Year after it drew Hamas rockets, Israel OKs J’lem Day flag march via Damascus Gate

Hamas launched 11-day war with Gaza during last year’s contentious parade; organizers thank Minister Barlev for approving route through Muslim Quarter; Gantz and Lapid said wary

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

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)

A year after Hamas launched an 11-day conflict with Israel in the course of Israel’s annual Jerusalem Day “flag march,” Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said Wednesday that this year’s march would be allowed to proceed via a controversial route through Damascus Gate and the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, en route to the Western Wall.

In 2021, the route of the march was originally planned to pass through Damascus Gate, but was changed about an hour before it was scheduled to start, due to heightened tension on the Temple Mount and repeated threats made by the Gaza-based terror group Hamas.

Notwithstanding the hurriedly changed route, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem as the march was underway, leading to it being halted and to the Knesset plenum being evacuated, at the start of what became an 11-day war, subsequently dubbed by the IDF “Operation Guardian of the Walls.”

Barlev’s decision to allow this year’s march, on May 29, to pass through flashpoint areas in the Old City was announced following a situation assessment held with police chief Kobi Shabtai and Jerusalem District Police commander Doron Turgeman, and was made amid several weeks of frequent violence between Palestinians and Israeli forces in the area.

According to the Barlev-approved plan, which is pending final confirmation by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, marchers will walk along Jaffa Road to Damascus Gate, where access will be blocked for Palestinians, and will hold group dancing. They will continue into the Old City and through Hagai Street (Al-Wad street in Arabic) in the Muslim Quarter, to finish at the Western Wall.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev attends a Labor faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

This standard route in recent years has been changed on occasion when the security situation required it. Last month, police blocked several hundred nationalist protesters who planned a version of the “flag march” through Damascus Gate. The government defended that decision by saying that such a march should be held on Jerusalem Day.

Channel 13 news reported that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz both expressed reservations, but not outright opposition, regarding the Damascus Gate route, at a security consultation at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

Lapid was quoted saying that further confrontations, in the wake of the violence at Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral on Friday, would likely cause diplomatic harm to Israel.

Gantz was quoted saying, “If there’s a deterioration in security in the next few days, and you say, it’s not a good idea right now to [allow the march to] go via Damascus Gate and Hagai Street, that capitulation will be dangerous in terms of the perception [among Israel’s enemies] of the security establishment and of the State of Israel. So, think hard and long before finally approving it.”

Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s conquest of the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, and Israel’s extension of sovereignty throughout the city, is mostly celebrated by national-religious Jews who march through the capital while dancing with Israeli flags.

Arabs in the Old City view the act as a provocation and a show of strength against them.

A Jewish man waving the Israeli flag argues with an Arab woman as thousands celebrate Jerusalem Day by dancing through Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Organizers of this year’s march thanked Barlev for approving the march in its original outline.

“There is nothing better than marching through all of the city during Jerusalem’s holiday,” the organizers said in a statement. “The traditional ‘flag dance’ represents more than anything the liberation of Jerusalem and its connection from west to east, through tens of thousands of people marching happily through the streets of the Old City, on their way to the Western Wall.”

The right-wing Im Tirtzu movement hailed “a great decision by the public security minister, for a change — a decision that will strengthen sovereignty in Jerusalem.” It said, “Damascus Gate specifically and East Jerusalem as a whole are inseparable parts of Jerusalem.”

Illustrative: Participants in the flag march in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 10, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej (Meretz) vowed to try to prevent the march from taking place in its approved form.

“The decision to approve the route of the provocation march through the Muslim Quarter and Damascus Gate is a dangerous and concerning mistake. The purpose of holding the march in the heart of East Jerusalem is not the betterment of Jerusalem, but the desire to set it aflame, which is why I intend to take action to change the decision in order to prevent its dangerous ramifications,” the Arab Israeli lawmaker said in a tweet.

Palestinian mourners seen pulling down an Israeli flag as they march past the Jaffa Gate during the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

Meretz colleague MK Michal Rozin called the decision to approve the march in its current route “irresponsible.”

The head of the opposition’s far-right Religious Zionist party, Bezalel Smotrich, whose constituency is among the march’s core participants, backed the minister’s “obvious” decision.

“Minister Barlev and the police chief made the right decision,” Smotrich said in a tweet. “It’s a decision that should be obvious in a normal sovereign state. Now, all we can hope is that the Bennett-Abbas-Tibi-Lapid coalition doesn’t overturn it,” he added.

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