Few people know this, but the Flag March in Jerusalem is actually a monthly event. On the first day of every Hebrew calendar month, small groups of religious Jews carrying flags come to the Old City to an event comprised of “visiting the gates.” These are not the gates to the Old City but the ones leading into the Temple Mount.
It involves walking along Hagai Street in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and holding prayer sessions in the small plazas outside these gates, which are among the most volatile and sensitive spots in the entire Middle East. Each month, this is a tense event, guarded by dozens of police officers. This coming Thursday heralds the month of Sivan, but gate-hopping this time will be much more dangerous.
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The Religious Zionism party, along with a few right-wing organizations that include two regional councils in the occupied territories, two youth movements and the right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-supporting group Im Tirzu have called on the public to come to the Flag March, to be held under the banner “Unite Jerusalem for eternity!” The call indicates that organizers are well aware of and are exploiting a sense of humiliation that accompanied the previous march: “We return to marching in the streets of Jerusalem with our heads held high, carrying the flag of Israel.”
The previous Flag March on May 10, Jerusalem Day, will be remembered due to two incidents that made it an unprecedented event. As the first marchers were setting out, the prime minister decided to accede to the recommendations of the Shin Bet security service and change, for the first time in decades, the parade’s route, thereby preventing them from passing through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter. This happened after three weeks of daily confrontations between the police and young Palestinians in the area.
The second incident was the sirens that were heard in Jerusalem for the first time since 2014, following rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. These rockets set off the operation that took place in Gaza. Following the blaring of the sirens, the police ordered an immediate halt to the march (they later retracted this decision). Thousands of participants felt that an event intended to highlight Israel’s sovereignty in a united Jerusalem ended up having an opposite effect – it proved the complexity and fragility of Israel’s rule in East Jerusalem and its inability to effectively contend with Hamas rockets. The Flag March became one of the decisive domino chips that led to the longest and bloodiest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in seven years.
There have been troubling responses that raise concerns that the impending march will be a repeat of the previous one, including the ensuing tragic chain of events. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza called on masses of people to come to the Al-Aqsa mosque and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar indicated that, if necessary, Hamas will protect it. A Palestinian friend from Jerusalem wrote me that there is no way to understand this march other than as an indication that Israel wants another round of fighting.
As was the case in May, the march will come on the backdrop of growing tensions in East Jerusalem over the evacuation of families in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, and on the backdrop of increasing violence in clashes between Palestinians and the police in the country’s capital.
There are dozens of families facing a threat of eviction in the two East Jerusalem neighborhoods. By Tuesday, the attorney general is expected to present his position regarding an appeal filed by Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah hoping to stay the evictions. His position will greatly impact the chances of this appeal succeeding and the chances that these families will remain in their homes. In any case, the evictions have long stopped being a local issue or a legal battle between Palestinians and right-wing organizations. Sheikh Jarrah has become a national Palestinian symbol, an emblem of the struggle against the occupation on social media and among left-wing politicians around the world.
Last Friday, the police forcefully dispersed a protest rally attended by dozens of people in Silwan. The rally was held following a popular race from Sheikh Jarrah to Silwan. The race passed quietly, but the police decided to forcefully disperse the rally, which was held in Silwan. But Silwan is not Sheikh Jarrah, and the steep topography, the density and possibly the difference in the two populations led to massive stone throwing at police forces. This has not happened in weeks of protests at Sheikh Jarrah. The police response included intensive firing of sponge-tipped bullets and tear gas. Four police officers and 12 Palestinians were wounded.
It now seems that all the ingredients making up the dangerous brew that prevailed in May are here again: tensions in East Jerusalem connected to the eviction of families from their homes; clashes between police and Palestinians in the city; war cries from Gaza and Jerusalem over the need to defend Al-Aqsa against the marchers; and no less important, a very tense political week ahead of the swearing in of a new government. The burden of proving that quiet is desirable, even when the government is changing, is upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Approving all the requests of the march organizers will constitute egregious irresponsibility.
In contrast to May, there is one ingredient that is missing. This time, the events are not taking place on the backdrop of Ramadan and Muslim holidays, which always raise tensions in the city. Nevertheless, Jerusalem needs much luck, strong nerves and political courage for this week to pass peacefully. Regrettably, these are three elements that have been sorely missing in the city lately.