In an about-face, police on Monday said the route of the Flag March for Jerusalem Day would be changed amid concerns of further violence in the city following major clashes on the Temple Mount.
The announcement came as the annual march of mostly young religious nationalist Israeli Jews was already underway. Organizers subsequently said they were calling off the parade, but marchers continued to stream toward the Western Wall, where an event for Jerusalem Day was to be held.
As the parade began at 4 p.m., police said the march would enter the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and from there go to the Western Wall, rather than pass through the Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter on the way there.
A police statement said the change came after a situational assessment and was “in accordance with the decision of the political leadership and the recommendation of security officials.”
Israeli officials told Hebrew media that it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who ordered the march redirected away from the Damascus Gate.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana opposed the move, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Police also said officers were deployed throughout the city “to ensure the safety of participants, prevent disturbances of the peace and regulate movement.”
The decision came after the Israel Defense Forces, Shin Bet security service and military liaison to the Palestinians all recommended that the planned route of the march be changed to limit the chances of direct confrontations between the participants and the Muslim residents of the city.
According to Channel 12, Defense Minister Benny Gantz also called for police to alter the route.
Police initially said they weren’t planning on changing the route, before backtracking hours later.
The annual Old City march often sees clashes between far-right Jews and Palestinians. This year, with tensions already at a boiling point, security officials were reportedly convinced the event would be marked by violence between the sides.
Organizers said in a statement that they were canceling the march due to “the prime minister’s decision to prevent the marchers from passing through Damascus Gate.”
“We will not march on the territories of divided Jerusalem. The event at the Western Wall will be held as usual,” organizers said in a statement.
It was unclear if participants making their way through the Old City via the Jaffa Gate were aware of the decision.
In the morning, police decided to bar Jews from entering the Temple Mount on Jerusalem Day due to the spiraling tensions in the capital, drawing fury from right-wing legislators but support from the left.
After the police decision, major clashes broke between police and Palestinian rioters at the flashpoint holy site, with hundreds said wounded.
Police entered the Temple Mount compound in the morning after thousands of Palestinians had gathered there overnight, having collected numerous rocks and other makeshift weapons. Police said dozens of rioters attacked a police post and hurled rocks from the Temple Mount toward a road south of the compound, blocking the road but causing no injuries or damage.
Sunday night saw fierce clashes between Palestinian protesters and police in Jerusalem. At least 25 people were wounded and 23 people arrested.
The Temple Mount is considered holy by both Muslims and Jews. The site contains the Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest site in Islam — and is revered by Jews as their holiest site, where both biblical Temples stood. Jews have been barred from entering the site in recent days amid the tensions, which coincide with the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.
Jerusalem has seen violent nights for the past week. Demonstrators have been protesting over tensions surrounding the Mount as well as the pending eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
The protests have devolved into clashes with police, with security forces using high-pressure water cannons, rubber-tipped bullets, and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators.
But matters came to a head on Friday night when police clashed with Palestinians on the Temple Mount, with dozens of people wounded.
Jerusalem Day celebrates Israel’s unification of Jerusalem, with the capture of East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. The annual march is widely perceived as provocative, as hardline nationalist Israelis, guarded by police, walk through the Damascus Gate of the Old City and through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
This year the march coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sensitivities, and follows weeks of clashes. That, combined with Palestinian anger over the eviction plan in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, set the stage for an especially volatile day.
Addressing a special cabinet meeting ahead of Jerusalem Day, Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel “will not allow any extremists to destabilize the calm in Jerusalem. We will enforce law and order decisively and responsibly.”
The violence, along with the planned evictions in East Jerusalem, have drawn condemnations from Israel’s Arab allies and expressions of concern from the United States, Europe and the United Nations.
The UN Security Council was set to meet on Jerusalem violence later Monday.
There were also signs the violence was spreading to the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
Agencies contributed to this report.