Friday, 1 July, 2022
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Tension in Jerusalem ahead of Israeli ‘flag march’

JERUSALEM: A tense Jerusalem braced for Israel's "flag march" on Sunday as Palestinian groups threatened retaliation over the annual rally that sparked a war last year, reports AFP.

Israel deployed 3,000 police on the day that marks its 1967 capture of east Jerusalem, home of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound located on what Jews revere as the Temple Mount.

Flag-waving Jewish nationalists chanting pro-Israel slogans, among them a far-right lawmaker, in the morning visited Al-Aqsa, where Israeli police said several Palestinians threw rocks toward the officers.

Isolated clashes also broke out 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 Arab insult. Police reported 18 arrests over "disorderly conduct".

Across annexed east Jerusalem, many Palestinian flags flew from rooftops ahead of the "Jerusalem Day" march due to start at 4:00 pm (1300 GMT).

The march last year sparked unrest that led the Islamist armed group Hamas to fire rockets from the blockaded Gaza Strip, triggering an 11-day war.

Hamas warned last week that marchers must not pass through the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, saying it would use all means to confront them.

The route of the march has never included Al-Aqsa, a site which Jewish groups are permitted to visit but where they are not allowed to pray.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday the march would be held "along the regular route" and urged participants to be "respectful".

Police said that in the morning some 1,800 people ascended to the compound during a regular visitation window -- more than normal, but made up mostly of tourists.

Some Jews had "violated visitation rules" and several people were detained, police said without providing further details, before the day's time window for visits concluded.

One group sang pro-Israel chants including "Yerushalayim rak shelanou" or "Jerusalem belongs to us only".

Far-right nationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who was among those who went to Al Aqsa, later said his visit aimed "to reaffirm that we, the State of Israel, are sovereign" in the Holy City.

Most of the international community does not recognise Israeli control over east Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of a future state.

Some participants in Sunday's march were set to pass through Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall, a controversial route for which police force Palestinians businesses to close.

Israel has since April been hit by a series of attacks targeting mostly civilians and has in turn launched military raids targeting armed groups in the occupied West Bank.

Despite the recent violence, tensions have been more muted in the run-up to Sunday's rally compared to last year.

Security analyst Shlomo Mofaz judged that Bennett was betting on the likelihood that for now "Hamas does not have any interest in another war".

"The main policy of Hamas today is to encourage people inside Israel (to attack), while they continue to reconstruct the Gaza Strip," said the former intelligence officer.

Some observers believe unrest could be fuelled by fallout from last week's killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodai in Tehran.

According to The New York Times, Israel has informed the United States that the Jewish state's operatives were responsible for gunning him down.

Without addressing Khodai's killing, Bennett said that "the era of the Iranian regime's immunity is over ... Whoever arms terrorists ... will pay the full price".

Iran backs Hamas, and Mofaz argued that Tehran may "encourage" Palestinian armed factions to launch rockets at Israel.

Gaza resident Mohamed Al Moughrabi, 20, said that although fear of a new war was high, he expected that "the situation will not be like last year".