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Security officials warn Jerusalem right-wing parade could ‘set the area alight’

Several former senior police commanders call for Thursday’s planned march to be prohibited, with an ex-top cop in the city calling it ‘an attempt to ignite East Jerusalem’

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

Former security officials warned Sunday against allowing a planned right-wing nationalist march to be held in Jerusalem later this week, warning it could fuel a broader Israeli-Palestinian conflagration over the city.

The Flag March, a controversial annual parade, was rescheduled for Thursday after it was canceled mid-event on May 10, Jerusalem Day, when Hamas fired rockets toward the city, setting off 11 days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has signaled he will demand the cancellation of the march, which is being backed by some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies. Netanyahu, who is facing the prospect of being replaced as premier if the so-called “change government” is sworn in, has yet to comment publicly on the matter.

“Especially with Jerusalem, any unusual incident can set the area alight and lead to a escalation in both [the West Bank] and the Strip and therefore responsibility, sensitivity and common sense are needed to make decisions without political interference,” an unnamed security source told the Kan public broadcaster.

Israelis take cover as a siren sounds warning of incoming rockets from the Gaza Strip, during Jerusalem Day, in Jerusalem, May 10, 2021. (Flash90)

The broadcaster also quoted a military source saying the Israel Defense Forces remained on high alert in the West Bank and Gaza-border area, saying those areas had “still not calmed down or fully stabilized” after the conflict ended.

Several former top police commanders urged police not to allow the event to go forward.

“The march must not be authorized and a [cancellation] order needs to be issued because of a ‘real danger to public safety,'”Arieh Amit, a former Jerusalem District police commander, told Channel 12 news. “Not because of Hamas’s warnings but because it is completely clear that this is an attempt to ignite East Jerusalem.”

He said the event was intended only for Jerusalem Day and should not be held whenever organizers “feel like it.”

“There is no disagreement that the situation is incredibly volatile and sensitive and movement could cause great damage and serious disturbances… If [Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman] makes a mistake and makes the wrong decision, the price will be very high,” Amit said.

Israeli police officers stand near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Former police commissioner Rafi Peled also said that were it up to him, he would not allow the march to be held, citing the possibility for “comprehensive damage” in both Jerusalem and elsewhere, though he acknowledged that he did not have “the whole picture.”

Fellow former police chief Moshe Karadi stressed that the right to protest is guaranteed in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. “However, this right sometimes clashes with other rights and obligations like the right to life and the police’s duty to maintain public order and security,” he said to Channel 12.

Karadi said he would not recommend cancelling the event altogether but signaled support for altering the planned route to avoid flashpoints like the Damascus Gate area. He also brushed off recent threats concerning Jerusalem by Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, saying these should not factor into the Jerusalem District commander’s decision.

“East Jerusalem is currently full of oil vapors and just one small match is needed to set it aflame. A march passing through the Damascus Gate and by way of the Temple Mount gates is exactly the the same match that may set the area ablaze,” Karadi said.

Jewish Orthodox marchers gather to celebrate Jerusalem Day at the Old City’s Damascus gate in Jerusalem on June 2, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

But former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, a lawmaker in Netanyahu’s Likud party, called for the march to proceed, saying there was “no justification” for taking Hamas threats into consideration.

“There is nothing more symbolic to do right now than the Flag March and there is no problem with this,” Dichter told Kan.

Likud Minister Ofir Akunis also called for the parade to go forward. “The security forces need to provide security to the marchers. If we give up on Jerusalem, we give up everything,” he said in an interview with the radio station.

The comments came after Gantz met Saturday night with the military and police chiefs, the attorney general, and other top security officials to discuss the planned march. The defense minister said he stressed to all officials present the need for responsible, sensitive behavior. Notably absent from the meeting was Public Security Minister Amir Ohana of Likud, whose office oversees the police.

After the meeting, Gantz said he would demand the event be scrapped if it “requires extraordinary security measures and endangers public order and diplomatic processes.”

In response, far-right Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich called the defense minister “cowardly.”

“We didn’t wait for a Jewish, independent, sovereign state for 2,000 years only to have a cowardly defense minister publicly bow to Hamas’s terror threats (and invite more threats and more terrorism) and seek to prevent Jews from marching with Israeli flags in Jerusalem, our holy city and the united capital,” tweeted Smotrich, urging Netanyahu and Ohana to announce the march will be held as planned.

Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on May 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Hebrew media on Saturday that police would make the final call on whether the march would be held. “Israel has returned to routine, there are no current restrictions and Jews are visiting the Temple Mount,” the official said.

Leaders of the left-wing Labor, Meretz and Joint List parties warned on Saturday of the potential negative consequences of the march and indicated they believed it could be a deliberate attempt to thwart the formation of the so-called “change government.”

Police chiefs were set to hold a meeting Sunday to decide whether to authorize the march.

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