US embassy bars workers from Old City on day of march

US pushing Israel to reroute controversial Jerusalem march away from Muslim Quarter

Gantz, Lapid sympathetic to US stance, but haven’t swayed Bennett and Barlev, who say they already rerouted similar rally with far-right MK last month, Israeli official tells ToI

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Nationalist Israel Jews wave Israeli flags as they march outside the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's Old City, on June 15, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Nationalist Israel Jews wave Israeli flags as they march outside the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's Old City, on June 15, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has been pushing Israel to re-route the controversial Jerusalem Day Flag March away from the Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter of the Old City, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The rally of religious nationalists is scheduled to take place on Sunday, with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev green-lighting the traditional route from Safra Square to the Western Wall via the Muslim Quarter.

Palestinians have long deemed the event as a provocation. Palestinian shop owners in the Old City are forced to close down early on the day of the march to make way for the right-wing marchers. Supporters of the rally view it as an integral part of their celebration of the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.

US efforts to sway Israeli decision-makers have yet to bear fruit, even though both Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agree that the rally has “combustible” elements, the Israeli official said. Terror groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza have issued warnings to Israel against allowing the march to go through.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Barlev have held their ground, noting that this route is not anything new. They also point to the decision last month to bar a similarly routed rally of religious nationalists and far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir, and suggested that allowing the Jerusalem Day march on Sunday was “somewhat of a tradeoff” for that decision, which was also made following US pressure, the Israeli official said, adding that additional security assessments will be held in the days leading up to the Flag March.

Asked for comment, a State Department spokesman said “the US has repeatedly expressed its concern regarding the recent violence in Jerusalem and across Israel and the West Bank. We continue to call on all sides to do their utmost to exercise restraint and avoid provocative actions and rhetoric.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (second from L) meets with a US delegation that includes Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (4th from right), Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert (third from right), and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr in Tel Aviv, on April 21, 2022. (David Azoulay/US Embassy in Israel)

A similar dynamic unfolded last year ahead of the Jerusalem Day Flag March with the Biden officials pressing the Israeli government, then led by Benjamin Netanyahu, to move it away from the Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter.

Jerusalem was unmoved until the day of the rally, when it announced a reroute amid threats of escalation from Hamas. Organizers then declared the cancellation of the event, though hundreds of participants streamed into the Old City. Shortly thereafter, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in what ended up kicking off an 11-day Gaza War.

Organizers of that interrupted march announced its rescheduling a month later, after the new Israeli government had been sworn in. Barlev allowed it to go forward but agreed with organizers that the route would only pass next to the Damascus Gate, rather than going through it. The march went ahead, and included scenes of dozens of participants shouting “Death to Arabs,” “Shuafat is on fire,” referring to the East Jerusalem neighborhood, and “Jerusalem is ours.”

This year, march organizers decided to limit the number of participants to traverse the Old City to the Western Wall to 16,000 people, citing concerns about overlarge corwds in the wake of 2021’s Mount Meron Lag B’Omer deadly crush. Half the group will march through the Old City via the Damascus Gate, while the other half will go through Jaffa Gate, likely only skirting the Muslim Quarter. Police will deploy 3,000 officers to secure the rally.

Israel has reportedly passed along messages to Hamas via Egypt and Qatar, warning that it will strike Gaza if the enclave-ruling terror group fires rockets at Israel because of the Flag March.

On Wednesday, the US Embassy in Jerusalem issued a warning, barring its employees from entering the Old City at any time on Sunday.

The embassy said that US government employees may not be in the Old City after dark or on Fridays, may not use Damascus, Herod’s, and Lions’ Gate, and may not enter the Old City “at any time on Sunday, May 29.”

It also called on US citizens to remain vigilant and exercise caution. “The security environment is complex and can change quickly depending on the political situation and recent events.”

Also Wednesday, the Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered the readiness alert level to be ratcheted up in Jerusalem and so-called mixed Jewish and Arab cities throughout the country ahead of the march.

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.

Shabtai held a situational assessment Wednesday with top officials from the police, Border Police, intelligence officers, the Shin Bet security service, the Foreign Ministry, and others, police said.

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,” a police statement said.

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