JERUSALEM ( Associated Press) — Thousands of Israeli nationalists began a parade in Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday from the middle of the main Palestinian boulevard, risking a new wave of violence in the tense city.
The crowd, who were young Orthodox Jewish men, were celebrating Jerusalem Day – an Israeli holiday that marks the capture of the Old City in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians see the incident, which took place in the heart of the Muslim Quarter, as a provocation. Last year, the parade helped start an 11-day war with Gaza militants, and this year’s march drew condemnation from Palestinians and neighboring Jordan.
Israel said it had deployed thousands of police and security forces for the event, and there were minor clashes between Jewish and Palestinian groups inside the old city.
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As the march went on, groups of Orthodox Jewish groups gathered outside the Damascus Gate, waved flags, sang religious and nationalist songs, and shouted “Jewish Nation Lives” before entering the Muslim Quarter.
Police drove the Palestinians out of what is usually a bustling Palestinian road. At one point, a drone flying a Palestinian flag flew overhead.
Prior to the march, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said that “flying the flag of Israel in the capital of Israel is an obvious thing” and that Israel had made it clear “from the beginning”. Also, he asked the participants to celebrate “in a responsible and respectful manner”.
Thousands typically take part in the march through the Muslim Quarter, including some who chant nationalist or racist slogans toward Palestinians before making their way to the Western Wall in the Jewish Quarter on the other side of the old city.
Last year, after weeks of Israeli-Palestinian unrest in Jerusalem, authorities diverted the march at the last minute to avoid the Muslim quarter. But it was too late, and Hamas militants in Gaza fired rockets toward Jerusalem as the procession was underway. This marked the beginning of 11 days of heavy fighting.
Sunday’s march came at a time of extreme tension. Israeli police have repeatedly encountered Palestinian protesters throwing stones at the disputed compound in recent months, often with rubber bullets and stun grenades.
At the same time, some 19 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian bombers in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent weeks, while more than 35 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank. Many of them were Palestinian terrorists killed in the war, but many civilians were also killed, including Shirin Abu Akleh, a well-known correspondent for the Al Jazeera satellite channel.
Jerusalem police were internationally criticized for beating mourners at the funeral of Abu Aqleh two weeks ago.
Despite the recent unrest, Israeli leaders decided to allow this year’s parade to take place along its traditional route through the Muslim Quarter. Before the march, small scuffles broke out between Israeli nationalists and Palestinians, who threw chairs and bottles and shouted “God is great” at the crowd. Some marchers sprayed pepper on Palestinians and journalists.
Police also fired rubber-tipped bullets and used clubs and pepper spray to disperse Palestinian protesters from the area. The Palestinian Red Crescent Rescue Service said 15 people were injured by Israeli police, four of whom needed to be hospitalized.
Before the march, more than 2,500 Jews visited Jerusalem’s most vulnerable holy site inside the Old City, as Palestinians pelted stones and set off fireworks inside the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Al Aqsa is situated on top of a hill which is revered by Muslims and Jews. The mosque is the third holiest site in Islam, and Palestinians are fiercely protective of it, considered a powerful symbol of their national aspirations.
The complex is also the holiest site for Jews, who call it Temple Mount and regard it as the home of biblical temples. Competing claims to the site are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have led to several rounds of violence.
Police also said that one of the Jewish groups “violated visitation rules” and was removed. Israeli media said the group had hoisted Israeli flags on the compound.
Under a long-standing arrangement known as the “status quo”, Jews are allowed on the premises, but not to pray. In recent years, however, the number of Jewish visitors has increased significantly, including some who have been seen praying silently.
Such scenes have given rise to Palestinian fears that Israel is plotting to annex or divide the region. Israel denies such claims, saying it remains committed to the status quo.
Among the visitors was Itamar Ben-Gavir, the leader of a small ultranationalist opposition party and a follower of the late racist rabbi, Mir Kahane, who entered with dozens of supporters under heavy police guard.
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The Palestinians shouted “God is great” as Ben-Gavir, accompanied by the Israeli police, shouted “Jewish people live”. Police said they locked the doors of the mosque and said they had made 18 arrests.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Radenah accused Israel of “irresponsible and reckless playing with fire”.
Jordan condemned Ben-Gavir’s visit to the site and warned that a “provocative and moving march” could make things worse. Jordan controlled East Jerusalem until its annexation by Israel in 1967 and remains a custodian of Muslim holy sites.
Israel captured East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in a move that is not recognized internationally and claims the entire city as its capital. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of the future state.
Gaza’s Hamas rulers praised the “great heroism” shown by Palestinians in Al Aqsa early Sunday. “The Islamic Palestinian Arab identity of the Al Aqsa Mosque will be protected by our people and their valiant resistance,” said group spokesman Hazem Qassem.
However, the group may be wary of engaging in another round of battles. Gaza was badly hit in last year’s war, and the region is still struggling to repair the damage. In addition, around 12,000 Gazan workers are now allowed to work inside Israel, as part of efforts to keep the peace between enemies. The renewed fight could risk losing jobs that have given Gaza’s devastated economy a small boost.
Associated Press correspondent Ariel Shalit contributed reporting.