ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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Ben Gvir said likely to participate in controversial Jerusalem Day ‘Flag March’

Attendance of far-right minister adds to fears that Thursday’s event could spark violence and undermine fragile truce with Gaza terror groups; Regev, Smotrich said likely to join

Far-right leader and politician Itamar Ben Gvir during the Flags March on Jerusalem Day at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Far-right leader and politician Itamar Ben Gvir during the Flags March on Jerusalem Day at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Far-right minister Itamar Ben Gvir is reportedly expected to attend a nationalist march through the Old City of Jerusalem later this week, potentially exacerbating tensions in the already combustible Jerusalem Day parade.

A celebration of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the annual march of ultranationalists through the heart of the Old City’s Muslim quarter has become an occasion for friction with the potential to snowball into a regional conflict.

Ben Gvir is expected to take part in the event set for Thursday this year, the Ynet news site reported Sunday. It cited sources close to the politician.

As national security minister, Ben Gvir has purview over the police, whose efforts to curb friction around the march, including by potentially rerouting it, have come under fire by ultranationalists, including the minister himself.

The annual rally of religious nationalists through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City is regularly a tense affair, with thousands of largely Orthodox participants marching from Independence Park to the Western Wall to mark Israel’s reunification of East and West Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. The march has gained notoriety over the years, as it is often marred by hate speech and sometimes violence by Jewish participants toward Palestinians.

Ben Gvir has been a regular participant in the marches, but this would be his first time doing so as a minister, and specifically the minister in charge of the police.

Channel 13 reported that several other ministers, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Transportation Minister Miri Regev, were also likely to take part.

Head of the Religious Zionism Party MK Bezalel Smotrich waves an Israeli flag at Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In the past two years, the Biden administration has urged Israel to change the route of the march to go through the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, instead of Damascus Gate, thereby avoiding the Muslim Quarter, which is largely populated by Palestinians.

A senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel earlier this month that the hardline government was not likely to reroute the march.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen reiterated that stance on Sunday.

Asked whether Israel would reroute the march amid international pressure, Cohen insisted that the rally would go ahead as planned.

“We don’t need to make any changes,” he told Army Radio. “Jerusalem is our capital, and we are proud to march with the Israeli flag. And this will be the case on Thursday.”

Some officials have feared a repeat of 2021, when Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem just as the march was starting, sparking over a week of fighting between Israel and Gazan terror groups.

Israel and Iran-backed Islamic Jihad have held onto a fragile ceasefire since early Sunday, despite a single cross-border exchange Sunday evening. The ceasefire ended five days of fighting that saw nearly 1,500 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza, and the group had reportedly threatened to drag out the conflict to disrupt the Jerusalem Day march.

Trails of smoke are seen as rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 12, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Last Friday, an Egyptian official told The Times of Israel that Cairo was determined to broker a ceasefire ahead of the march, which Cairo feared could inflame tensions to a point of no return.

“This rally already poses a threat to stability, but if the fighting is still ongoing by then, it will be much harder to stop and it is likely that Hamas will ride this wave and join as well,” the official said.

Security officials believe the chances for rocket fire from Gaza during the march to be slim, Channel 13 news reported Sunday.

With tensions nonetheless high, over 2,000 police will be deployed around the march and elsewhere in the capital, the report said.

The Ynet report also said that police have so far not identified unusual calls online from ultranationalists to come to the march to clash with Palestinians as in previous years.

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