JThousands of Israeli nationalists, some of them chanting “Death to the Arabs”, marched through the heart of the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday in a show of force that risked sparking a new wave of violence in the tense city.
The crowd, overwhelmingly made up of young Orthodox Jewish men, celebrated Jerusalem Day, an Israeli holiday that marks the capture of the Old City in the 1967 war in the Middle East. The Palestinians see the event, which passes through the heart of the Muslim quarter, as a provocation. Last year the parade helped spark an 11-day war with militants in Gaza, and this year’s march has been condemned by Palestinians and neighboring Jordan.
Israel said it deployed thousands of police and security forces for the event, and violent scuffles between Jewish and Palestinian groups broke out inside the Old City before the parade began.
As the march began, groups of young Orthodox Jews gathered outside Damascus Gate, waving flags, singing religious and nationalist songs and shouting “the Jewish nation lives” before entering the Muslim Quarter. A large group chanted “Death to Arabs” and “Let your village burn” before descending into the Old City.
Police evacuated Palestinians from the area, which is normally a busy Palestinian thoroughfare. At one point, a drone displaying a Palestinian flag flew over the city before police intercepted it.
Ahead of the march, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said “flying the flag of Israel in Israel’s capital is a no-brainer” but also urged participants to celebrate in a “responsible and respectful manner”.
Bennett then issued a statement ordering police to show “no tolerance” towards racist groups. He described them as a “minority that came to set the area on fire” and pledged to pursue violent extremists – a step few Israeli governments have taken in the past. Foreign Secretary Yair Lapid has called racist groups a “shame”.
Thousands of people normally take part in the march through the Muslim quarter, some of whom shout nationalist or racist slogans towards the Palestinians, before heading towards the Western Wall in the Jewish quarter on the other side of the old city.
Last year, after weeks of Israeli-Palestinian unrest in Jerusalem, authorities changed the route of the march at the last minute to avoid the Muslim Quarter. But by then it was too late, and Hamas militants in Gaza fired a barrage of rockets towards Jerusalem as the procession began. This sparked 11 days of heavy fighting.
Sunday’s march came at a time of heightened tensions. Israeli police have repeatedly clashed with stone-throwing Palestinian protesters at the disputed compound in recent months, often firing rubber bullets and stun grenades.
Meanwhile, some 19 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian attackers in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent weeks, while more than 35 Palestinians have been killed during Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank. Some were armed, while others were shot as they allegedly threw rocks or firebombs at the soldiers. But several seem not to have been involved in any violence, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known correspondent for the Al Jazeera satellite channel.
Jerusalem police have come under international criticism for beating mourners at Abu Akleh’s funeral two weeks ago.
Despite recent unrest, Israeli leaders have decided to allow this year’s parade to proceed along its traditional route through the Muslim Quarter. Prior to the march, there were small scuffles between Israeli nationalists and Palestinians, who threw chairs and bottles and shouted “God is great” at the marchers. Some marchers sprayed Palestinians and journalists with pepper spray. In a video shared on social media, a young Jewish man kicked and splashed the face of an older Palestinian woman, sending her collapsing to the ground.
Police also fired rubber bullets and used batons and pepper spray to disperse Palestinian protesters from the area.
The Palestine Red Crescent Relief Service said 62 people were injured, 23 of whom required hospitalization.
Israel Police said they have arrested more than 50 suspects suspected of disorderly conduct or assaulting officers. He said five officers were injured.
Ahead of the march, more than 2,500 Jews visited Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site inside the Old City, as Palestinians barricaded inside Al Aqsa Mosque threw rocks and fires. artifice.
Al Aqsa is located on a hill revered by Muslims and Jews. The mosque is Islam’s third holiest site, and Palestinians fiercely protect what they see as a powerful symbol of their national aspirations.
The complex is also the holiest site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount and revere it as the home of biblical temples. Competing claims to the site are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have sparked numerous waves of violence.
Read more: What the world can do to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Police also said one of the Jewish groups “violated visiting rules” and was expelled. Israeli media said the group unfurled Israeli flags at the compound.
Under longstanding arrangements known as the “status quo”, Jews are allowed to visit the compound but not to pray. In recent years, however, the number of Jewish visitors has increased dramatically, including some who have been spotted praying quietly.
Such scenes have made Palestinians fear that Israel is plotting to take over or divide the region. Israel denies these claims, saying it remains committed to the status quo.
Among the visitors was Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of a small ultra-nationalist opposition party and supporter of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane, who entered with dozens of supporters under heavy police surveillance.
The Palestinians shouted “God is great” as Ben-Gvir, accompanied by Israeli police, shouted “the Jewish people live”. Police said they locked the doors of the mosque and said they made 18 arrests.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel of “playing with fire irresponsibly and recklessly”.
Jordan condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit to the site and warned that the “provocative and growing march” could make matters worse. Jordan controlled East Jerusalem until Israel captured it in 1967 and it remains the guardian of Muslim holy sites.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a move that is not internationally recognized and claims the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Hamas leaders in Gaza praised what they called the “great heroism” shown by the Palestinians at Al Aqsa earlier on Sunday. “The Arab-Palestinian Islamic identity of the Al Aqsa Mosque will be protected by our people and their valiant resistance with all their might,” said Hazem Qassem, spokesperson for the group.
The group, however, may be hesitant to get involved in another round of fights. Gaza was hard hit by last year’s war, and the territory is still struggling to repair the damage. In addition, some 12,000 Gaza workers are now allowed to work inside Israel as part of efforts to maintain calm between the enemies. Resuming fighting could risk losing those jobs, which have given a small boost to Gaza’s devastated economy.
—AP correspondents Alon Bernstein and Ariel Schalit contributed reporting.
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