The Israel Police successfully contained several hundred nationalist protesters who planned a “flag march” through Jerusalem flashpoints to oppose the current government and reaffirm Jewish presence in the city and its holy sites.
Tensions in Jerusalem have peaked over the past week, and Wednesday evening’s protest had the potential to reverberate across Israel’s flailing coalition and its international relations with Muslim countries, and to escalate tensions with the Hamas terror group, which earlier in the day said it had its “finger on the trigger” ahead of the march.
Far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir also attended the march, and upon its frustration, announced that he would be setting up a temporary office in Jerusalem’s Tzahal Square, near the Old City.
Organizers of the event originally planned to enter the Old City through Damascus Gate directly into the Muslim Quarter, and continue through there to the Western Wall.
Had they been successful, the marchers would have been met head-on by crowds of Muslim worshipers, packed into the Old City in the immediate hours before breaking the Ramadan fast.
With a minimal but growing presence, the Israel Police successfully contained the protest by blocking the road from Tzahal Square to Damascus Gate. While only several hundred meters away, the strip of road separates Jerusalem’s western and eastern sides.
Several police officers at the scene confirmed that protesters could advance through Jaffa Gate, a popular entrance to the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, and from there continue to the Western Wall. But they would be prohibited from entering the Muslim Quarter.
Protesters rejected the compromise suggestion, and their demonstration route was cut short. In all, they marched only a few dozen meters from their gathering point in Safra Square to Tzahal Square, where they remained gathered for about 90 minutes before the crowd significantly thinned.
“We want to get to Damascus Gate, where the extremist Muslims are, and the police aren’t letting us,” said Menashe Issacharof, 18, from Jerusalem.
“Jaffa Gate is calm, so we’re staying here,” he said, from the protest’s terminus in Tzahal Square.
המפגינים מנסים לפרוץ את החסימה המשטרתית, עימותים במקום. ברקע קריאות ״נקמה״. pic.twitter.com/voWNwFtV6K
— סולימאן מסוודה سليمان مسودة (@SuleimanMas1) April 20, 2022
Calm, however, did not pervade among the protesting crowd. In addition to chants of “Arabs, get out,” “Revenge,” “Bibi is the King,” in reference to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and “Bennett, go home,” in reference to the current premier, the crowd intermittently became hostile.
In several bursts over the course of an hour, the crowd pushed against police barricades and took swings at officers.
The police had previously denied organizers’ demands to approve the protest, including an offer to march through the mostly Arab Christian Quarter, and the truncated march was ultimately conducted without police cooperation.
“There’s no legal prohibition against walking here, so [trying to block us] is a political decision,” said Noam Nisan, one of the march’s organizers.
The hastily organized “flag march” was planned at a time of heightened municipal and international tensions over the Old City and the Temple Mount, which have both been flashpoints for increased violence at the confluence of Passover, Ramadan, and Easter.
“We saw this week the pictures of rocks thrown at buses on their way to the Western Wall and of Jews attacked in the Old City,” says Nisan, referring to two recent incidents in Jerusalem that circulated in the Israeli press. “We wanted to do it in the place where rocks were thrown on buses.”
Among the overwhelmingly religious Zionist participants were groups of young men, families and lone protesters.
Ovadia Ben Abu, 17, from Beitar Ilit said that he “came to show Hamas and all the left-wingers that we’re here and it’s our country.”
Shlomo, 25, from Givatayim, said that he, his wife and young children came to “give support to Jerusalem,” because “Jews are afraid to come pray in Jerusalem during Passover,” against a backdrop of increased terror.
The imperiled government coalition is currently trying to bring the Islamist Ra’am party back into the fold, after it announced a freeze on its membership on Sunday following clashes between Palestinians and police on the Temple Mount.
“The fear that the coalition might fall — that’s what’s motivating our policy right now,” said Shlomo, who asked to withhold his last name because he currently serves in a Military Intelligence unit.
His comment was in reference to Ra’am and what he perceived as coalition capitulations to please Muslim members.
Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that he intended to bar Ben Gvir from entering Damascus Gate.
The government has in recent days tried to walk a fine line between reaffirming Jewish sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem and its holy sites and not inflaming further tensions with Arab Israelis and Palestinians and souring diplomatic relations with Arab allies.
Amid the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount, known as Haram Al-Sharif to Muslims and hope to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, both Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have called their Israeli ambassadors for dressing-downs. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called his Israeli counterpart Tuesday to similarly express concern about tensions on Al-Aqsa, which have captured the attention of the Muslim world.
Wednesday’s flag march was an homage to an annual event tied to Jerusalem Day, during which right-wing Israelis march through the Old City and its Muslim Quarter, waving Israeli flags and dancing to commemorate Israel’s 1967 capture of East Jerusalem during the Six Day War.
Palestinians say the event is a provocation. Last year’s Jerusalem Day flag march was conducted immediately in the run-up to Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem, the impetus for an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas.