Refusal to release hunger striker's body complicates talks

Egypt seeking swift ceasefire as nationalist flag march in tense Jerusalem looms

Cairo fears that if fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad continues through next Thursday, it will be much harder to contain once Flag March goes forward through Muslim Quarter

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

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)
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)

Egypt is determined to broker a ceasefire ahead of Thursday’s controversial rally of Israeli religious nationalists through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, which Cairo fears could inflame tensions to a point of no return, an Egyptian official familiar with the indirect negotiations between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad told The Times of Israel on Friday.

“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.

The so-called Flag March is held every year on Jerusalem Day with its thousands of largely Orthodox participants rallying 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 young Jewish participants toward Palestinians.

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.

In May 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 Damascus Gate. However, terror groups in Gaza largely avoided responding in the way they had a year earlier.

A boy sits amidst the rubble near of the house of Ahmed Abu-Deka on May 11, 2023, the deputy of the commander of a rocket launch unit killed by Israel on May 10. (Photo by Said Khatib / AFP)

The Egyptian official expressed hope on Friday that the Biden administration would coax Israel to reroute the march this year, given the already tense situation in Gaza, which started on Tuesday when the IDF launched a series of airstrikes eliminating the top brass of PIJ, which has responded by firing hundreds of rockets at Israel.

A senior Israeli official told the Times of Israel last week that the hardline government was not likely to reroute the march.

“We’re not particularly optimistic, which is why it’s critical that the fighting ends as soon as possible,” the Egyptian official said Friday, adding that Cairo would seek assurances from the sides in order to ensure that it will withhold even if the Flag March does go ahead through the Muslim Quarter.

While there had been cautious optimism that a ceasefire was within reach after fighting held from Thursday at 10 p.m. through the morning, the lull was disturbed by a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza shortly after 11 a.m.

The official declined to speculate when Egypt might succeed in brokering a ceasefire. They acknowledged that efforts were complicated by the Israeli refusal thus far to release the body of Khader Adnan, a senior PIJ member who died earlier this month after hunger-striking for 86 days in an Israeli prison. His death sparked a brief round of fighting last week during which PIJ fired over 100 rockets at Israel. During that time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government said it authorized the airstrikes on three of PIJ’s top military leaders that it carried out on Tuesday morning.

Police and rescue forces at the scene where a rocket fired from Gaza hit and damaged a building in Rehovot on May 11, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

At least 31 people in Gaza — roughly half of whom were civilians — have been killed since Israel launched the offensive, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, and at least 93 more have been injured.

One Israeli was killed when a PIJ rocket slammed into an apartment building in the central city of Rehovot on Thursday. At least 57 Israelis have been wounded since the fighting began.

Optimism was growing Friday morning that a ceasefire could be drawing nearer after three days of intense fighting between Israel and the Gazan terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with no rockets launched from the Strip toward Israel since 10 p.m. on Thursday.

The Israeli military conducted a series of airstrikes late Thursday and early Friday against targets linked to Islamic Jihad, the Israel Defense Forces said.

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