Hamas and Gaza’s incendiary balloon unit threaten to disrupt Jerusalem Flag March

As police make final preparations for tense nationalist parade Thursday through Old City, Ben Gvir says priority is ‘complete freedom of movement for Jews throughout Jerusalem’

Young Israelis dance with flags at Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City on May 29, 2022, during a nationalist march to mark Jerusalem Day. (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)
Young Israelis dance with flags at Damascus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City on May 29, 2022, during a nationalist march to mark Jerusalem Day. (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

Palestinian terror group Hamas threatened Israel Wednesday against holding the Jerusalem Day Flag March, as authorities were finalizing their preparations for the annual volatile event in Jerusalem’s Old City planned for Thursday.

“The Zionist Flag March will not pass, and the response will inevitably come,” said senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil in a statement.

Meanwhile Gaza’s so-called balloon unit — responsible for launching balloons ferrying incendiary and explosive devices into Israel in the past, and thought to be tied to Hamas — said it would resume activities Thursday.

In a statement on its Telegram channel, the Ibna al-Zuwari group said its members were also set to riot along the Gaza border.

The controversial nationalist parade through the Old City of Jerusalem is set for Thursday, when tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis are expected to march through the Old City — including the Muslim Quarter — waving Israeli flags.

The event was set to come less than a week after Israel and terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad finalized a ceasefire agreement following five days of deadly conflict.

Security officials believe the chances for rocket fire from Gaza during the march are slim. But some officials have feared a repeat of 2021, when Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem just as the march was starting, sparking over a week of fighting between Israel and Gazan terror groups.

Masked Palestinians prepare to launch incendiary balloons across the northern Gaza border toward Israel, on May 8, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The Hamas-linked Shehab news agency reported that a march with Palestinian flags was expected to take place Thursday near the border, east of Gaza City.

The last time Palestinians launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel, sparking dozens of fires, in September 2021, the Israeli Air Force bombed Hamas sites in response.

It was unclear if Hamas, which stayed out of the fighting with Islamic Jihad, would give the balloon unit the go-ahead to launch attacks on Israel.

The annual rally of religious nationalists 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 Jerusalem Day march has gained notoriety over the years, as it is often marred by hate speech and sometimes violence.

Meanwhile, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir held a situational assessment with top police brass ahead of Jerusalem Day and the Flag March.

The far-right politician said his “very clear” policy was to “enable complete freedom of movement for Jews throughout Jerusalem.” He added that “all the threats of terrorism, thuggery and provocations must be removed as soon as possible.”

He acknowledged that “there will no doubt be some who try to disrupt the celebration,” expressing confidence that police would thwart this.

Itamar Ben Gvir during a flag march at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 15, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Thursday will be “a Flag March, a celebratory march, Jews ascending the Temple Mount without anyone thinking they can be threatened or harmed,” Ben Gvir said, laying out his vision for Jerusalem Day. “And mainly, a message to the whole world that the Israel Police safeguards Jerusalem. With God’s help, Jerusalem will be colored tomorrow in blue and white with great joy.”

It wasn’t yet clear if Ben Gvir himself would take part in the Flag March — though reports have said he is likely to attend — or if he will enter the Temple Mount, which he has done on previous Jerusalem Days before becoming a minister.

In January, Ben Gvir’s first visit as a minister to the flashpoint holy site — his only one to date — sparked fierce international condemnation and threats from Jordan and the Palestinians, who viewed the move as a provocation due to his extremist views and newfound power.

The Temple Mount is the holiest location in Judaism, while Muslims revere the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, or the Noble Sanctuary, as their third-holiest site. Many of them deny any Jewish links to the site, toward which Jews have prayed for millennia, and Palestinians have for a century been alleging that Israel intends to take over the site and destroy its mosques, something the Jewish state has always vehemently denied.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy Minhelet Har Habayit)

While Muslims are usually allowed into the site relatively freely under loosely defined understandings known as the status quo, Jews are only permitted to enter during limited hours on weekdays under numerous restrictions, and with police guiding them through a predetermined route. They also ostensibly banned from praying, though in recent years police have increasingly allowed silent prayers during visits.

Ahead of Jerusalem Day, Palestinian groups have urged Muslims to gather en masse at the Temple Mount, and a spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday that the calls for Jews to visit the site the following day were “dangerous.”

The timing of the march this year is especially delicate in light of the fresh ceasefire between Israel and Iran-backed Islamic Jihad since early Sunday. The ceasefire ended days of fighting that saw nearly 1,500 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza.

More than 2,000 police officers will secure the controversial march, along with more than 1,000 other security personnel who will ensure that other events in the capital throughout the day are adequately protected, the force announced Tuesday afternoon.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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