Organizers Cancel Jerusalem March After Police Refuse to Let It Pass Through Muslim Quarter

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The Flag March in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2019.
The Flag March in Jerusalem's Old City, in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The organizers of a planned right-wing march in Jerusalem said on Monday they had decided to cancel the event, set for Thursday, after Israeli police announced they wouldn’t allow the Flag March to pass through the OId City’s Muslim Quarter, citing security concerns.

The march was scheduled for Jerusalem Day last month, and was initially diverted due to security concerns as clashes between police and Palestinians in the city intensified, and dispersed after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem from Gaza as tensions peaked. This resulted in an 11-day flare-up between Israel and Gaza.

The Flag March, in which right-wing Jewish groups parade through the Old City carrying Israeli flags to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem during the 1967 Six-Day War, was initially planned to pass through the Damascus Gate – a flashpoint of tensions in the lead-up to the most recent escalation. It was also to pass through Arab quarters and areas on the way to the Western Wall, where mass prayers were planned.

Following the organizers’ statements that the event has been canceled, police issued a clarification saying that they had made it clear in talks with organizers they can’t approve the march in its current route. “Should any alternative route or date be decided upon by the organizers, it will be examined,” police said, stressing that the political leadership is involved in decisions regarding the march.

Police assessed that the march's route would need to be changed due to the risk of escalating tensions. Earlier Monday, the police held a meeting to assess the situation, in which intelligence showed that the consequences of the march could include renewed rocket fire on Israel and widespread riots in the Old City and on the Temple Mount. 

Hamas hailed the decision as a "new defeat for Israel" that solidifies "the equation that al-Quds [Jerualem] is a red line." Earlier Monday, senior Hamas official Khalil al-Haya warned Israel and the international community against holding the march. If the procession comes near Al-Aqsa Mosque and East Jerusalem, he cautioned, May 11th – the date the Gaza flare-up began with rocket fire on Jerusalem – could repeat itself. 

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is responsible for the police, wrote on Twitter that "My position was and remains that there should be no threat from any figure on freedom of speech, of ritual or of religion." He added that he understands that the matter is complex and challenging, "And still believe that we need to bring this decision to the political level due to its importance."

He added, "I have spoken to the prime minister, and he intends to hold a discussion on the matter."

Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party and one of the march’s organizers, dubbed the decision a “shameful surrender to terrorism and to Hamas threats.” He slammed Israeli police for “not being able to protect those marching through the streets of Jerusalem with Israeli flags or the Jewish residents of Lod, Ramle and Acre,” naming mixed Arab-Jewish communities that experienced a wave of violent incidents.

“Now [Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai] is making [Hamas leader] Yahya Sinwar the one running Jerusalem,” Smotrich argued.

Yehuda Wald, the director-general of the Religious Zionism party, said that they would not hold the march without police approval. "We've been in contact with the police from the first moment," he said, adding that the date and route of the Flag March was not approved, and that the police told them to inform the other organizations participating that the event was canceled.

"We will not march without police approval, because we are responsible for the students and marchers joining us," he said. "Our will is to march there, out of an understanding that citizens can march with Israeli flags wherever they please – we want the country to take responsibility for this."   

In his own harsh remarks, Kahanist lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, also of Religious Zionism, laid the blame on the police. This is despite the fact that the police didn’t order the march canceled, but only said that it would not be allowed to pass through specific areas considered more tense than other parts of the city.

Ben-Gvir said he intends to “march the entire route” on Thursday anyway. Police plan to allow the lawmaker, who enjoys parliamentary immunity, to march alone and under heavy security.

May Golan of Likud announced in a Tweet that she would be marching alongside Ben-Gvir. "We already know that we have a limp defense minister, but to be honest, I didn't expect that the Israel Police would be afraid of Israeli flags waving in our capital city," she said. The police are not under the purview of the defense minister, but of the public security minister, who is currently her own party's Amir Ohana.    

Earlier on Monday, Jerusalem Police officials met with the organizers to discuss changes to the route. Police proposed an alternative route in the predominantly Jewish western part of Jerusalem or delaying the march, but organizers decided to call it off.

Last week, during Defense Minister Benny Gantz's visit to Washington, U.S. officials from the Biden administration expressed concern over the possibility of the Flag March sparking another escalation between Israel and Hamas.

On Saturday, Hamas called on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to arrive en masse to the Al-Aqsa mosque on Thursday "to protect it from [Israel's] plans." Hamas Leader Yahya Sinwar said, "We've proven to Israel that somebody's protecting the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

Gantz consulted with senior defense officials on Saturday night; after the meeting, he requested that the march be rerouted on Thursday.  On Sunday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai conducted his own situation assessment with senior police officers, including from the Jerusalem District.

Security officials say that the situation in the Gaza Strip is still very sensitive, and that the Hamas leader in the enclave, Yahya Sinwar, is looking for an excuse to escalate tensions with Israel – and may find one in the events in Jerusalem. According to those officials, Israel is still trying to enforce the new arrangements it made vis-à-vis Hamas after the cease-fire, and make sure the Qatari money to be transferred to the Strip will do so only via the Palestinian Authority.

Jack Khoury contributed to this report.

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