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Police, IDF said bracing for rocket fire from Gaza

Police ramp up alert to top level ahead of contentious Jerusalem Flag March

3,000 officers to secure Sunday’s procession through Old City; stepped-up presence planned for Arab-Jewish towns; Joint List chief calls on government to cancel ‘racist’ event

Police officers guard during the 'Flag March' at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers guard during the 'Flag March' at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, June 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Wednesday ordered the readiness alert level to be ratcheted up in Jerusalem and so-called mixed Jewish and Arab cities throughout the country ahead of a nationalist march planned for Sunday in the Old City, the force said in a statement.

Officials fear a repeat of violence surrounding the yearly Jerusalem Day Flag March, which generally attracts thousands of hardline nationalists who march through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to reach the Western Wall to mark the anniversary of the city’s unification in 1967. This year’s Flag March will take place on Sunday. Police have already capped participation in the part of the march that goes through the Old City at 16,000 as a precaution against crushing.

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. Last year the Hamas terror group fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem as the march was underway, forcing it to be stopped and rescheduled a month later. Gaza terror groups have warned this year against letting the procession go ahead.

The IDF has boosted its air defense systems against Gaza as a precaution, the Kan report said.

Meanwhile, Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese network close to the Hamas and Hezbollah terror groups, reported Wednesday that Palestinian terror groups do not rule out a “response” from Gaza should there be “provocations” during Sunday’s Flag March.

Israelis run to shelters as rocket warning sirens goes off during a Jerusalem Day march on May 10, 2021, after Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip fire rockets toward Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“The response to the provocations will be from all the arenas, including Gaza,” Al-Mayadeen said the terror groups passed on to Egyptian and international mediators.

Shabtai held a situational assessment with top officials from the police, Border Police, intelligence officers, the Shin Bet security service, the Foreign Ministry, and others, police said. Hebrew media reports Wednesday night said the Shin Bet shared the police assessment that the march should proceed as planned, along its route to the Western Wall via Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

After the assessment meeting, the commissioner instructed readiness to be raised to its highest level in the capital, where the march is set to take place, and in cities with large populations of both Jews and Arabs, where racial violence exploded last year.

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.

“The police are carrying out extensive preventive activity in the face of instigators and rioters,” the statement said.

It said dozens have been arrested in Jerusalem and other locations on suspicion they intended to sabotage the march and said police have made contact “with other entities likely to disturb the peace, and warned them.”

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

MK Ayman Odeh, leader of the opposition Joint List party, a mostly Arab alliance, tweeted “instead of worrying of igniting this dangerous area it is possible and necessary to prevent this.”

He called on the government to prohibit the “march of racism and hatred in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.”

The statement said 3,000 police will guard the march, while thousands more will be deployed around the city and other locations across the country.

Police also noted that a number of other events in the coming days, including an all-night student festival and a Jewish pilgrimage to Nabi Samwil in the West Bank just outside East Jerusalem, will require road closures and extra police enforcement and citizen patience.

“Our main task is to ensure that Jerusalem Day events can go ahead properly and safely as every year,” Jerusalem District Police Commander Doron Turgeman said in a separate statement that indicated the number of officers guarding the flag march will be closer to 2,000.

He also noted that claims the march will ascend the Temple Mount are false.

“The police call on the participants of the flag parade and the entire public to obey the instructions of the police, to refrain from any manifestation of physical and verbal violence, and to allow the event to take place as a safe experience, and with full adherence to law and order,” Jerusalem police said in their statement.

Police said that undercover officers would also be deployed and that the force would have “zero tolerance to any show of violence” and would use all tools available to it against those who break the law.

From 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., several roads in the capital will be closed to traffic in both directions.

They are Bezalel Street, King George Street, Agron Street, Yitzhak Kariv Street, Shlomo Hamelech Street, Hativat Yerushalayim Street, Tzanchanim Street, Heil HaHandasa Street, Sultan Suleiman Street, and Hayim Bar-Lev Street heading south.

The Jerusalem Light Rail will also suspend services at stops near IDF Square during the march. Public transport routes that pass through the area will be diverted to alternative routes.

There will be an official state ceremony to mark Jerusalem Day at the Givat Hatachmoshet memorial site.

Israeli police patrol during a rescheduled flag march, June 15, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Jerusalem has been on edge ahead of the parade, mainly due to tensions surrounding the Temple Mount holy site.

Last week, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, announced that the march, scheduled for May 29, would be held along the same route as in previous years. Last year, the route was changed at the last minute in a bid to avoid conflagration, but the change did not prevent Hamas from firing rockets at Jerusalem, sparking 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.

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

Israel is sending messages to the Hamas terror group via Egypt and Qatar in hopes of keeping tensions from boiling over during a nationalist march through the Old City next week, Channel 13 News reported Tuesday.

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.

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.

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