Previous marches featured chants of 'Death to Arabs'

Coalition likely to okay nationalist Flag March through Muslim Quarter – official

Despite fears of violence, hardline coalition has little maneuverability to move annual Jerusalem Day rally without losing right-wing bona fides

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, waves an Israeli flag during the annual 'Flags March' next to Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
File: MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, waves an Israeli flag during the annual 'Flags March' next to Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government will likely allow a controversial nationalist march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City later this month, despite fears that the provocative move could aggravate tensions with Palestinians, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Friday.

The heavily guarded Jerusalem Day Flag March has become an increasingly combustible issue for Israel, drawing tens of thousands of national religious youth to mark the anniversary of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War.

Two years ago, the march played a role in sparking a brief war with Gaza-based terrorists, and last year saw sporadic clashes and hundreds of participants filmed chanting “Death to Arabs” and other racist and Islamophobic slogans.

This year’s rally is scheduled to take place on Thursday May 18.

The senior Israeli official speculated that the march would be held on its original route, confirming a Friday report by Channel 12 news.

That report cited the current government’s lack of political maneuverability on the issue; moving the route — when former prime minister Naftali Bennett left it in place last year — would harm its image as an authentic right-wing alternative to the previous government.

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.

But right-wing and religious nationalist groups insist that the original route be maintained as has been the case for decades in what is meant to signify Israel’s “reunification” of Jerusalem.

In 2021, Netanyahu agreed to reroute the Flag March away from the Muslim Quarter, though he waited until hours before the rally to make the decision, allowing threats against Israel from Hamas and other terror groups to pile up in the meantime. Despite the decision, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem as the rerouted march was taking place. Shortly thereafter, the IDF launched Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza, which lasted 11 days.

The next year, Bennett came under similar pressure from the US, but ultimately decided to allow the march to go forward on the original route in what led to the globally criticized scenes of participants singing “May your village burn” as they danced outside of the Damascus Gate. However, terror groups in Gaza largely avoided responding in the way they had a year earlier.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction of the Religious Zionist party, raises an Israeli flag in Safra Square in Jerusalem on April 20, 2022, at the start of a planned nationalist march. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

While Channel 12 News did not cite a source for any of its reporting, it said the security establishment has not issued any warnings regarding the holding of the Flag March along its original route.

The senior official speaking to The Times of Israel clarified that additional security consultations would be held on the matter before a final decision would be made.

A senior US official told The Times of Israel last week that the issue was already on the Biden administration’s radar.

The Standing Together grassroots group that advocates coexistence between Jews and Arabs penned a letter to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai earlier this week urging him to reroute the rally.

“The parade is a provocation whose purpose is to poke a finger in the eyes of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem,” the Standing Together wrote, expressing its concern that it could ignite further violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Similar calls were issued by left-wing groups Peace Now, Emek Shaveh and Ir Amim.

Shabtai answers to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right firebrand who has loudly advocated for allowing the nationalist march through the Muslim Quarter.

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