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Security cabinet to decide whether to allow rerouted Jerusalem flag march

Debate reportedly comes at insistence of Gantz, with PM having sought to hold discussion in smaller forum; security official: ‘Someone is insisting on setting Jerusalem ablaze’

Participants in the Flag March in Jerusalem's Old City on May 10, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90
Participants in the Flag March in Jerusalem's Old City on May 10, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90

The high-level security cabinet is set to meet Tuesday evening to discuss a contentious flag march planned in Jerusalem for Thursday, reportedly after Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to leave the decision on the sensitive matter to a smaller forum.

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai is to present several alternatives in a bid to allow the march to go forward after police initially refused to authorize the event, which was set to follow a path through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter.

Following a meeting between Netanyahu, ministers and top security officials that ended just after midnight Monday night, it was decided that Shabtai would present the proposals to the political leadership for possible authorization.

Organizers had sought to hold a rescheduled flag march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City on Thursday, after the original march on May 10 was stopped short by rocket fire from Hamas at Jerusalem, which sparked an 11-day bout of intense fighting.

In an official announcement Monday, Jerusalem police denied that they had called off the parade, but said that the date and route of the march should be approved by law enforcement and relevant political authorities. Police earlier reportedly sought to reroute the planned march away from the areas where it could cause a surfeit of friction between nationalist Jews and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

Monday evening’s meeting included Netanyahu, Gantz, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Shabtai, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and Mandelblit. The Ynet news site reported that Mandelblit was only added after Gantz demanded his inclusion, arguing that the meeting was going to touch on legal issues. Animosity is high between Netanyahu and Mandelblit,  ever since the latter decided to indict the premier in three corruption cases, in which a trial is ongoing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 21, 2014. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool/File)

Ynet reported Tuesday that during the discussion, Gantz and Mandelblit told Netanyahu he wasn’t authorized to give orders to the police. They said that if the issue had become a matter of policy, the security cabinet should make the decision rather than a smaller forum that included only Netanyahu, Gantz, Ohana, Shabtai, Argaman and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.

The cabinet meeting was reportedly called for 5:30 p.m.

Nationalist politicians and parade organizers have accused police of giving in to terror by canceling the parade. Members of the so-called “change government” set to unseat Netanyahu have charged that the march is deliberately planned to stir unrest and potentially derail the incoming government before it can be voted into office. The Knesset speaker, Yariv Levin (Likud), has not yet set a date for the swearing-in vote.

Channel 12 news on Tuesday quoted a senior security official as saying there was “the strong impression that someone is insisting on setting Jerusalem ablaze specifically during this week, despite the police’s professional opinion.”

The network said that Ohana and other political officials contend that Israel can’t cancel such a march in Jerusalem, a move that would be seen as capitulation to Hamas threats.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, behind them, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, at a press conference after the Gaza ceasefire, Tel Aviv, May 21, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

A police source was quoted Monday by Channel 12 as saying that “no route that passes through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter can be approved. The police won’t be able to muster sufficient forces to secure such a route, in addition to many more forces that would have to be prepared in other areas where clashes would be expected.”

A joint body representing various terror groups based in the Gaza Strip said Monday that “if Israel decides to restore the previous situation, we call for burning the ground under the enemy’s feet.”

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a press conference at the Knesset, on May 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, called the decision to delay the march “an embarrassing capitulation to terror and to Hamas threats.”

“While we are arguing over what kind of government to have, Yahya Sinwar is running things here,” Smotrich tweeted, referring to the head of Hamas in Gaza.

Others also expressed anger.

“It seems the side that ended up deterred after Operation Guardian of the Walls is the State of Israel, which caved to the threats of terrorists and is not allowing a march of Israeli flags through the capital of the State of Israel,” march organizer Yehuda Wald said, according to the Srugim website, referring to the conflict with Gaza-based terrorists in May.

The May 10 march, which came amid heightened tensions over planned evictions of Palestinians in an East Jerusalem neighborhood and a police clampdown of rioting on the Temple Mount, had also been rerouted to avoid the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter, following pressure from the US, which expressed concern that the parade could cause tensions to boil over.

The annual Jerusalem Day event sees thousands of nationalist Jews march through Muslim-majority parts of Jerusalem toward the Western Wall, in a show of sovereignty to mark the Hebrew anniversary of the city’s east side being captured by Israel during the Six Day War of 1967. The route has long been deemed provocative by Israeli and Palestinian critics, since local Arab proprietors are forced to shutter their stores so law enforcement can secure the Palestinian-majority area for the mainly nationalist Jewish revelers.

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