Israel deployed more than 2,000 police officers for a march by flag-waving Jewish nationalists across the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday, a contentious event that comes as tensions are already rising.
Officials say the tightened security is a determined effort to ensure the march passes without violence.
Police have decided to allow the thousands of protesters to take the traditional route through the Damascus Gate of the Old City, despite an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence over the past year and heavy fighting between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian militants in Gaza last week.
Early Thursday, hundreds of Jews ascended to a sensitive Jerusalem site, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, as part of the day’s activities, visits Palestinians regard as provocative. Among them was at least one Israeli cabinet minister from the country’s right-wing government, according to Jewish activists who led the visits.
While Israeli officials describe the march as a festive parade, it has been marred by racist anti-Arab chants and violence towards local Palestinians by some of the protesters. Two years ago, he helped spark an 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, and the Hamas militant group urged Palestinians to face the parade this year.
Chief Superintendent Yoram Segal, a senior Jerusalem police official, told reporters on Wednesday that authorities were determined to prevent violence this time.
He said some 2,500 officers were being deployed throughout the area, both to ensure security and to react quickly to any potential violence.
“We are going to deal harshly with anyone who tries to disturb the peace,” he said. He said past problems were caused by a small minority of people, but said there would be no tolerance for incitement or violence that could «endanger people along the route or living nearby.» along the route.»
Segal said police have been working «hand in hand» with leaders of the Jewish and Palestinian communities to keep things peaceful. He also confirmed that there have been a number of pre-arrests of people believed to be planning violent riots. He declined to give further details.
The march marks «Jerusalem Day,» which celebrates Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel considers all of Jerusalem its eternal capital, but its annexation of the eastern sector, home of the most important sacred places in the city, is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Every year thousands of Israeli nationalists take part in the march waving blue and white Israeli flags and singing songs. But in some cases, protesters chant anti-Arab slogans as they walk past Palestinian onlookers and businesses.
Israel’s national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, has joined the march in recent years. It was not known if he would join this year, his first as a cabinet minister.
On Wednesday, the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza called on Palestinians to oppose the parade.
«We call on the people of Jerusalem to mobilize the masses to face the flag march in Jerusalem tomorrow,» said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official in Gaza.
Hamas urged Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and inside Israel to «stand up to the occupation.» He also said he would hold a rally, with people waving Palestinian flags along Gaza’s heavily fortified border with Israel.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian president, said that allowing the march to go through the Palestinian areas of the Old City «will only lead to increased tension and could lead to an explosion.»
In a pre-parade test, some 300 Jews were visiting Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site early Thursday, according to Beyadenu, an activist group that promotes Jewish visits to the site. Police were seen escorting groups of Jewish visitors walking through the compound, and several coalition lawmakers also arrived at the scene.
The hilltop compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the ancient Jewish temples, and is the holiest site in Judaism. It is revered by Palestinians as the Noble Sanctuary, and today it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
Under longstanding agreements, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. But an increase in such visits, along with scenes of some Jews praying in silence, have raised concerns among Palestinians that Israel is trying to upset the status quo, a charge Israel denies.
Competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often escalate into violence, including the 2021 war between Israel and Hamas.
The parade comes as fighting in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem is at its highest level in two decades. It also comes just days after a ceasefire came into effect that ended five days of heavy fighting between Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza.
Hamas stood by during the fighting and Israel avoided attacking the group in an effort by both sides to contain the violence.
But if unrest breaks out in Jerusalem, Hamas could enter the fray. Two years ago, weeks of unrest in Jerusalem erupted into an 11-day war during the parade.
«The resistance is ready to protect the Al-Aqsa Mosque and prevent the Judaization of Jerusalem,» al-Masri said.