Why is Jerusalem bracing for violence during Israel’s Flag March?

Nationalist Israelis are expected to march through Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter today, despite the carnage in Gaza.

Israelis sing and dance with flags by Damascus gate
Israelis sing and dance near the Old City's Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem as they mark Jerusalem Day on May 18, 2023 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Today is the Israeli holiday of Jerusalem Day.

It marks the conclusion of the 1967 war and the start of the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israelis claim as the “reunification” of Jerusalem.

Official ceremonies and memorials are being staged across Israel to mark the day.

Chief among these is the controversial Dance of the Flags, or the Flag March, to use its more modern term.

Participation has swollen over the years, from a few students who accompanied Zionist leader Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in 1967, to 70,000 predominantly young nationalist Israelis who took part in the event two years ago that was all but defined by its violence.

Am KeLavi, a group which organises the march, says it anticipates between 60,000 and 100,000 people to attend today’s event, with the families of those killed in the Hamas-led attack of October 7 expected to play prominent roles.

Last year’s march – following a ceasefire brokered after five days of hostilities between the Israeli army and Palestinian factions – passed without major incident, though there were isolated attacks on Palestinians.

Tens of thousands expected to march

Tens of thousands of far right and nationalist marchers are expected to march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, accompanied by mobile orchestras on the back of trucks. In previous years, they have shouted anti-Palestinian chants, such as “Death to Arabs,” and “May your village burn,” while attacking residents.

In 2022, marchers unleashed violence and pepper spray on residents of the Old City, wounding at least 79 Palestinians, 28 of whom required hospital treatment.

The previous year, rockets fired by Hamas into the city triggered 11 days of hostilities.

Israeli Jews gather to celebrate 'flag day' in Jerusalem
Israeli Jews gather to celebrate ‘Flag Day’ in Jerusalem [Eliyahu Freedman/Al Jazeera]

Could they take another route?

The route of the march has always been a source of controversy, both within Israel and overseas.

There are two routes. Both take marchers from central Jerusalem to the Western Wall.

One passes through Dung Gate into the Old City, while the second passes through Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter.

Shai Rosengarten, deputy director of right-wing advocacy group Im Tirtzu which is marching today, said the route through the Old City is not a provocation, but rather the “natural and historical right” of the Jewish people.

“In every house that soldiers pass in Gaza, they find pictures of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, Hamas called the [October 7] operation the Al-Aqsa Flood,” he said in a statement yesterday.

“Tomorrow, with God’s help, we will fill Jerusalem with a flood of Israeli flags, strengthen the spirit of the people and remind the Middle East that we are here to stay,” he concluded.

And the police?

Ultraorthodox provocateur and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, will be overseeing 3,000 police officers deployed, ostensibly to maintain order.

He has also announced his intention to take an active part in today’s march, however.

Rather than promising law and order, he has threatened to divert the march to use it to occupy the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, located within a compound known to Jews as Temple Mount.

“We need to hit them in the most important place for them. Every year, they said that it wasn’t appropriate and it wasn’t the time. But the opposite is true. If we give ground to them we get an October 7,” Ben-Gvir told Israel’s Army Radio.

“We need to come and say the Temple Mount is ours and Jerusalem is ours. If we see ourselves as the owners of the area, our enemies will respect us,” he said.

Is this a state-sponsored event?

In addition to the attendance of police, who operate under Ben-Gvir’s instructions, the Jerusalem municipality helps to pay for Am KeLavi.

In addition, funds come from the Ministry of Education and the Society for the Rehabilitation and Development of the Jewish Quarter.

Do all Israelis support this?

The march is not universally popular and still faces resistance from the shrinking ranks of Israel’s liberal and left-wing sphere.

An editorial in Israeli newspaper Haaretz branded the march “a festival of ugly Jewish thuggery” while Laura Wharton, a member of the Jerusalem City Council and part of the left-wing Meretz party, was quoted in the media saying: “I’m horrified that while we’re at war, trying to defend our borders, we’re backing such a provocative event.”

Also attending the march will be activists from the organisation Standing Together, who will be bringing dozens of volunteers to protect Palestinians from any violence by both marchers and potentially the police.

Source: Al Jazeera