Israel's 'Flag March' in Jerusalem rattles Palestinians
By Rami Amichay
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Tens of thousands of Israeli nationalists marched through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's walled Old City under heavy security on Thursday in an annual event that drew condemnation from Palestinians.
The parade is the main celebration on Jerusalem Day, when Israel marks its capture of Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. The event has become a show of force for Jewish nationalists and, for Palestinians, a blatant provocation meant to undermine their ties to the city.
Despite fears the event could spark a renewed violence following days of cross-border fire with Palestinian militant fighters in Gaza last week, the march ended with no major security incidents.
During the afternoon, rowdy crowds of Jewish youth danced and chanted, and there were heated confrontations, with shouts of "Death to Arabs" and other slogans. A number of journalists covering the event were attacked by marchers.
As the march ended in a mass gathering in front of the Western Wall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered the march to go ahead despite security concerns. "Jerusalem will stay united forever," he said.
Around 2,500 officers were assigned to the march to keep it peaceful, according to police who prepared for all scenarios, including violence and anti-Arab chants by some marchers toward Palestinians.
As crowds gathered at the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City during the afternoon at the start of the march, a handful of flags belonging to Lehava, a far-right anti-Arab group, could be seen among the mass of blue and white Israeli national flags.
Many Palestinian shopkeers shuttered their businesses in the Old City, where march organisers hung Israeli flags along the narrow alleyways.
Earlier on Thursday, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims, including members of parliament, toured the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City. The site, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, is the third holiest in Islam and also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, a vestige of their faith's two ancient temples.
The visits passed without incident, but Palestinians have been angered by the rising number of Jewish visitors to the compound, some of whom defy a ban on non-Muslim prayer there.
Jordan, which has a custodial role over the Muslim and Christian holy sites of Jerusalem, condemned the visits as a provocation that risked escalating tensions.
Palestinians view the heavily policed Jerusalem Day procession as part of a broader campaign to bolster Jewish presence across the city to their detriment.
Israel, which decades ago annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition, regards the entire city as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, the part captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a future state that would include the West Bank and Gaza.
"Jerusalem, with its Islamic and Christian sanctities, is the eternal capital of the State of Palestine," Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement.
Palestinians organised their own flag marches across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in Palestinian Islamist-ruled Gaza on Thursday, with some processions only a few hundred metres away from the Israel-Gaza separation fence.
In Gaza, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim said the group was not interested in an escalation of conflict with Israel.
During the 2021 march, Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the blockaded coastal enclave, fired rockets into Israel that triggered an 11-day war which killed at least 250 Palestinians in Gaza and 13 people in Israel.
Last month, an Israeli police raid in the Al-Aqsa compound drew rocket fire from groups in Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
Hamas has cast itself as a defender of Jerusalem's Palestinians and Muslim holy sites in recent years. But with another round of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants ending only last week, in which 34 Palestinians and an Israeli were killed, the appetite for more hostilities appeared low.
Egypt, which mediated Saturday's truce, spoke to Israeli and Palestinian factions ahead of the march in efforts to reduce tensions.
(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Henriette Chacar; editing by Bernadette Baum, Sharon Singleton, Mark Heinrich and Cynthia Osterman)