Analysis |

Nationalist Flag March Returns to Jerusalem in All Its Ugliness

At the end of the day, Jerusalem Day ended in a relatively calm manner. However, it may be too early to breathe a sigh of relief

Nir Hasson
Israeli flag march on Jerusalem Day, on Sunday.
Israeli flag march on Jerusalem Day, on Sunday.Credit: HAZEM BADER\ AFP
Nir Hasson

After a few relatively quiet years, then a year in which the parade was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a year in which it was rerouted due to security tensions, the Flag March returned to Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter, in all its ugliness.

In the years before 2020, under pressure from the High Court of Justice, the media and police, organizers of the march tried hard to minimize the violently racist chants of participants, and it seemed to work. Marchers who started singing “Death to the Arabs” and “May your village burn” were silenced by organizers and threatened with arrest by police. The marches continued in relative quiet, with some Palestinian stores along the route even remaining open.

This year, everything was reversed. From the morning hours, hundreds of marchers and celebrants started filling the streets of the Old City. At Moghrabi Gate, Temple Mount organizations racked up the highest number of Jews coming to the Mount in one day since 1967, with 2,600 arriving at the compound. Some of them bowed, some raised flags.

In nearby alleys, dozens of groups of Jewish youths chanted, cursed and blocked access to Palestinians. Police officers started to remove Palestinians from the streets and merchants understood what was about to happen and closed their shops. Some groups found alleys with no policemen and entered private yards, cursing and confronting Arab residents. But this was only the beginning.

At noon, other groups of Jews started streaming into the Old City, and the tide grew until the march began. Thousands of people passed through Damascus Gate, with the most popular song on their lips being a religious song that was sung at the ill-famed wedding of hate, following the lethal arson attack in Duma, ending with Biblical words taken out of context, calling for blinding Palestinians, “may their name be accursed,” the last words uttered in a scream. This song has replaced a song extolling Jerusalem, which used to be sung on this march in earlier years.

The more extremist groups went through the gate with ecstatic enthusiasm, singing “Death to the Arabs” and “May your village burn,” “Mohammed is dead,” “Shoafat is burning” and more. Other less extreme groups, singing less inflammatory songs, couldn't walk by without banging on the tin doors of the shuttered stores. One can only imagine what this sounded like to the hundreds of Palestinian families who were locked in their homes for hours.

At times it seemed the police had lost control. In one case, an elderly Palestinian woman raised her arms in response to the cursing and was met with pepper spray and kicks by the celebrants. When she was evacuated on a stretcher, water bottles were thrown at it. The Palestinians responded by throwing chairs and other objects. The Jews used tear gas. In another case, a Palestinian journalist was attacked, and in a third instance, a marcher pulled a gun and threatened Palestinians in the plaza outside Damascus Gate.

Clashes erupted in adjacent streets, with some injuries reported after both sides threw stones. Towards the end of the march, dozens of Jews attacked Palestinian houses and vehicles in Sheikh Jarrah. Palestinians responded by throwing stones. One Jew was injured.

The answer to the question of why did the march return to its earlier format this year can be found in two places. The first is the extremist campaign by Bibi-ists, which has been sweeping over the right wing in the course of the last year. Among Israeli flags there were three other flags at the march – Likud flags, flags with Benjamin Netanyahu’s face, and flags of the Lehava Jewish supremacist organization.

It seems that the hatred toward anything perceived as Arab, leftist or linked to the media has percolated for many months in the minds of the marchers, finding a vent as soon as they crossed Damascus Gate or encountered Palestinian passersby.

The second explanation is what happened to the march last year. The fact that after 30 years the march did not go through the gate and the Muslim Quarter was perceived as a debacle that must be amended, by holding a larger, more extremist march this year.

Here and there were people trying to silence the racist cries and calm things down, but this was usually met with disdain, if not vilification. One such person was Yaki Saada from the religious village Givat Washington, who argued with dozens of youths in an effort to stop the racist chants. “It drives me crazy,” he said. “I come here every year, it’s important for me to celebrate but not to provoke people. These are small children with no shepherd, it’s not Judaism,” he says. But voices such as his were drowned out by the banging of doors and racist chants.

In the days preceding Jerusalem Day, a war of flags broke out in Jerusalem. It began with the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, which included the flying of Palestinian flags on the Temple Mount and in Palestinian neighborhoods. Jews responded with thousands of flags during the march, but also with huge flags hung on the old municipality and on the Chords Bridge at the entrance to Jerusalem.

The Old City walls were illuminated with Israeli flags as well. It seemed Israelis were winning this war. But then Palestinian activists managed to fly a drone carrying the Palestinian flag above the celebrants at Damascus Gate. This was no simple feat, requiring the evasion of police monitoring. Police managed to bring it down using technological methods, but it still amounted to a small Palestinian victory.

At the end of the day, at the time of this writing, Jerusalem Day ended in a relatively calm manner. It may be too early to say a blessing, since past experience shows that thugs will roam the streets of Jerusalem at night, looking for Palestinian victims.

In Sheikh Jarrah, stone throwing was intensifying. Hamas, as expected, did not launch a new round of hostilities and police managed to control most of the incidents without serious injuries. The marchers will return home and we’ll move on to the next story. It’s Shavuot soon, with people going to the Temple Mount amid more tension.

But what are the real implications of such a march? What imprint will it leave in the minds of thousands of youths who were fired up with racist and ultra-nationalist hatred? What imprint will it leave on Palestinian residents? At 8:30 P.M., outside Damascus Gate, the ground covered with plastic bottles, stickers and broken flag poles, with the last celebrants walking by, the future looked grim.

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