Tension in Jerusalem at start of Israelis’ annual ‘flag march’

Israelis during a march marking Jerusalem Day near Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City on June 5, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP ) - Thousands of Israelis on Sunday (May 29) started the annual nationalist “flag march” through Jerusalem that regularly stokes Palestinian anger, a year after tensions in the disputed Holy City exploded into war.

Some 2,000 police were deployed for the event that marks Israel’s 1967 capture of east Jerusalem, home of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound on what Jews revere as the Temple Mount.

Across annexed east Jerusalem, many Palestinian flags flew from rooftops ahead of the “Jerusalem Day” march in west Jerusalem, with participants heading towards the Old City.

Earlier Sunday, flag-waving Jewish nationalists chanting pro-Israel slogans visited Al-Aqsa, where Israeli police said several Palestinians threw rocks towards 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 more than 20 arrests over “disorderly conduct”.

The march comes a year after tensions and unrest in Jerusalem led the Islamist armed group Hamas to fire rockets at Israel 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 not allowed to pray at.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that the march followed “the regular route” and urged participants to be “respectful”.

Police said some 2,600 people had ascended to the compound during Sunday’s regular visitation windows – a number that is higher than normal and includes tourists. Some Jews had “violated visitation rules” and several people were detained, police said without providing further details, before the day’s visits concluded.

Far-right nationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, who was among those who went to Al-Aqsa, 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.

Since last month, Israel has 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. However, tensions have been more muted in the run-up to Sunday’s rally compared to last year.

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