of Gaza after the Palestinian factions from besieged enclave retaliated against what they called Israeli provocations in East Jerusalem.

Last year, Israel held the march amid threats of an escalation, as is the case this year, with Palestinian armed resistance groups based in Gaza and the occupied West Bank warning of a response.

At least 81 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces and far-right Israelis during the 2022 march, including with rubber-coated bullets, beatings, pepper spray, and one case of live ammunition.

After the event, large groups of ultranationalist Israelis rampaged through Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, and assaulted residents and their property including smashing and vandalizing Palestinian cars, throwing rocks at homes and assaulting residents.

‘Red line’

Ahmad Dandees, a 54-year-old children’s toy store owner, said he refused to close his store on Thursday as it “gives their [Israel’s] presence legitimacy”.

“I have a red line – I refuse to close my store on this day. This sinister day only negatively impacts the already dwindling economic activity in the Old City,” said Dandees, who is also a member of the Jerusalemite tradesmen’s committee.

He noted that Israel already impedes access to millions of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank from accessing Jerusalem and its commercial and religious areas through the Separation Wall, weakening the Palestinian economy in the city.

“We should make this day a national holiday. We want everyone to come with their families and all we want them to do is sit on the steps of Damascus Gate. We have to be present in big numbers so we can block the Israeli occupation from enforcing its control on Jerusalem and especially the Old City,” he told Al-Jazeera.

“They want to Judaize the city and empty it of its residents. Jerusalem is Arab, both east and west. I do not recognize the presence of the Israeli occupation in Jerusalem, and they have to close the city by force in order to do this,” said Dandees.

Israel passed a law in 1980 formally declaring both the eastern and western parts of the city as its “eternal, undivided capital”. The vast majority of the international community considers the eastern half of Jerusalem occupied territory over which Israel has no legal sovereignty.

“There is no power in the world that can block the truth in that this is a barbarous, colonial, imperial occupation that practices ethnic cleansing and forced displacement and apartheid against residents who are powerless, except for their strong perseverance and will,” said Ghaith, the governor.

“This occupation claims that Jerusalem is their capital. The fact they have to deploy thousands of soldiers in order to secure a mere march in their so-called capital, that in itself contradicts that claim.”

Zena al-Tahhan is Al-Jazeera English’s digital correspondent in Jerusalem