Jerusalem prepares for the worst ahead of Israeli far-right march
As thousands of Israeli ultra-nationalists gear up for a divisive march through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday, Riad al-Hallaq is preparing for the worst.
The Palestinian coffee shop owner has witnessed the annual parade get increasingly hostile over the years, and this time around, the writing is on the wall once more.
"Provocations have already started this week," al-Hallaq told Middle East Eye.
"A few children carrying the Israeli flag have walked by and chanted 'death to Arabs' among other vulgar insults. They assaulted women and tried to take off their headcovers.
"This provokes people's emotions."
The "flag march" is an annual rally planned by Israeli far-right activists as part of celebrations to commemorate the "reunification" of the city under Israeli rule.
But the joyous occasion for many Israelis is a miserable affair for the city's Palestinians.
Palestinian-specific curfews, shuttered businesses, vandalism and racist slurs are some of what Palestinians have to endure on the day, while police-protected Israeli ultra-nationalists and settlers sing and dance on their streets.
This year's event has the city on edge more than usual, as a symbolic war of rhetoric over sovereignty and flags rages on quietly in the background.
'A display of incitement'
The Flag March is one part of "Jerusalem Day", the Israeli holiday marking the occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967 after the Six Day War.
Thousands join celebrations across the city on the 28th day of the month of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which often falls between May and June.
The tradition has been ongoing since 1967 but has grown steadily over the years. The march is organised by members of the Religious Zionism movement.
It includes participants from various pro-settlement groups such Bnei Akiva, Im Tirtzu and regional councils of the Binyamin and Gush Etzion illegal West Bank settlements.
This year, organisers announced that the procession on Sunday will be split into two parts and will allow up to 16,000 people to participate.
Starting from the western section of the city, one march will thread the Old City through Jaffa Gate (Bab al-Khalil) while the other will enter via the Damascus Gate (Bab al-Amoud).
Both will meet by the Western Wall, where celebrations will continue until late in the evening.
The march entering through Damascus Gate will pass through the Muslim quarter via the vital al-Wad Street.
The gate and the bustling ancient road are both important landmarks for Palestinians, symbolically and economically.
Busy small shops and street vendors fill both sides of the narrow street, which leads to al-Aqsa Mosque.
On the day of the march, Israeli authorities force shop owners to close their businesses, while residents of the Muslim quarter are asked to remain indoors and Jerusalemites are not allowed to enter the street.
Al-Hallaq, whose shop is on al-Wad Street (Ha-Gai Street in Hebrew) says the march has grown more aggressive over the past 10 years.
While it has always been a provocative event, it used to pass with relatively fewer restrictions on Palestinians. Until recently, shops could even stay open for business.
But things have gotten gradually worse, he said.
"The march now has to be protected by police, and the settlers who join it are drenched in racism in a very abnormal manner. The atmosphere they foster is 'kill or be killed,'" al-Hallaq said.
'Settlers who join [the march] are drenched in racism in a very abnormal manner. The atmosphere they foster is 'kill or be killed''
- Riad al-Hallaq, Old City shop owner
Some of the chants that have been documented during the flag march in recent years include both anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racist slurs, such as "Death to Arabs," "Muhammad is dead," and "We will destroy al-Aqsa Mosque."
Marchers have also been accused of vandalising shops, locks and unattended food carts as they make their way through the Muslim quarter.
The Israeli NGO Ir Amim has campaigned in the past for the march to be rerouted away from the Muslim quarter on the basis that it "impose[s] severe restrictions on Palestinian residents' freedom of movement and commerce."
Last week, the group urged the government to reroute the march once more, which it described as a "display of incitement, Jewish dominance, and racism".
"We know [the restrictions on us] are illegal, but who listens to our complaints?" al-Hallaq asked.
"You can expect anything from the ones who attack a funeral and attack pallbearers," he added, referring to assaults on the funeral of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on 11 May.
A question of sovereignty
This year's march was approved last week by Israel's Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Police Commissioner Yaakov "Kobi" Shabtai.
The Palestinian foreign ministry called the decision "a continuation of a dangerous escalation by Israel that threatens to drag the region into an explosion that would be very difficult to control".
Hamas also issued warnings against carrying out the march and called on Palestinians to be "on high alert".
Last year's parade was delayed amid heightened tensions in Jerusalem, with Hamas rockets flying towards the city minutes after the march started, paving the way for Israel to launch a devastating military attack on the Gaza Strip.
The May 2021 assault left 256 Palestinians dead and thousands wounded, damaged over 50,000 homes and destroyed key infrastructure. In Israel, 13 people were killed by rockets.
