Far-right MK: This represents our victory over the Arabs

At Jerusalem Flag March, chants of ‘Death to Arabs’ and assaults on Palestinians

Still, contentious event ends without major incident as thousands of religious nationalists participate; some attack Palestinians and reporters, sing ‘May your village burn’

Israeli participants in the annual Flag March beat Palestinian residents of the Old City of Jerusalem on May 18, 2023. (Ir Amim)
Israeli participants in the annual Flag March beat Palestinian residents of the Old City of Jerusalem on May 18, 2023. (Ir Amim)

Thousands of Israelis took part in the Jerusalem Flag March on Thursday, with the highly controversial annual event again featuring racist chants and scuffles with Palestinian residents as the largely teenage, religious nationalist participants made their way through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

But despite several dozen instances of violence and harassment by Jewish participants, and pre-march threats by Gaza terror groups, the rally managed to conclude without a major incident. Two years ago, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem to coincide with the march, leading to an 11-day war between Israel and Gaza.

The annual parade to the Western Wall is meant to mark Israel’s reunification of East and West Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, but has gained notoriety over the years as it is often marred by hate speech and violence by far-right Jewish participants toward Palestinians and their property.

The particularly charged aspect of the Flag March is its route through the Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter, which are overwhelmingly used by Palestinians. Critics say the rally is designed to provoke Palestinians, who are forced by the Israel Police to shutter their shops to allow for the demonstration.

As it did in the past two years, the Biden administration ahead of Thursday urged Israel to reroute the march away from the Muslim Quarter. It was an uphill battle though, given that the more moderate previous government had bucked the request last year, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu followed suit.

In a speech afterward, the premier said he made sure that the march went ahead to send a message to Gaza terror groups that Israel would not back down due to threats.

“Despite the threats — and I’ll tell you — because of the threats, I instructed to hold the Flag March with its many participants on the original path [through the Muslim Quarter],” Netanyahu said during an event at Ammunition Hill marking Jerusalem Day.

At the Flag March hours earlier, different groups of participants clashed and beat Palestinian locals and harassed journalists. They also sang racist chants such as “Death to Arabs,” “May your village burn” and “An Arab is a son of a b**ch,” as they danced near the Damascus Gate both before and during the rally on Thursday afternoon.

Among the marchers were over a dozen coalition members, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — a longtime participant in the rally. Thursday was the first time he did so as a cabinet minister, offering an additional stamp of legitimacy to the lightning rod event. Some 3,000 officers of the police, which Ben Gvir oversees, were deployed in and around the Old City to secure the march.

Police said they arrested 10 people even before the formal start of the rally at 4 p.m., including several left-wing activists who temporarily blocked a West Bank highway outside of Jerusalem while attempting to prevent settlers from attending the march. Several other people were detained for provoking Palestinians, police said.

Most of the participants were religious teens, many of whom were bused in from seminaries. Separate routes were designated for men and women to avoid mixed dancing.

Not all Flag March participants approve of the rally’s route though, and some preferred to avoid the part that goes through the Muslim Quarter, instead taking an alternate path approved by police through the Armenian Quarter to reach the Western Wall.

Some avoided the nationalist rally altogether, instead participating in the ninth annual Flower March through the Old City earlier in the day.

Several hundred people distributed flowers to residents of the Muslim, Christian and Armenian Quarters to spread a message of “love, inclusion [and] solidarity” ahead of what the organizers described as the “racism and incitement” of the Flag March, the organizing Tag Meir coexistence group said.

Shortly thereafter, police directed Palestinian merchants in the Old City to close their shops early for the day to make way for the Jewish marchers.

“The police officer came by and told us to close down,” shopkeeper Shadi Hatib told The Times of Israel ahead of the rally. He said he kept his juice stand open a bit longer to squeeze out more sales, adding that an officer told him “we don’t want them to cause you problems.”

“But they don’t pay me compensation” for closing, noted the East Jerusalem native.

Not all shopkeepers agreed to follow the police directive and were eventually moved away from the parade’s route by police.

There were dozens of incidents of violence in and around the Old City as the afternoon progressed. A group of participants hurled stones, water bottles, flag staffs and other items at a crowd of largely Muslim reporters positioned above Damascus Gate. Several suffered head wounds that required medical treatment.

Assailants also waved flags in front of cameras, cursing reporters, including those working for The Times of Israel. Among the dozens throwing the items were several who waved the black flag of the racist Lehava organization. Police officers moved into the area, although some marchers still succeeded in throwing different objects toward journalists. Police later announced that they had arrested two people over the incident.

Some of the participants shouted racist remarks in the faces of elderly Palestinian women, Fox News reported.

Several fights broke out between religious nationalist teens and Palestinian teens in the Old City before the rally, with police arriving at the scene shortly thereafter and shoving the Palestinians away from the alleys blocked off for the march.

Outside the Old City, far-right activists sold t-shirts — some emblazoned with an automatic weapon drawn through a Star of David and others with the phrases “We’re returning to [evacuated] Evyatar [illegal outpost]” and “Death to terrorists.” The latter phrase is known as a common right-wing dog whistle for “Death to Arabs.”

MK Yitzhak Kroizer of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party told The Times of Israel that the march is about “applying sovereignty to all parts of Jerusalem” and celebrating the reunification of the city.

“At the Flag March we demonstrate our happiness at the reunification of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, celebrate with the masses of the Jewish people and declare ‘the Jewish people live,’” said the MK, who was accompanied by his two young daughters.

Kroizer said he did not condone provocative and racist chants which are commonly sung at the event but insisted that such incidents were “not the essence” of the event.

Kroizer’s fellow faction member Limor Son Har Melech told The Times of Israel that the celebration represented “our victory over the Arabs, [which] is the best win of all.”

“And it’s not to be taken for granted, it’s such an honor that we’re here,” said Son Har Melech as she stood with her daughter outside Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, where thousands had congregated before making their way toward the Old City.

Also joining the Flag March were lawmakers from the Knesset’s other far-right party, Religious Zionism, led by its chairman Bezalel Smotrich.

Several Likud lawmakers stopped by, including Energy Minister Israel Katz, who in an Army Radio interview warned Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar not to target the rally.

“If he does, his fate will be like those of his friends in Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Katz said, referring to the PIJ leaders the IDF eliminated earlier this month during a five-day Gaza conflict.

Early Thursday morning, lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party and an Otzma Yehudit minister joined roughly 1,200 Jews in visiting the flashpoint Temple Mount. Ben Gvir’s wife Ayala was also among the pilgrims.

The visits were blasted by the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt as unnecessary provocations that risked further inflaming tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Temple Mount is the holiest site for Jews, as the location of the two biblical temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam, turning the area into a major source of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Muslims deny any Jewish connection to the site and view all Israeli presence there as a provocation.

Footage posted online by an activist on Thursday morning showed a Jewish group openly praying on the Temple Mount, contravening informal understandings according to which Jews are allowed to visit the site — at certain hours, under strict restrictions and through a predetermined route — but not to pray there.

While there were no major incidents in East Jerusalem or the West Bank on Thursday, hundreds of Palestinians protested the Flag March along the Gaza border.

The IDF characterized the demonstration as a riot, saying that some of the participants hurled explosive devices toward the security barrier and that its forces responded with live fire to disperse the gathering.

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