US urges ‘calm, restraint’ ahead of contentious Jerusalem Flag March in Old City

State Department spokesperson says Washington supports right of peaceful expression, calls to ‘refrain from actions, rhetoric and activities that would inflame tensions’

Hundreds of right-wing activists waving flags attempt to attend a march through Jerusalem's Old City on April 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hundreds of right-wing activists waving flags attempt to attend a march through Jerusalem's Old City on April 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US is urging “calm” and “restraint” ahead of a highly controversial nationalist parade through the Old City of Jerusalem on Thursday, where tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis are expected to march through the Muslim Quarter waving Israeli flags. The event will come less than a week after Israel and terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad finalized a ceasefire agreement following five days of deadly conflict.

The annual rally of religious nationalists is regularly a tense affair, with thousands of largely Orthodox participants marching from Independence Park to the Western Wall to mark Israel’s reunification of East and West Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. The Jerusalem Day march has gained notoriety over the years, as it is often marred by hate speech and sometimes violence by Jewish participants toward Palestinians.

On Tuesday, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said Washington would “continue to urge the parties to refrain from actions and rhetoric and activities that would inflame tensions,” in response to a question about the controversial march during a press briefing.

Patel said the US believes “in the right of…individuals to express themselves and to do so peacefully” while “urging all parties to maintain calm, to exercise restraint,” and avoid any escalation of tensions.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right lawmaker with a history of ties to nationalist far-right groups, is expected to attend the rally this week, potentially further exacerbating tensions, though he had not given a definitive answer on the matter as of Tuesday.

Last year, security services kept the then-MK 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)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, also a far-right figure, Likud lawmakers and ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem Minister Meir Porush are also expected to join the event alongside tens of thousands of marchers, mostly from the national-religious community.

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

The timing of the march this year is especially delicate in light of the fresh ceasefire between Israel and Iran-backed Islamic Jihad since early Sunday, despite a single cross-border exchange that evening. The ceasefire ended days of fighting that saw nearly 1,500 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza, and the group had reportedly threatened to drag out the conflict to disrupt the Jerusalem Day march.

Security officials believe the chances for rocket fire from Gaza during the march to be slim, Channel 13 news reported Sunday. But some officials have feared a repeat of 2021, when Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem just as the march was starting, sparking over a week of fighting between Israel and Gazan terror groups.

Rockets are fired from Gaza City towards Israel on May 13, 2023.(MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

In the past two years, the Biden 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.

In May 2021, Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

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.

Netanyahu confirmed on Monday that the march would go through as originally planned.

“The flag march will continue as planned, as usual, on its route,” Netanyahu said at the outset of his Likud party’s Knesset faction meeting.

Jewish nationalists wave Israeli flags during a Flag March next to the Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem’s Old City, June 15, 2021. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

More than 2,000 police officers will secure the controversial march, along with more than 1,000 other security personnel who will ensure that other events in the capital throughout the day are adequately protected, the force announced Tuesday afternoon.

According to Haaretz, some right-wing activists are planning to attempt to access the flashpoint Temple Mount 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.

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

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