Israeli far-right groups are expected to participate in a so-called “March of the Flags” through the Damascus Gate of occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City and into its Muslim quarter on Tuesday, drawing warnings from Hamas of renewed hostilities should it proceed.
Heavily armed paramilitary border police and other forces patrolled the streets of the city, set up checkpoints, and blocked off roads throughout East Jerusalem. Iron barriers were placed outside the entrance to Damascus Gate, where Palestinians said they would gather to confront the Israelis.
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Israel’s new government approved the controversial march by right-wing nationalists and pro-settler groups on Monday, a step that risks inflaming tensions with Palestinians, hours after Benjamin Netanyahu handed over power to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
The Old City was quiet early Tuesday afternoon despite groups of settlers touring the area. Young men were being stopped by Israeli soldiers who checked their identification.
Young Palestinian men stood on street corners watching, and Palestinian shop owners started to close their businesses. Protests were expected against the march after midday prayers.
‘Day of Rage’
The march comes as tensions remain high in occupied East Jerusalem over Israel’s planned forced displacement of Palestinian families from the neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, just north of the Old City.
It also comes as a fragile ceasefire is holding in the besieged Gaza Strip following Israel’s 11-day military bombardment of the enclave, which killed 253 people – including 66 children. At least 13 Israelis were killed by rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza during the escalation in violence.
Palestinian factions in the occupied West Bank have called for a “Day of Rage” against the march. Last month, Israeli crackdowns on protesters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound left hundreds of Palestinians wounded.
“This is a provocation of our people and an aggression against our Jerusalem and our holy sites,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said of the march.
After meeting with Israel’s police chief and other security officials, newly sworn-in Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev approved the march and said police were well prepared, according to a statement carried by Israeli media.
“[Great] efforts are being undertaken to preserve the delicate fabric of life and public security,” Barlev was quoted as saying.
It was not clear whether participants would be allowed to enter the Old City’s Muslim quarter, on a route that Israeli police had previously barred.
An original march on May 10 was rerouted at the last minute as tensions in Jerusalem had escalated. Israeli rightists accused the government of caving into Hamas by changing its route. They rescheduled the procession after an Egyptian-mediated Gaza truce took hold.
A new route change or cancellation of the procession could expose Bennett’s patchwork coalition to accusations from Netanyahu, now in the opposition, and his right-wing allies of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.
“The time has come for Israel to threaten Hamas and not for Hamas to threaten Israel,” prominent far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir said on Twitter.
Iron Dome missile defence system batteries could be seen in Israel’s south on Tuesday.
The march poses an immediate challenge for Bennett’s government, which was approved on Sunday by a 60-59 vote in parliament.
Suggesting a route adjustment could be in store, Yoav Segalovitz, a deputy internal security minister, said past governments had stopped nationalists from visiting Muslim sites in times of tension.
“The main thing is to consider what’s the right thing to do at this time,” he told Israel’s Kan radio.
The US embassy in Jerusalem has prohibited its personnel and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday “due to calls for a Jerusalem Flag March and possible counter-demonstrations”.
Palestinian protests were planned for 6pm (15:00 GMT) across the Gaza Strip, and Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction called on Palestinians to flock to the Old City to counter the march.
“Tensions [are] rising again in Jerusalem at a very fragile & sensitive security & political time, when UN & Egypt are actively engaged in solidifying the ceasefire,” UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said on Twitter.
“Urge all relevant parties to act responsibly & avoid any provocations that could lead to another round of confrontation,” he said.
The formation of Bennett’s alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties, with little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, capped coalition-building efforts after March 23 elections, Israel’s fourth in two years.
Minutes after meeting Bennett, 49, on his first full day in office, Netanyahu repeated a pledge to topple his government.
“It will happen sooner than you think,” Netanyahu, 71, who spent a record 12 straight years in office, said in public remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party.
With any discord among its members a potential threat to its stability, Israel’s new government hopes to focus on domestic reforms and the economy and avoid issues such as policy towards the Palestinians.