The decision by Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and the police top brass to allow the Flag March along the usual route on Jerusalem Day was expected. In the current political situation, any other decision would have been interpreted as a surrender and subjected to huge condemnation from the right.
The parade, which has been held annually for more than 30 years, has become one of the most important and symbolic events on the calendar of religious Zionism and the right. This status does not allow for the decision-makers to change its route or limit it, and this is exactly the problem.
The parade begins in front of the Great Synagogue in west Jerusalem, proceeds to Tzahal Square near city hall and there it splits: The girls march through Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall and the boys enter the Old City through Damascus Gate and along Hagai Street in the Muslim Quarter to reach the Wall.
The passage through Damascus Gate is a symbolic event for tens of thousands of youngsters who experience it as a renewed conquest of East Jerusalem. In the plaza outside the gate there is dancing and in the entry itself the ecstatic atmosphere reaches a peak. In past years the rejoicing was expressed in innumerable racist shouts, and in violent attacks on passersby and vandalism. One custom, for example, was to beat the tin doors of the shops in the Muslim Quarter with sharp sticks – shops that of course were shut by order of the police.
For years, this was an ugly, violent event. Only after public pressure and harsh criticism from Supreme Court justices, who addressed the issue because of petitions to the court by leftist non-profit organizations, did the organizers make efforts to calm things down, and in recent years the parade has gone by with hardly any violence. Chants of vengeance and cries of “death to the Arabs” are still heard sporadically, but these are hushed by the monitors and there has been little violence and vandalism. Some of the shops in the Muslim Quarter even remained open during the parade.
This is a praiseworthy achievement by the police and the organizers. Nevertheless, the Palestinian inhabitants of the city see the parade as a violent, taunting and humiliating event that interferes with their life and emphasizes the occupation. Try to imagine a Palestinian flag parade going through the streets of the Jewish Quarter with chants of “biladi biladi – words of the Palestinian national anthem – or the historic battle cry “Khaybar Khaybar.”
In recent years, the Flag Parade was held during the month of Ramadan and last year, when there were also unprecedented disturbances in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, on the morning of the parade Hamas issued a warning that it would fire missiles at Jerusalem. Under pressure, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to divert the parade route to the Jewish Quarter and away from Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter. That was too little and too late; during the parade the first missile was fired in the direction of Jerusalem and that evening the Israel Defense Forces embarked on Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza.
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The problem with the Flag Parade, as with many issues concerning Jerusalem in the years since 1967, is its heavy symbolism. Like restricting visits by Jews to the Temple Mount or allowing Palestinians to fly flags during a funeral, the symbolism denies decision-makers the chance to make considered decisions. The discourse surrounding Jerusalem is so sensitive and toxic that anything which limits the actions of Jews or enables a bit more freedom for Palestinians for the sake of maintaining security is immediately interpreted as a surrender, loss of sovereignty and the approaching end to Zionism. Even Netanyahu, the darling of the right, was subjected to criticism for deciding on a slight modification of the parade route. When this is the public discourse, Bar-Lev didn’t really have any alternative but to approve the parade, despite the risks inherent in it. The price, as usual, will be paid by Jerusalemites, and they will not be alone.