Some 45,000 people paraded through the the Old City of Jerusalem under heavy police security on Sunday in an annual, often tense, Flag March, this year marking the 51st anniversary of the reunification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War.
The march, also known as the Flag Dance, in which primarily religious teenagers march through the Old City decked in white and blue, the colors of the Israeli flag, has raised tensions over its route through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. In previous years, the march has sparked sporadic incidents of violence between Israeli revelers and local Palestinian residents.
The march began in downtown Jerusalem and moved slowly toward the Western Wall in the Old City, a distance of about one kilometer (0.6 miles). Some 1,750 police were deployed to secure the rally.
Chief of Police Roni Alsheich, speaking to Hadashot television news, said, “Our goal is to make sure it is safe for the participants.” He noted that police were not aware of any specific threats.
As it reached the walls of the Old City, the march split in two, as it traditionally does every year, with half continuing on through Jaffa Gate while the other half controversially passing through the flashpoint Damascus Gate and the alleys of the Muslim Quarter to reach the Western Wall.
Marchers were confronted by Palestinians protesters at Damascus Gate, which has been the scene of several stabbing attacks by Palestinians on Israeli civilians and security forces.
In previous years some marchers have shouted racist slurs while passing through the streets of the Muslim Quarter or even drummed on doors and windows along the narrow Old City alleyways.
There were no immediate reports of violence on Sunday.
Left-wing activists organized a counter-protest to show solidarity with the Arab shop owners and residents.
An official Jerusalem Day ceremony is scheduled to be held at the Ammunition Hill war memorial site later in the evening.
Major roads in the city were blocked between 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. due to the Jerusalem Day events. They included Bar Lev Boulevard and Sultan Suleiman Street around the Old City; Jaffa, Hillel, Bezalel and King George streets near the city center; and Ben Zvi Boulevard, which leads to the city’s main entrance.
This year, as in years past, the left-wing NGO Ir Amim sent a letter to authorities requesting that they reroute the march so that it doesn’t go through the Muslim Quarter.
Earlier Sunday Jews and Muslims clashed on the Temple Mount in the Old City, with police detaining Jewish visitors who had raised an Israeli flag.
הר הבית כעת, החלו מהומות בעקבות עליית יהודים לקראת הר הבית, המשטרה בפעולה, שימו לב לשוטר שמנסה ״להפריד״ pic.twitter.com/J2Kn6dQH2r
— Yossi Eli (@Yossi_eli) May 13, 2018
According to eyewitnesses, a group of Jewish visitors began singing after they entered the site — holy to both Jews and Muslims. Muslims chanted “Allahu Akbar” at the Jews, with police forces separating both groups. Footage from the scene showed the officers removing members of the Jewish group from the site.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and the third-holiest site in Islam. High-profile visits by Israeli officials and rumors of changes to the status quo have preceded outbursts of violence. Under an arrangement in place since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, non-Muslims are allowed to visit the site but not pray there.
Jews are allowed to enter during limited hours, with police officers guiding them through a predetermined route and forbidding them from praying, displaying religious symbols or raising the Israeli flag.