Fearing a repeat of last year's events, some Israeli politicians have also voiced their opposition to the march.
Lawmaker Gaby Lasky of the Meretz party said the approval of the march was like "giving gasoline and fuel to a bunch of pyromaniacs".
Issawi Frej, minister of regional cooperation, said the decision comes from the "desire to burn [the city]," and vowed to work to reverse it.
Despite the pleas, Shabtai defended his decision on Monday saying that "the police will maintain the freedom of worship, protest, and expression, for everyone."
On Wednesday, he raised the alert level of the police and ordered 3,000 officers to protect the march, while thousands more will be deployed in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities with a significant Palestinian population, especially in Lydd, or Lod as it is known in Hebrew, and Acre.
The Israeli army has also boosted its air defence systems across the boundary with Gaza.
Meanwhile, police have carried out large-scale arrests in Jerusalem, detaining more than 100 Palestinians while dozens of residents have been temporarily expelled from the city and al-Aqsa Mosque.
The ramping up of security to guard a single march, which is designed to showcase Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, is enough of an indication of its failure, said Nasser al-Hadmi, a Palestinian researcher and head of the Jerusalem committee against Judaisation.
"The purpose of this march is to be a symbol of Zionist sovereignty over the city. But this represents the opposite," Hadmi told MEE.
"If Israel really controls the city, and if this is truly their eternal unified city, they wouldn't need to deploy this massive number of soldiers and officers."
Last year's march, interrupted by Hamas rockets, had altered its route at the last minute as tensions were at an all-time high in the city following violent Israeli raids on al-Aqsa Mosque and an attempt to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for Israeli settlers.
Last month, an impromptu march heading towards Damascus Gate, which defied police orders, was blocked by authorities much to the ire of its far-right organisers.
The April march came amid heightened tensions once again caused by Israeli raids in al-Aqsa during the month of Ramadan.
The failure of those two marches to go as planned was mainly due to Palestinian solidarity, Hadmi argues.
But now the authorities are under pressure from ultra-nationalists to ensure this year's parade goes according to plan, in an attempt to restore its image of control and sovereignty over the city, he added.
"In essence, this march typifies the ugly image of this occupation," said Hadmi.
Palestinian flags targetted
The question of sovereignty has been a talking point for weeks not only in Jerusalem but also within Israel and in the occupied West Bank, manifesting in a crackdown on the Palestinian flag.
During the funeral of Abu Akleh on 13 May, Israeli police issued a ban on waving the Palestinian flag. Mourners were assaulted and dragged aside every time a Palestinian flag was seen fluttering among the crowds.
A couple of days later, during Nakba commemorations and other pro-Palestine rallies inside Israeli cities, the raising of the Palestinian flag quickly became a matter of political wrangling in the government.
Lawmaker Israel Katz warned Palestinians on Tuesday of another Nakba if they fly the Palestinian flag in Israeli universities.
"Yesterday I warned the Arab students, who are flying Palestine flags at universities: remember 48. Remember our independence war and your Nakba. Don't stretch the rope too much. […] If you don't calm down we'll teach you a lesson that won't be forgotten," he said, speaking in parliament.
Katz was referring to students who raised Palestinian flags at Tel Aviv University last week, and at the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba on Monday.
In both rallies, Palestinian flag carriers were met with a counter-demonstration of students waving the Israeli flag.
On Wednesday, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the Ben-Gurion University rally "negated the existence of Israel as a Jewish democratic state," and called for funding to the university to be reduced.
A similar confrontation over flags has been ongoing since last week in the occupied city of Nablus on the West Bank.
Last week, an Israeli settler, protected by soldiers, took a Palestinian flag down from an electricity pole on a busy road in Huwara town near Nablus.
The incident has since led to tense confrontations with Palestinians attempting to erect the flag again and facing off with soldiers and settlers.
On Wednesday, a group of settlers, flanked by armed soldiers, rallied in the town waving the Israeli flag.
This crackdown on the Palestinian flag is nothing new, Palestinian heritage researcher Hamza al-Aqrabawi said, adding that it is part of a decades-old policy to erase Palestinian identity.
"The occupation has since 1967 outlawed the Palestinian flag... used excessive force on the ground and deployed various legal measures to criminalise people for carrying the Palestinian flag, by arresting and detaining some," Aqrabawi told MEE.
In this context, Aqrabawi argues that the flag march has become an important event to Israelis but simultaneously draws out more anger and frustration from the Palestinians.
"How can you ban the Palestinian flag at a funeral and attack it, causing [the casket] to almost fall, just because it's draped in a Palestinian flag? Meanwhile, allow this flag march to pass through Damascus Gate which is a Palestinian monument?"
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.