Otzma Yehudit minister, Ben Gvir's wife visit Temple Mount

Tensions ahead of contentious Flag March through Jerusalem Old City’s Muslim Quarter

3,000 police deployed; Ben Gvir said excluded from security preparations; police chief warns against terror incitement; rocket fire not expected, but concerns situation may spiral

Young Jewish men hold Israeli flags as they dance at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Young Jewish men hold Israeli flags as they dance at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, during Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Security forces were gearing up for a potential renewal of violence Thursday, with a controversial march through Jerusalem’s Old City Muslim Quarter slated to go ahead amid sky-high tensions, threats from Palestinian terror groups and pressure from foreign allies to reroute the march.

Tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis were expected to march throughout the capital waving Israeli flags, including through the Muslim Quarter. The event comes less than a week after Israel and Gazan terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad finalized a ceasefire agreement following five days of deadly conflict.

Over 3,000 police officers are expected to be deployed across the city for the Jerusalem Day Flag March, which is expected to draw tens of thousands of largely Orthodox Jewish nationalists.

The annual parade to the Western Wall marks Israel’s reunification of East and West Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War but has gained notoriety over the years, as it is often marred by hate speech and sometimes violence by Jewish participants toward Palestinians.

Several members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Negev and Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf and ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem Minister Meir Porush were slated to take part in the march.

Adding to the fraught atmosphere, this year’s march comes on the heels of last week’s protracted fight between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza, which saw nearly 1,500 rockets shot into Israel and hundreds of airstrikes on targets in the Strip.

Rockets are launched by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip toward Israel, in Gaza,May 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

On Wednesday, a senior official with the Hamas terror group ruling the Strip threatened an unspecified response should the march go ahead.

“The Zionist Flag March will not pass, and the response will inevitably come,” said senior Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil in a statement.

In 2021, Hamas fired several rockets at Jerusalem just as the march was beginning, sparking over a week of intense fighting between Israel and Gazan terror groups.

Officials believe the chances of rocket fire this time around to be slim, Channel 13 news reported, but Iron Dome anti-missile batteries will still be at the ready.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, Israel has warned Hamas that it will respond to any rocket fire.

The report said that while security officials believe the march itself will not lead to rockets, video documentation of violence against Palestinians or other provocations could lead to the firing of projectiles from Gaza.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s so-called balloon unit — responsible for launching balloons ferrying incendiary and explosive devices into Israel in the past, and thought to be tied to Hamas — has said it would resume activities Thursday.

Setting the tone for the tense day, visits atop the Temple Mount started Thursday morning. Hundreds of Jews entered the holy site, including Wasserlauf — a minister for Ben Gvir’s far-right Otzma Yehudit party — and Ben Gvir’s wife Ayala.

According to Haaretz, some right-wing activists were planning to attempt to access the flashpoint site with Israeli flags, though police have said they would not allow those marching to access the area. The site is the holiest for Jews, as the location of two biblical temples, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Mount is the third holiest shrine in Islam, turning the area into a major source of tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jewish visitors walk protected by Israeli security forces at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem on April 9, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Security officials have been working to try to separate the public perception of visits to the flashpoint site from the Flag March later in the day, Hebrew-language media reported, particularly if Itamar Ben Gvir ends up visiting.

According to reports, Ben Gvir has been excluded from many of the high-level security discussions ahead of the march, despite holding the portfolio in charge of policing.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that there has been a “breakdown of trust” in his relationship with the Otzma Yehudit leader.

Last year, security services kept then-MK Ben Gvir away from the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City, a site of frequent conflict between Palestinians and Israeli police in the Muslim Quarter.

Itamar Ben Gvir during a flag march at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 15, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Participants in the Flag March will begin to gather around 1 p.m. and the event will conclude at 5 p.m. at the Western Wall. A number of streets in the capital will be closed throughout the day.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has urged Israel to change the route of the march to go through the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, instead of Damascus Gate, thereby avoiding the Muslim Quarter, which is largely populated by Palestinians.

However, Netanyahu has vowed that the procession will not change route.

Channel 12 news reported Wednesday that Hamas has been waging a concerted campaign of incitement ahead of the contentious march.

The campaign calls on Palestinians to carry out terror attacks and confront Israeli security forces, the report said.

Police chief Shabtai warned against terror group incitement.

“For several days, terrorist elements motivated by Iran — through Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad — have been spreading false information on social media about the route of the flag parade…. in the capital of Israel, Jerusalem,” Shabtai said Wednesday.

“The goal of those terrorist elements is clear —  it is to create wild incitement to terrorism against the thousands of Israelis who will come to celebrate Jerusalem Day at a number of events,” he said.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on March 11, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

There are also concerns that any potential violence could spill over into the so-called “mixed cities” that have significant Jewish and Arab populations. A number of these communities were rocked by rioting and inter-ethnic clashes in May 2021 when fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas.

According to Channel 13 news, 35 individuals have been removed from Jerusalem ahead of the march. There was no further clarification on how many of them were Jewish Israelis and how many were Palestinians, what they were accused of, or which legal mechanism was utilized.

The annual Flag March has long become associated with religious Zionism, a movement that sees it as a religious imperative to hold the land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty. The march is leveraged by some extremist nationalists to antagonize Arab residents, and Arab East Jerusalemites view the parade as a provocation.

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

The timing of the march this year is especially delicate in light of the fresh ceasefire between Israel and Iran-backed Islamic Jihad since Saturday evening, despite a single cross-border exchange on Sunday. The ceasefire ended days of fighting, and the terror group had reportedly threatened to drag out the conflict to disrupt the Jerusalem Day march.

In May 2021, Netanyahu agreed to reroute the Flag March, though he waited until hours before the rally to make the decision, allowing threats against Israel from Hamas and other terror groups to pile up in the meantime.

Despite the decision, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem as the rerouted march was taking place. Shortly thereafter, the IDF launched Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza, which lasted 11 days.

A polie car burns in the central Israeli city of Lod during riots on May 12, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The next year, then-PM Naftali Bennett came under similar pressure from the US but ultimately decided to allow the march to go forward on the original route in what led to the globally criticized scenes of participants singing “May your village burn” as they danced outside Damascus Gate.

However, terror groups in Gaza largely avoided responding in the way they had a year earlier.

Jacob Magid, Jeremy Sharon and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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