Text size

Hundreds of police officers deployed in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Sunday as extreme Israeli rightists set out to march in an attempt to demonstrate Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.

The march began just as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell met Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem for a second round of talks since Mitchell's arrival in the region.

Since Thursday, Mitchell has also held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as part of an attempt to launch indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In anticipation of violence in East Jerusalem, police dispatched a helicopter, a zeppelin and an observation balloon as precautionary measures in the volatile region.

Silwan residents flooded the streets in efforts to prevent the march from going ahead. Palestinian flags were hung in the windows and dozens of shoes were scattered in the streets as a symbol of protest.

Dozens of masked men rioted in the streets, lighting tires on fire and hurling stones at police officers in the area. As the march began, the masked men hurled two firebombs at right wing activists.

Some 50 activists, headed by extreme rightists Itamar Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, marched from the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City to the center of Silwan, protesting what they termed "illegal construction" in the area. The construction they referred to is the building of Palestinian homes without city permits.

"We've proven to Netanyahu, Obama and Mitchell that we're the bosses in Jerusalem," said Ben Gvir during the march.

Prior to the event, the right wing activist said in a radio interview that "There is no doubt that the fact that Mitchell is in the area only pushes us to try harder."

"It seems to me that the man sitting in the prime minister's chair is a little confused," he continued. "Netanyahu is acting like he is an employee working for Obama or Mitchell. It began with the settlement construction freeze that he caved on, and today he says that it is a provocation for us to carry Israeli flags several hundred meters from the Western Wall. What will he say tomorrow? That Obama and Mitchell asked to remove the flag or change the national anthem and he'll do that too?"

"I don't work for Mitchell, and Israel is not a U.S.-sponsored state, and the time has come that we understand that," he went on to say.

The clashes continued even once the march had ended, with local residents setting fires and calling out anti-Israel slogans. Two police officers were lightly hurt as stones were hurled at them. One female officer sustained injuries to her shoulder and was evacuated to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

A request Saturday night by Netanyahu to postpone the march was rejected by Israel's attorney general, who said there were no legal grounds to prevent the march from going ahead.

Jawad Siyam, the director of the Silwan Information Centre, said the march did not only serve the goals of the settlers, but also of the Israeli government.

"The goal is to expel the Palestinian population of Silwan," he claimed, noting that 300 Israeli settlers lived in the neighborhood surrounded by 55,000 Palestinians.

Chagit Ofran, of the Israeli Peace Now group, said the march was "a provocation by the extreme right wing" and showed that the Israeli government has "lost control over Jerusalem."

On Friday, right-wing activist Ben Gvir refused a police request to cancel the march through the Arab neighborhood.

Ben Gvir was in the news earlier this year for penning a letter to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, threatening to protest his upcoming visit to Israel.

Police have said they wanted Ben Gvir to cancel the march because it would stretch the police force thin when they are busy securing Mitchell during his visit.

Ben Gvir said in response to the police request: "We will not cancel the march. Mitchell is not the prime minister. There is no legal reasoning to this request; it is our right to march, even if Mitchell doesn't like it."