Palestinians brace for far-right Israeli march in East Jerusalem

Al-Jazeera  /  May 18, 2023

Security beefed up as tens of thousands of Israeli nationalists expected to participate in the march amid fears of violence.

Israeli authorities have beefed up security in Jerusalem, particularly in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, as the annual “flag day” march by Orthodox Jews and settlers takes place amid an already tense situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

More than 2,000 police were deployed as flag-bearing marchers slowly began to gather early on Thursday near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to participate in the parade, which celebrates the capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and its subsequent occupation.

By the mid-afternoon, when the march began, ultranationalist Israelis began streaming through the gates of the Old City, shouting insults and provocative slogans, with some scuffles reported.

Israel’s annexation of occupied East Jerusalem and its Old City has never been recognized by the international community.

Tens of thousands of Israeli nationalists were expected to participate in the march that has witnessed violence in the past few years as marchers have used provocations against Palestinians, including slogans such as “Death to the Arabs [Palestinians]”.

Riot police stood on guard in anticipation of any potential unrest, but the compound – Islam’s third holiest site – remained fairly empty earlier in the day.

Meanwhile, Israeli authorities prevented Palestinian worshippers under the age of 50 from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque to perform dawn prayers.

A line had begun forming early on Thursday to the entrance to the compound – which Jews refer to as the “Temple Mount”, believing that it is where the first and second ancient Jewish temples once stood.

Some Orthodox Jews danced in a circle chanting “Rebuild the temple!” One riot police officer, wearing a kippah – symbolizing he is an Orthodox Jew – was seen dancing with some of the marchers.

While those entering the compound have been instructed to not carry their flags inside or do anything to incite violence, one man slipped into the crowd wearing a provocative shirt, with the image of Al-Aqsa Mosque being destroyed by a fist next to a hand holding up a new Jewish temple.

Another man had a sticker emblazoned on his shirt that read “Temple Mount is in our hands” as Orthodox Jews were entering the compound under police protection.

Israel’s National Security Minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, has joined the march in past years. It was not known whether he would join this year, his first as a cabinet minister.

The Times of Israel quoted one ultra-Orthodox member of the Knesset, Moshe Gafni, as urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to not allow lawmakers to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, in keeping with the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate.

“I am appealing and asking you to prevent the ascent to the Temple Mount, both due to the political issue regarding the attitude of the countries of the world in allowing it, and due to the security issue and the incitement that exists as a result,” Gafni, a member of United Torah Judaism, said.

“There is no reason for this, it does not show sovereignty; on the contrary, it constitutes sacrilege in the place most connected to the Jewish people and most sacred to them.”

Activists from an Israeli group that fights against racism were also present, handing out flowers “to spread love on this day”.

A member of a group called “Tag Meir” was confronted by a nationalist Jew yelling “you’re desecrating God by giving flowers to Arabs!”

The annual parade, which marks Israel’s capture of occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, has increasingly become a show of force for Jewish nationalists, and for Palestinians, a blatant provocation meant to undermine their ties to the city.

“We don’t want war nor do we want escalation, but they shouldn’t impose an escalation on us,” said Hussam al-Simri, a chicken vendor from the Gaza Strip, where a parallel protest against the Israeli far-right march was set to take place at the fence.

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas warned Israel “against insisting on organizing the provocative flag march”.

Pushing ahead with the parade “confirms the acquiescence of the Israeli government to Jewish extremists”, PA Deputy Prime Minister and spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said on Wednesday.

A day before the march, Hamas, which governs Gaza, called on Palestinians to oppose it.

“We ask the people of Jerusalem to mobilize the masses to confront the march of the flags in Jerusalem tomorrow,” said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official in Gaza.

Israeli settler movements have been pushing for Jewish worshippers to be allowed to pray at Al-Aqsa, reinforcing Palestinian fears that Islam’s third-holiest site could be taken over. Currently, Jews can visit but are not allowed to pray at the site.

Past flag-day marches, where anti-Arab racist chants and violence towards Palestinians are common, have sparked greater conflict, including in 2021, when Palestinian factions retaliated against what they called Israeli “provocations”. That year, Israel launched an 11-day military offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip killing more than 260 Palestinians.

The far-right march is taking place just days after a ceasefire was reached between the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group and Israel after at least 33 Palestinians were killed in a four-day Israeli bombardment. One Israeli was also killed by Palestinian rocket fire.

Eliyahu Freedman contributed to this report from occupied East Jerusalem