Despite great efforts by far-right activists, Sunday's Flag March in the Old City of Jerusalem didn't lead to a major conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, we witnessed the usual collection of racist displays, violent scuffles between Jews and Arabs and a general sense of revulsion.
The dubious achievement of last year’s march – when Hamas responded by firing rockets at Jerusalem, leading to the last round of fighting in the Gaza Strip – was not replicated this year.
The difference in outcome may be rooted in the changed circumstances. Last year, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza committed in advance to “defend Al-Aqsa” from Israel’s moves. This time, the organization’s warnings were more general and did not specify its retaliatory steps. The IDF’s intelligence wing did not change the assessment it made in the weeks prior to the march that Hamas was not interested in a direct military clash in Gaza.
For Hamas' leadership, it is enough to ignite Jerusalem and the West Bank, in the hope that the flames would spread to the Arab public in Israel itself as well. With reconstruction work in the Gaza Strip proceeding with some momentum, a new military conflict at this time would have been inconvenient for Hamas. One may assume that the efforts of mediators – members of the Egyptian intelligence – also had an impact and that Hamas was expecting a reward if it continued to show restraint in Gaza.
Last May, the Netanyahu government at first approved the marchers’ route through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The route of the parade was changed at the last minute, due to intelligence alerts of rocket fire, but Hamas fired them at Jerusalem anyway.
The current government headed by Naftali Bennett acted differently. A few weeks ago, it already gave public permission to march through Damascus Gate. The move was wrapped in much rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism and our eternal capital forever and ever. But in practice it was the result in large part of political exigencies. Prime Minister Bennett is under heavy pressure from the right, especially from rogue members of his own Yamina party. Any attempt to divert the route or rein in the marchers might have triggered another crisis in his coalition, which has already lost its solid Knesset majority.
Instead, over 3,000 police personnel were deployed in Jerusalem, minimizing the violent friction between the marchers and Arabs. Even so, more than enough ugly incidents took place and were caught on camera, making it clear that Meir Kahane’s racist vision has acquired far more followers in the current generation.
The king’s welcome bestowed by the revelers upon the senior Kahanist, MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism), indicated the severity of the situation. In television interviews, various figures waxed nostalgic about the flag marches of the 1970s and 80s, when the marchers were the old religious mainstream, as manifested by Bnei Akiva. But the truth is that the parade had long ago been hijacked by the most radical extremists. The thousands of youth who took part in it on Sunday provided the backdrop to a violent and dangerous demonstration.
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The incidents in the Old City, not far from Temple Mount, will be shown over and over in the coming days on Palestinian social and establishment media. According to Israeli intelligence, what continues to fuel the current terror wave, which began some two and a half months ago, is the Temple Mount – and the fear that the government is allowing the status quo to be compromised, jeopardizing Muslim control of the mosques. But the police’s success in reining in the violence on Sunday provides hope that the current wave can still be halted.
And yet events on the ground have served to intensify Palestinian suspicions. In practice, there has been a creeping erosion of the status quo, starting with the halakhic change that religious Zionism (the general broad movement, not just the political party of the same name) is undergoing. The religious taboo against ascending to the mount itself, near the mosques, has been eroded over the years, to the point of nearly vanishing. Sunday marked a record, with almost 2,600 Jews ascending to the Temple Mount in a single day.
Since there were no casualties, the violent confrontations that took place then in the Old City of Jerusalem may be soon forgotten. But it will certainly take several weeks of near-complete quiet for the security establishment to reduce the high-alert level in the territories and the seamline region and to draw down the reinforcements called up in late March.
There are still security concerns lurking on another front, however. A week ago, senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Hassan Sayyad Khodaei was killed in an assassination that Tehran attributes to Israel. Since then, the Iranian regime has made several threats directed at Israel. Therefore, the alert level is being kept high, mainly due to fear of reprisal attacks against Israeli citizens and targets abroad.