Thousands of Israeli nationalists, some of them chanting “Death to Arabs,” paraded through the heart of the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday, in a show of force that risked setting off a new wave of violence in the tense city.
The crowds, who were overwhelmingly young Orthodox Jewish men, were celebrating Jerusalem Day—an Israeli holiday that marks the capture of the Old City in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians view the parade through the Muslim Quarter as a provocative act. Last year, the parade helped trigger an 11-day war with Gaza militants, and this year’s march drew condemnations from the Palestinians and neighboring Jordan.
Israel stated that thousands of police and security officers were deployed by Israel for the event. Before the parade even began, violent clashes broke out between Palestinian and Jewish groups in the Old City.
As the march got underway, groups of Orthodox Jewish youths gathered outside Damascus Gate, waving flags, singing religious and nationalistic songs, and shouting “the Jewish nation lives” before entering the Muslim Quarter. One large group chanted “Death to Arabs,” and “Let your village burn down” before descending into the Old City.
This area was a hub of Palestinian activity and the police removed all Palestinians. One time, an unmanned drone with a Palestinian flag was seen flying overhead. Police then intercepted the aircraft.
Ahead of the march, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “flying the flag of Israel in the capital of Israel is an obvious thing,” but also urged participants to celebrate in a “responsible and respectful manner.”
Bennett later issued a statement instructing police to show “no tolerance” toward the racist groups. He described them as a “minority that came to set the area on fire” and vowed to prosecute violent extremists—a step that few Israeli governments have taken in the past. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the racist groups “a disgrace.”
The march usually involves thousands of participants, some shouting racist or nationalistic slogans at the Palestinians.
After weeks of unrest between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, the authorities altered the route of last year’s march to avoid the Muslim Quarter. As the procession began, Hamas militants fired rockets towards Jerusalem. But it was too late. This set off eleven days of intense fighting.
Sunday’s march came at a time of heightened tensions. In recent months, Israeli police repeatedly faced stone-throwing Palestinian protestors in the disputed compound. They often fired rubber bullets or stun grenades.
Over 35 Palestinians died in Israeli military operations on the occupied West Bank. In Israel, there have been 19 Palestinian attacks that have killed Israelis. While some were armless, others were accused of throwing rocks or firebombs at soldiers. However, many appear to not have been involved in violence. Shireen Ab Akleh, an eminent correspondent on Al Jazeera’s satellite channel, is one of them.
Jerusalem police were criticized internationally for beating mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral two weeks ago.
Despite the recent unrest, Israeli leaders decided to allow this year’s parade to take place along its traditional route through the Muslim Quarter. Ahead of the march, there were small scuffles between Israeli nationalists and Palestinians, who threw chairs and bottles and shouted “God is great” at the marchers. Some marchers spray pepper spray on journalists and Palestinians. One video was shared via social media. A young Jewish man punched and spraying pepper spray at an elderly Palestinian woman’s face. She fell to the ground.
To disperse Palestinian protestors from the region, police also used rubber-tipped bullets as well as pepper spray and clubs.
According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Rescue Service, 62 were hurt and 23 required hospitalization.
Israeli police reported that they had arrested more than 50 people suspected of assaulting or disorderly conduct against police officers. According to it, five officers sustained injuries.
Ahead of the march, over 2,500 Jews visited Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site inside the Old City, as Palestinians barricaded inside the Al Aqsa Mosque threw rocks and fireworks.
Al Aqsa sits on a hilltop compound that Jews and Muslims revere. It is considered the third most sacred site of Islam and Palestinians fiercely guard it as a powerful symbol of national ambitions.
It is also the most sacred site to Jews. They call it Temple Mount, and consider it home of the biblical Temples. These competing claims lie at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian war and have provoked numerous acts of violence.
Learn more What Can the World Do To End the Israel-Palestine Conflict?
Police also said one of the Jewish groups “violated visitation rules” and was removed. Israeli media claimed that the group was carrying Israeli flags inside the compound.
Under longstanding arrangements known as the “status quo,” Jews are allowed to visit the compound but not pray. The number of Jewish visitors to the compound have increased in recent years. In fact, some Jews are often seen praying quietly.
These scenes have raised fears among Palestinians that Israel might try to seize control of the region or split it. Israel refutes such allegations, claiming that it is committed to maintaining the status quo.
Itamar Be-Gvir was among the guests. He is the leader of an ultranationalist party but also a follower and friend of Meir Kashane.
Palestinians shouted “God is great” as Ben-Gvir, accompanied by Israeli police, shouted “the Jewish people live.” Police said they locked the gates of the mosque and said they made 18 arrests.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of “playing with fire irresponsibily and recklessly.”
Jordan condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit to the site and warned that the “provocative and escalating march” could make things deteriorate further. Jordan held east Jerusalem under its control until 1967 when Israel seize it. The custodian remains over Muslim holy shrines.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem and the Old City in 1967 Mideast War. Israel has annexed east Jerusalem in a move that isn’t internationally recognized and claims all of the city as its capital. Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers praised what they called “the great heroism” shown by Palestinians at Al Aqsa earlier Sunday. “The Islamic Palestinian Arab identity of the Al Aqsa Mosque will be protected by our people and their valiant resistance with all their might,” said Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for the group.
But, they may be wary about getting into another round. Gaza was hard hit in last year’s war, and the territory is still struggling to repair the damage. To maintain peace among the rivals, around 12,000 Gazan labourers have been allowed to work within Israel. Renewed fighting could risk losing those jobs, which have given a small boost to Gaza’s devastated economy.
—AP correspondents Alon Bernstein and Ariel Schalit contributed reporting.
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