Members of Israel’s governing coalition were divided Thursday over the approaching annual march by nationalist Israelis through the Old City of Jerusalem which has ratcheted up tensions with the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday Israel marks Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the unification of the capital following the 1967 Six-Day War. The day is highlighted by the Flag March, a procession through the Old City which opponents see as a provocation towards the Arab community and supporters say is a justified celebration of Israeli sovereignty of the united city.
A key point of contention is the march route that winds through the Damascus Gate of the Old City and from there through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall.
Environmental Protection Ministery Tamar Zandberg told Army Radio the march is “an act of defiance” and said it was “endangering the whole Middle East, the whole of Jerusalem and all of us.”
She questioned whether the march needs to pass through Damascus Gate or if it could follow a different route.
“There is a way to do this with less friction and with less danger of an explosion,” said Zandberg, from the left-wing Meretz party.
While stressing that marking the unification of Jerusalem is legitimate, she said “When we encounter the danger that this thing poses then we need to manage it in a way that will reduce it.”
Fellow Meretz member, Deputy Economy Minister Yair Golan told Kan the march has long become a nationalist demonstration accompanied by calls of “death to the Arabs” and vandalism of Arab property located along the march’s route. He said it was the “wrong decision” to have the march go through Damascus Gate.
However, Economy Minister Orna Barbivai of Yesh Atid told Ynet the march “is not an act of defiance, and anyone who says so is making a provocation.”
“It is legitimate for Jews to march in Jerusalem, including at the Damascus Gate,” she said.
Also backing the event was Deputy Defense Minister Alon Schuster, a member of the Blue and White party, who told Army Radio that the march was continuing a long tradition of celebration for Jerusalem Day.
“We will do it with confidence, safely, without provocation,” he said.
MK Mossi Raz of Meretz told the Kol Baramah radio station, which is primarily aimed at the ultra-Orthodox community, that he would be willing to participate in the march if it was held only in west Jerusalem.
With the Old City route, the march aims “to cause provocation,” he said, and compared it to holding a march flying Palestinian flags in the Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. “I would also oppose that,” he said.
MK Walid Taha, of the coalition member Islamist Ra’am party, similarly called the march a “disgraceful provocation.”
“We are an integral part of the Palestinian people and we reject this,” Taha said during an interview with the Kan public broadcaster.
Thousands of police are to secure the event that will run from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip have warned that the march could trigger a response; Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have reportedly put their rocket-firing units in a state of readiness. Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem during last year’s march, opening what became an 11-day war.
Israel, through mediators, has told Hamas it is not seeking conflict but has also warned the Gaza-ruling terror group it will respond to any attack. The army has deployed batteries of Iron Dome missile defense systems and has reportedly prepared attack plans.
The coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a diverse mix of parties from the left, center, and right of Israeli politics, along with Ra’am. Member parties have varied ideologies on some key issues regarding the country.
In the opposition, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi described the Flag March as “a provocation by pyromaniacs” and called the marchers “a gang of fanatics who were given approval by the Bennett government.”
Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, by contrast, praised the government for taking the “logical” step of greenlighting the march through the Muslim Quarter.