JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of Jewish nationalists, some of them chanting “Death to Arabs” and other racist slogans, paraded on Thursday through the main Palestinian thoroughfare of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an annual display that caused new friction between Jews and Palestinians in the tense city.
The marchers, who were overwhelmingly male Orthodox teens and young men, were celebrating “Jerusalem Day,” which marks Israel’s capture of the Old City 56 years ago. The Palestinians see the event as a provocation. Two years ago, the parade helped fuel an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Throughout the afternoon, dozens of groups hoisting blue and white Israeli flags streamed through Damascus Gate – the entry to the area’s Muslim Quarter – as they made their way across the Old City to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray. The area is normally bustling on Thursday afternoons with Palestinians doing their errands ahead of the weekend.
The boisterous crowds danced and chanted Jewish religious songs outside Damascus Gate as scores of Israeli police stood guard. In several cases, groups chanted slogans such as “Death to Arabs,” “Mohammed is Dead” and “Burn Your Village” as they stared at Palestinian onlookers. Some of the youths wore clothing identifying themselves as members of Lehava – a far-right Jewish supremacist group that opposes assimilation or romantic relationships between Jews and Palestinians.
Israeli police, who had said that violence and incitement would not be tolerated, kept the sides apart but did little to stop the chants. Palestinian businesses were either shuttered or empty, and marchers occasionally threw water bottles at nearby journalists, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
Over 2,500 police were deployed for the parade, many of them standing outside Damascus Gate.
Jerusalem Day is meant to celebrate Israel's capture of east Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, but its annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Israel decided to allow the marchers to take the traditional route through Damascus Gate, instead of an alternate path circumventing the Muslim Quarter, despite an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence over the past year and last week’s heavy fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Police broke up numerous scuffles and shouting matches between Jewish and Palestinian youths, but no major violence was immediately reported.
Israel’s national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, has joined the march in past years. His office said he would join the march later Thursday, his first time participating as a Cabinet member. Ben-Gvir is a leading figure in Israel’s new far-right government, which took office last December.
On Wednesday, Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group called on Palestinians to oppose the parade.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for the Palestinian president in the occupied West Bank, said allowing the march to snake through the Palestinian areas of the Old City “will only lead to a rise in tension and could lead to an explosion.”
In a test ahead of the parade, about 900 Jews visited Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site early Thursday, according to Beyadenu, an activist group that promotes Jewish visits to the site. Police were seen escorting groups of Jewish visitors walking through the compound and several coalition lawmakers also arrived at the site.
Jordan, Israel’s neighbor which acts as a custodian of the Jerusalem shrine, condemned the Jewish visits there and the trajectory of the march.
The hilltop compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the ancient Jewish Temples, and is the holiest site in Judaism. Palestinians revere it as the Noble Sanctuary, and it is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
Under longstanding agreements, Jews are permitted to visit the site but not pray there. But an increase in such visits, along with scenes of some Jews quietly praying, has raised concerns among Palestinians that Israel is trying to alter the status quo — a charge Israel denies.
The competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often spill over into violence, including a 2021 war between Israel and Hamas.
The parade comes as fighting in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem is at its highest level in two decades. It also comes just days after a cease-fire took effect ending five days of heavy fighting between Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza.
Hamas stayed on the sidelines during the fighting, and Israel avoided attacking the group in an effort by both sides to contain the violence.
But if unrest erupts in Jerusalem, Hamas could enter the fray, as it did two years ago.
“The resistance is ready to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque and prevent the Judaization of Jerusalem,” said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri said.
By ILAN BEN ZION Associated Press
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