Palestinian terror groups warned on Saturday of an “explosion” ahead of the controversial Jerusalem Day flag march set for Sunday, where right-wing Israelis have been given the green light to march through the capital’s Old City, taking the traditional route from Safra Square to the Western Wall via the Muslim Quarter.
Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem during last year’s march, setting off what became an 11-day Gaza-Israel war.
Former Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal said in a speech carried by Hamas-affiliated media on Saturday that Muslims across the world should “take to the streets tomorrow” in a “day of anger for Jerusalem.”
Palestinian Islamic Jihad spokesperson Daoud Shehab vowed that the march “will lead to a wide explosion at several levels, and the resistance is always fully ready to wage confrontations to defend our holy site.”
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said earlier this week that “the Palestinian people, led by the resistance — especially those in the West Bank and Jerusalem — will not permit this Jewish, Talmudic rubbish to go unanswered.”
Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s conquest of the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, is celebrated by national-religious Jews, most prominently by youths who march through the capital while dancing with Israeli flags.
Marchers are set to walk along Jaffa Street to Damascus Gate, where access will be blocked for Palestinians. They will continue into the Old City through Hagai Street in the Muslim Quarter and finish at the Western Wall.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev green-lighted the route this week, despite Biden administration efforts to push Israel to re-route the march.
Both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed that the rally has “combustible” elements, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, but Barlev’s decision was approved by ministers, with police and the Shin Bet security agency supporting the route.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Barlev have noted that the route through the Muslim Quarter is not new. They also point to the decision last month to bar a similarly routed rally of religious nationalists and far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, and suggested that allowing the Jerusalem Day march on Sunday was “somewhat of a tradeoff” for that decision, which was also made following US pressure, the Israeli official said, adding that additional security assessments will be held in the days leading up to the event.
Palestinians have long viewed the annual march as a provocation. Palestinian shop owners in the Old City are forced to close down early on the day of the march to make way for the right-wing marchers. Supporters of the rally view it as an integral part of their celebration of the anniversary of the reunification of the city in 1967.
Mashaal, who has not held an official position within Hamas for several years, said Saturday that Palestinians “must do a great deed so that they know that assaulting Al-Aqsa [Mosque] will make the heavens fall to the earth.”
“Aggression against Al-Aqsa and attempts to divide it will make the nation seethe with boundless rage,” he added.
Last year, Israel ended up changing the traditional route at the eleventh hour as tensions skyrocketed between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem. Israeli police had clashed repeatedly with Palestinians on the flashpoint Temple Mount holy site during the final days of the Ramadan holy month, leaving hundreds injured. There was also tension surrounding the potential evictions of Palestinians from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
Israeli authorities altered the route of the 2021 march an hour before it was set to be held following Hamas threats. Police fanned out across the Old City in an attempt to prevent Israeli marchers from reaching Damascus Gate.
Organizers then declared the cancellation of the event but hundreds of participants streamed into the Old City. Shortly thereafter, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in what ended up kicking off an 11-day Gaza War.
This year, march organizers decided to limit the number of participants to traverse the Old City to the Western Wall to 16,000 people, citing concerns about overlarge crowds in the wake of 2021’s Mount Meron Lag B’Omer deadly crush. Half the group will march through the Old City via the Damascus Gate, while the other half will go through Jaffa Gate, likely only skirting the Muslim Quarter. Police will deploy 3,000 officers to secure the rally.
Israel has reportedly passed along messages to Hamas via Egypt and Qatar, warning that it will strike Gaza if the enclave-ruling terror group fires rockets at Israel because of the march.
On Wednesday, the US Embassy in Jerusalem issued a warning, barring its employees from entering the Old City at any time on Sunday. The embassy said that US government employees may not be in the Old City after dark or on Fridays, may not use Damascus, Herod’s and Lions’ Gate, and may not enter the Old City “at any time on Sunday, May 29.”
It also called on US citizens to remain vigilant and exercise caution.
Also Wednesday, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered the readiness alert level to be ratcheted up in Jerusalem and so-called mixed Jewish and Arab cities throughout the country ahead of the march.
A major concern is rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, the Kan public broadcaster reported, citing police plans that include arranging for the thousands of participants to be quickly evacuated if the country comes under attack.
Shabtai held a situational assessment Wednesday with top officials from the police, Border Police, intelligence officers, the Shin Bet security service, the Foreign Ministry and others, police said.
Shabtai ordered that leave be largely curtailed for the Border Police and training courses canceled so officers can be deployed instead. Three companies will be called up from reserves with the rest of the reserves ordered to be at the ready for possible deployment.