US urges sides to avoid ‘provocations’ after Israeli approval of Jerusalem march

Call comes after Netanyahu government gave go-ahead for contentious parade through Old City next week while police barred far-right MK from marching through Muslim Quarter

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

The United States on Wednesday urged Israelis and Palestinians to avoid “provocations” and preserve a ceasefire after Israel approved a controversial nationalist march in Jerusalem.

“We believe it’s essential to refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said when asked about the march.

He said the United States was engaged in diplomacy and wanted to do “everything we can to try to prevent escalations or provocations that might provide a spark to renew violence.”

“That is why we continue to speak privately, to engage privately with Israelis and with Palestinians and with others in the region to avoid steps that exacerbate these underlying tensions, Price added

Asked if the United States was opposed to the march, the State Department spokesman declined to respond directly but said: “We all saw what precipitated the last flare-up of violence and we know just how delicate the situation is.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, Pool)

The high-level security cabinet on Tuesday evening announced the contentious flag march planned in Jerusalem would be permitted to take place in one week, if police approve the route.

The compromise proposal brought forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz and approved by ministers confirmed the event can go ahead “within a framework that will be agreed upon by police and organizers,” according to a statement released Tuesday.

The rescheduling to the following Tuesday, June 15, places the march two days after the Knesset votes to approve a new government removing Netanyahu from power, allaying concerns by some critics of the prime minister that he was hoping to use the march and the violence it could potentially spark as part of a final bid to prevent the formation of the new coalition. However, in rescheduling the demonstration for Tuesday, he places a hot-potato in the lap of the new government in its infant days.

Police had initially refused to authorize the event, which was set to follow a path through the Old City’s Damascus Gate entrance and Muslim Quarter, concerned of the potential for the parade to inflame tensions in the city and spark a fresh wave of unrest there, and potentially in other locations.

The traditional route has long been deemed as provocative by Israeli and Palestinian critics, given that local Arab shop owners are forced to shutter their stores so law enforcement can secure the Palestinian-majority area for the mainly nationalist Jewish revelers.

The original flag march on May 10 was stopped mid-way through by rocket fire from Hamas toward Jerusalem, which sparked an 11-day bout of intense fighting.

Israel and Hamas have since been holding indirect talks aimed at extending the Egypt-brokered ceasefire.

Earlier Wednesday, police barred far-right Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir from a planned Israeli flag-donning march through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City followed by a visit to the Temple Mount, amid fears he could reignite violence in the city and beyond.

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir is blocked by Israel Police as he tries to go up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, June 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

The Knesset Guard informed Ben Gvir that Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai had decided to prevent his visit, intended to protest the postponement of a flag march, which had originally been scheduled for Thursday.

“Ben Gvir’s intended march is almost certain to cause serious harm to public order, to the point of harming national security,” Shabtai stated. The move, which Channel 12 news said constituted an unprecedented removal of an MK’s immunity rights, was endorsed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.

“It’s the end of democracy,” Ben Gvir lamented in response. “They are harming the immunity of members of Knesset.”

Ben Gvir said in a statement that Shabtai “failed to quell the rioting in Lod, in the south, and on the Temple Mount, and now with an unprecedented decision is harming my immunity,” referring to Jewish-Arab riots last month amid the 11-day Gaza conflict.

Ben Gvir called on Netanyahu to overturn the decision.

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