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Police chief defends route of Sunday’s controversial Jerusalem Day ‘Flag March’

Kobi Shabtai says parade through Old City’s Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter ‘strengthens governance’; adds that police will maintain freedom of worship, protest, and expression

Chief of police Kobi Shabtai attends a ceremony honoring Israeli security forces, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chief of police Kobi Shabtai attends a ceremony honoring Israeli security forces, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Monday defended his recommendation to allow the annual Jerusalem Day “Flag March” to go through predominately Palestinian areas of the Old City this coming Sunday, saying marchers had the right to hold the nationalist event.

“Israel Police will maintain the freedom of worship, protest, and expression, for everyone. This is the role of the police in a country that values freedom and democracy,” Shabtai said at a legal conference in Eilat.

“This is the same governance that brought us to recommend to the political leadership to hold the annual ‘Flag March’ in Jerusalem’s Old City,” he said.

Jerusalem has been on edge, mainly due to tensions surrounding the Temple Mount holy site. A Jerusalem judge on Sunday ruled in favor of three Jewish teenagers who prayed at the site, in violation of the delicate status quo, sparking condemnation from the Palestinians.

Authorities on Monday sought to tamp down tensions by clarifying that the Temple Mount ruling did not have any wider applications, and police appealed the decision.

Last week, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees police, announced that the march, scheduled for May 29, would be held along the same route as in previous years — after it was changed at the last minute in 2021 in a move that did not prevent Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem in what became an 11-day conflict.

According to the Barlev-approved plan, marchers will 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.

Barlev’s announcement sparked controversy in the coalition, with left-wing lawmakers attacking the decision, saying it risked causing an escalation with Palestinian terror groups, and Ministers Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz reportedly expressing reservations.

Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s capture 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. Palestinians have long viewed the march as a provocation.

Israelis wave national flags during a Jerusalem Day march, in Jerusalem, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Following the announcement of the route, Palestinian terror groups warned against allowing the event to go through.

“I want to clearly warn the enemy against committing these crimes and these steps. 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,” said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh earlier this week.

“Our decision is clear and unhesitating… We will resist with all our capabilities and we will not permit the violation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque or thuggery in the streets of Jerusalem,” he said.

Last year’s march was held as tensions skyrocketed between Israel and the 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 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.

But Hamas nonetheless fired rockets toward Jerusalem during the march. Sirens wailed through the capital as participants rushed for cover.

Israelis run for shelter as air attack sirens goes off during a Jerusalem Day march, in Jerusalem, May 10, 2021. (AP/ Ariel Schalit/File)

The rocket fire sparked last year’s 11-day war between Israel and Gaza terror groups.

This year’s march again comes during roiling tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Since March 22, a wave of deadly terror attacks has struck Israeli cities, killing 19 — the bloodiest violence outside of war in years.

Israeli counter-raids in the West Bank left at least 30 Palestinians dead over the same period. Many were gunmen involved in firefights with Israeli soldiers or took part in violent clashes. Others were apparently uninvolved civilians, such as Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in disputed circumstances during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen two weeks ago in Jenin, sparking an international outcry.

A group of religious Jews walk past the Dome of the Rock during their visit to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 20, 2022. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Adding to tensions in the area was the ruling on Sunday by a Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court judge regarding Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

Judge Zion Saharay ruled in favor of three Jewish teenagers who appealed a decision by the Israel Police to bar them from visiting the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem for a period of time after they were detained for reciting a prayer on the Temple Mount.

In his ruling, Saharay said he did not consider bowing down and reciting a prayer sufficient cause to curtail freedom of religion for fear it would cause a disturbance at the site.

Israeli officials quickly published clarifications that the ruling did not affect the status quo at the flashpoint site, amid backlash from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

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