Jerusalem Day flag march should be done sensitively - editorial

Tensions surrounding Jerusalem have been high for a while, and Hamas has made threats to Israel if the march goes on as planned.

 A SCENE FROM the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March outside Damascus Gate in the Old City, last year. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A SCENE FROM the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March outside Damascus Gate in the Old City, last year.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Thousands of Israelis are expected to join the traditional flag march into the Old City on Sunday as Israel commemorates Jerusalem Day – a nationalist event aimed at celebrating the reunification of the capital in the Six Day War 55 years ago. They have every right to go ahead with the festive parade, waving Israeli flags and asserting Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. However, given current tensions in the Old City and especially around the Temple Mount, the marchers and police need to show sensitivity and seichel (common sense).

The route of the march, from downtown Jerusalem through the Old City to the Western Wall, poses a challenge to law enforcement. Many Palestinians consider it a provocation, and as our correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh reported, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other factions have warned Israel that there could be an “explosion” of violence if the march goes ahead.

After similar warnings last year, the route of the march was changed, but this did not stop Hamas from firing rockets from Gaza, triggering an 11-day conflict. This year, it appears that the government and law enforcement agencies are not backing down. That is the right decision; Israel cannot and should not set policy based on Hamas threats. 

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev announced last week that the march would be held along the same route as in previous years. According to the Bar Lev plan, marchers will walk along Jaffa Road to Damascus Gate, where access will be blocked for Palestinians and will continue into the Old City through Hagai Street in the Muslim Quarter, ending the march at the Western Wall.

Left-wing politicians slammed the plan, saying it risked causing an escalation in violence, with both Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz reportedly expressing reservations. Police Chief Kobi Shabtai defended his recommendation to allow the march to go through the Muslim Quarter, citing Israel’s policy of maintaining “the freedom of worship, protest and expression for everyone.”

 Right-wing activists prepare for flag march at Safra Square in Jerusalem, April 20, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Right-wing activists prepare for flag march at Safra Square in Jerusalem, April 20, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

However, march organizers announced on Tuesday that attendance will be limited at certain points – including at Damascus Gate and the Western Wall – due to overcrowding concerns. They also said that attendance at the Western Wall will be restricted to 16,000 people, although this will be difficult to enforce.

“Following limits on the numbers of people at the Western Wall, 8,000 marchers will proceed to the Wall through Damascus Gate, and another 8,000 will march through Jaffa Gate,” they said. 

“For the other tens of thousands, a massive dance will take place next to Jaffa Gate.”

Flag march organizers

In fact, the dancing outside Jaffa Gate is planned to be the main event, to avoid a stampede or clashes in the Muslim Quarter and near the Western Wall, which is close to the Aqsa Mosque compound. Authorities have restricted entry to mass gatherings, including at the Western Wall, after last year’s stampede at Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer killed 45 people. “Out of responsibility for the safety of the participants and their security, the changes were decided in coordination with a request from the Israel Police,” the organizers said.

Should Israel give in?

Israel should not change the route and should not give in to Hamas’s demands. Doing so would be a sign of weakness that would be exploited by the terrorist organization. 

Nevertheless, decent behavior is needed. In the past, marchers have walked through the Muslim Quarter banging on Palestinian storefronts, holding signs that inflame tensions and shouting curses and racist slogans. The police need to ensure that this does not happen. People are free to sing and dance, but they must avoid acts of racism.

Police need to uphold the rule of law, secure the marchers and be on the alert for Palestinian violence. At the same time, they should also try to minimize contact with Palestinian protesters. No one wants to see a repeat of the unnecessary violence at Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral two weeks ago.

The bottom line is that while the flag march should be a peaceful parade celebrating Jerusalem, it should not be used to undermine Israeli sovereignty or spiral out of control and spark confrontations that could spoil the joy of Jerusalem Day.