Contentious Jerusalem Day ‘Flag March’ to maintain route through Muslim Quarter

Despite tensions from war in Gaza, marchers to stick to traditional path; police say 3,000 cops will be deployed to maintain order at Wednesday event, which has history of violence

Israelis wave flags during the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March, May 18, 2023. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)
Israelis wave flags during the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March, May 18, 2023. (RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

This year’s Jerusalem Day Flag March, a controversial and often incendiary annual event, will follow its traditional route through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, despite heightened tensions amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

Police said Monday that the march will follow the same route as it did last year, from downtown Jerusalem to the Western Wall. There will be two routes participants will take to the wall, one that passes through Dung Gate, and a second that passes through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter.

“The police urge Flag March participants and the public to follow police instructions, avoid any physical or verbal violence, and allow the event to proceed safely while strictly adhering to law and order. Any disruptions or acts of violence will be dealt with firmly by the police,” the force said in a statement.

Police stressed that the march will not at any point pass through the Temple Mount or the Temple Mount gates.

The Flag March, which in recent years has been attended largely by religious Zionist youth groups and other adherents of Orthodox nationalism, has long been a flashpoint event, with marchers saying it simply celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 following the Six Day War, and opponents saying it unnecessarily seeks to antagonize the Palestinian residents of the Old City.

Police said that more than 3,000 officers — including border police, volunteers and backup from other cities — will be deployed in and around the Old City on Wednesday afternoon for the Flag March.

A police officer stands guard as Israelis wave flags ahead of a march marking Jerusalem Day, in front of the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, May 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg/File)

Chief Supt. Wissam Ali, the head of the Jerusalem police operations division, said in a video statement that police “will work to maintain as normal a routine as possible, for the participants, pedestrians, visitors, and worshipers of all religions.”

Many of Jerusalem’s main roads will be blocked off to vehicular traffic on Wednesday afternoon, and will gradually reopen as the parade progresses. The light rail will not operate during the parade, and bus routes will be redirected so as to not interfere with the march.

In years past, officials have often faced calls both within and outside Israel to alter the route to avoid passing through the Muslim Quarter and inflaming tensions. Last year’s parade came just days after a ceasefire brokered the end of a five-day flareup of violence between Israel and Hamas. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted calls to change the route of the parade, and it went ahead as planned.

While the event ended without any major incident or escalation, some participants in the march scuffled with Palestinian residents while others shouted threats and slurs as they passed through the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Eight months into the war against Hamas in Gaza, sparked by the terror group’s deadly October 7 onslaught, the alleys of the Old City remain largely quiet, with few tourists around and many Palestinian-owned shops shuttered.

In 2021, the Jerusalem march served as a pretext for Hamas to launch an 11-day conflict, dubbed by Israel Operation Guardian of the Walls. The terror group fired rockets at Jerusalem during the event, sparking the deadly conflagration, which also saw a severe outbreak of Arab-Jewish violence in some Israeli cities.

That year, Netanyahu agreed to reroute the Flag March, though he waited until hours before the rally to make the decision, allowing threats to pile up in the meantime. Ultimately the terror group chose to fire a barrage of rockets at the rerouted march regardless.

The following year, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett ultimately decided to allow the march to go forward on the original route. In past years, US officials have urged Israel to change the path of the march, though this year attention has been largely focused on President Joe Biden’s efforts to broker a hostage-truce deal and end the war in Gaza.

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