Jerusalem (AFP), May 29 – Thousands of Israelis began the annual nationalist “flag march” through Jerusalem on Sunday that regularly stokes Palestinian anger, a year after tensions in the disputed holy city erupted into war.
Some 2,000 police were deployed for the event that marks Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in 1967, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on what Jews revere as the Temple Mount.
In annexed East Jerusalem, scores of Palestinian flags flew from rooftops ahead of the “Jerusalem Day” march, which began at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT) in West Jerusalem, with participants heading towards the Old City.
Earlier on Sunday, Jewish nationalists waving flags chanting pro-Israel slogans, including a far-right lawmaker, marched to Al-Aqsa, where Israeli police said several Palestinians threw stones at the officers.
Isolated clashes also erupted at the Old City’s Damascus Gate where dozens of Jewish nationalists danced in front of Palestinians, one of whom raised his shoe in an Arabic slur.
Police reported more than 20 arrests for “disorderly conduct”.
The march comes a year after tensions and unrest in Jerusalem led the Islamist armed group Hamas to fire rockets into Israel from the blockaded Gaza Strip, triggering an 11-day war.
Hamas warned last week that protesters should not cross the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, saying it would use all means to confront them.
The march route never included Al-Aqsa, a site that Jewish groups are allowed to visit but are not allowed to pray at.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday the march was following the “usual route” and urged participants to be “respectful”.
– Pro-Israel songs –
Police said some 2,600 people entered the compound during regular Sunday visiting windows – a higher than normal figure and which includes tourists.
Some Jews “violated visiting rules” and several people were arrested, police said without providing further details, before the day’s visits ended.
A group sang pro-Israel songs, including “Yerushalayim rak shelanou” or “Jerusalem belongs only to us”.
Far-right nationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who was among those who visited al-Aqsa, later said his visit was aimed at “reaffirming that we, the State of Israel, are sovereign” in the Holy City.
Most of the international community does not recognize Israeli control over East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of a future state.
Some participants in Sunday’s march were to pass through Damascus Gate en route to the Western Wall, a controversial route that police are forcing Palestinian businesses to close.
Since April, Israel has been hit by a series of attacks targeting mainly civilians, and has in turn launched military raids targeting armed groups in the occupied West Bank.
Despite recent violence, tensions were more subdued ahead of Sunday’s rally compared to last year.
– Fear of war –
Security analyst Shlomo Mofaz said Bennett was betting on the likelihood that for now “Hamas has no interest in another war.”
“Hamas’ main policy today is to encourage people inside Israel (to attack), as they continue to rebuild the Gaza Strip,” the former intelligence officer said.
Some observers believe the unrest may be fueled by fallout from the killing last week in Tehran of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Colonel Sayyad Khodai.
According to The New York Times, Israel informed the United States that Jewish state agents were responsible for shooting him.
Without addressing Khodai’s murder, Bennett said that “the era of Iranian regime immunity is over…Anyone who arms terrorists…will pay a heavy price.”
Iran supports Hamas and Mofaz has argued that Tehran could “encourage” Palestinian armed factions to launch rockets into Israel.
Mohamed Al Moughrabi, 20, a resident of Gaza, said that although fear of another war was high, he expected “the situation will not be like last year”.