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Jerusalem tensions run high ahead of far-right Israeli rally

By AFP - May 18,2023 - Last updated at May 18,2023

Israeli left-wing and international activists block a road from the occupied West Bank to Jerusalem to prevent Israeli settlers from reaching an annual far-right march in Jerusalem, on Thursday (AFP photo)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM — Jerusalem police and residents were bracing for extremist ministers and their supporters to rally on Thursday in an annual flag-waving march commemorating Israel's capture of the Old City.

Palestinians in Jerusalem, who tend to close their shops and are banned from the social hub of Damascus Gate to make way for the marchers, view the parade as provocative.

In late morning, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Jerusalem celebrations were being held "3,000 years after being established by King David, 75 after it was reestablished as the capital of the reborn state of Israel, and 56 years after being reunited".

Two of his extreme-right Cabinet members, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, were expected to attend Thursday’s rally, one of the events marking what Israelis refer to as Jerusalem Day.

Thursday’s rally takes place days into a ceasefire which ended deadly cross-border fighting with Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza.

Thirty-three people including multiple civilians were killed in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.

Hamas which rules the coastal territory said ahead of the march it “condemns the campaign of the Zionist occupation [Israel] against our Palestinian people in occupied Jerusalem”.

Two years ago, after weeks of violence in Jerusalem in which scores of Palestinians were wounded, a war between Hamas and Israel erupted during the march.


‘Acquiescence’ to extremists 


Some 2,500 troops were securing the march, which begins in the western part of the city at 4:00 pm (13:00 GMT), proceeds through the Old City and ends at the Western Wall plaza.

On Thursday morning, an AFP journalist saw tourist groups walking through the historic gateway, while Palestinians sold bread from a stall and opened their shops before the afternoon shutdown.

Later in the day, the vast majority of shops in the Old City were closed, with Palestinian resident, Abu Al Abed, 72, saying he wanted “to go home”.

The marchers “are harmful, they’re walking and start to hit the doors of the shops and the doors of our houses”, he told AFP.

Scuffles between Jewish and Palestinian youths were taking place as early marchers arrived in the Old City, with police saying that in some cases forces “were required to act to prevent friction and provocations”.

Prior to the march, dozens of Jews, including at least three lawmakers from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and a minister from Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power faction, visited Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam’s third holiest site.

Jews, who call it the Temple Mount and revere it as their religion’s holiest site, are allowed to visit but not pray.

One of them, Tom Nissani, was sitting at Jaffa Gate with an Israeli flag, awaiting the march.

“It’s our capital city, we have to show it, to enjoy it, to fight for it”, the 34-year-old West Bank settler who works for an organisation promoting Jewish presence on the Temple Mount told AFP.

“Israel is not stable enough to be naive about the capital or the whole country, we still have to fight... many forces that are trying to prevent us from making roots in the land of Israel,” he said.

Transport Minister Miri Regev, from Netanyahu’s Likud, was among Israelis waving flags at Damascus Gate hours before the official rally.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned Israel “against insisting on organising the provocative flag march”.

Pushing ahead with the parade “confirms the acquiescence of the Israeli government to Jewish extremists”, spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Wednesday.

Since last year’s rally, Israel’s leadership has taken a marked shift to the far-right.

Ben-Gvir, the country’s national security minister who is expected to attend, was convicted in 2007 of supporting a terrorist group and inciting racism.

Far-right ally Smotrich holds the finance portfolio along with some powers in the occupied West Bank, and also has a history of inflammatory remarks about Palestinians.

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