Palestinian terror groups in Gaza on Thursday were said to be readying rocket launchers to fire at Israel if it holds a highly charged nationalist march through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City as scheduled on Sunday.
Israel insisted that the march would indeed go ahead as planned, and would be routed through the Muslim Quarter as in the past.
With tensions soaring ahead of the march, which led to an 11-day Israel-Gaza war when it was held last year, both the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups also put their armed wings on high alert, Israeli and Palestinian media sources reported. At the same time, the Al-Quds Palestinian daily said the Gaza groups are not interested in being drawn into a conflict at this time, as it would disrupt work to rehabilitate Gaza from last year’s fighting with Israel.
Nonetheless, Channel 12 news said Hamas had fired four rockets into the sea off Gaza as a pointed message. And a joint statement issued after a meeting of armed Palestinian groups in Gaza warned that Sunday’s Jerusalem Day Flag March was “a powder keg that will explode the whole area… All options are on the table to struggle against the Israeli criminals.”
Hamas also urged Palestinians to head to the contested Temple Mount — the holiest place in Judaism, and site of Islam’s third-holiest shrine — on Jerusalem Day “to thwart the occupation’s plans.” The Flag March does not enter the Temple Mount area.
Israel, in response, told Gaza’s Hamas rulers via international mediators that the Jerusalem Day parade would go forward as planned even at the risk of a security escalation, Channel 12 news said. Israel has also reportedly warned the terror groups that any rocket fire would be met with counterstrikes.
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides reportedly expressed concern over the Flag March in a phone call with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, worrying that it could fuel an escalation of violence. Barlev responded that he understood the concern and stressed police were working to prevent any provocations or friction. But “My father [Haim Barlev] as deputy chief of staff gave the order to liberate Jerusalem. This is our capital,” the minister was quoted as saying. “The march is a 30-year tradition.”
Behind the scenes, the Biden administration has been pushing Israel to re-route the Flag March away from the Damascus Gate and Muslim Quarter, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
Inside Israel, municipal authorities in one town near the Gaza Strip readied public bomb shelters for use Thursday, as police officials expressed confidence that tensions could be kept from spiraling out of control.
Sunday marks Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the unification of the city during the 1967 Six Day War. Israeli nationalists mark the day with an annual march of flag-waving participants, which usually proceeds via Damascus Gate through the Old City’s densely populated Muslim Quarter and to the Western Wall.
A year ago, Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem during the march, which came amid heightened tensions over the planned eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes, sparking an 11-day Israel-Gaza war.
Police blocked nationalists intending to hold a similar march through the Old City last month, but gave the go-ahead for the Jerusalem Day parade to follow its traditional route, reigniting Palestinian anger and setting war drums beating again.
Israel has stressed to Hamas via mediators that the march route is no different from that of previous years, and does not include the Temple Mount.
Officials have insisted that the march will go ahead even at the risk of an escalation with Gaza, or Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has also made threats over the event. Officials have also rejected the idea of diverting the procession to take a less provocative route, according to reports Thursday.
“There is no reason to change the route of the march, even if there is rocket fire,” a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Channel 12 news. “We should not be concerned about marching within the boundaries of Israel and realizing our sovereignty, even if they fire rockets,” he said.
The officer said previous experience had shown that giving in to threats only cost the country more in the long run. “What if next time the threats are made on the eve of Independence Day?” he asked. “We will stop celebrating.”
Regarding concerns over a repeat of deadly clashes in Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, as unfolded last year against the background of the war with Gaza, the officer said that “this year we are stronger in the mixed cities and are ready for any scenario.”
Kobi Yaakobi, a senior Jerusalem area police officer, told Channel 12: “We don’t need to allow terror groups to set the agenda for us.”
Palestinian terror groups had threatened Wednesday they would not allow Israeli “provocations” to go unanswered.
A senior source with knowledge of the terror groups told the Al-Quds daily that Hamas and Islamic Jihad rocket-firing cells are on high alert, Hebrew media reported Thursday. But the groups have also given clear instructions that no rockets be fired by any groups unless an order is given from the senior commanders, the source said.
Hamas called for Palestinians to head to Al-Aqsa Mosque at dawn on Jerusalem Day “to thwart the occupation’s plans.”
“We warn the leaders of the occupation against any miscalculations in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa. We reiterate that we are proceeding with all strength, determination and certainty in defending our Jerusalem,” it said.
The Palestinian Authority called on Palestinians to gather at Al-Aqsa Mosque on Friday and “remain there in order to thwart the plan to divide Al-Aqsa.” The PA’s Religious Affairs Ministry reportedly prepared a missive to be read out in mosques during the weekly sermons this Friday.
The document cites a recent controversial Jerusalem court decision — which was overturned by a higher court on Wednesday — sympathetic to Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, and calls the Flag March “a blow to the honor and faith of Islamic nation.” It describes the marchers as “delegations of war against the Palestinian people and the Islamic nation,” Channel 12 news reported.
Israel has sent messages to Hamas via Qatari and Egyptian mediators that it is not interested in an escalation. At the same time, the IDF has readied Iron Dome missile defense batteries and drawn up attack plans in case they are needed, according to Hebrew media reports. Palestinian media reported many IDF drones operating in the skies over Gaza Thursday and said terror groups have cleared out of their positions as a precaution.
On the Israeli side of the frontier, the Sderot Municipality began deploying mobile bomb shelters around the rocket-scarred border town, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Police said Wednesday it would deploy some 3,000 officers to guard the march, as well as thousands more to keep the peace around the city and other areas where tensions are liable to boil over.
But Old City vendors said they would close up shop ahead of the march, accusing participants of causing havoc and attacking Palestinians and their property during the annual event in past years.
“I think it will be much worse because of the unruly behavior of the settlers in the Old City,” one Arab vendor told Channel 13 news.
Amir Ben Kiki, a senior Jerusalem police officer, told Channel 13 news: “We will prepare to enable freedom of religion, freedom of speech as a sovereign state.”
Border Police Cmdr. Eli Gozlan, of the investigations and intelligence department, told the Ynet website that the biggest concern is incitement on social media, led by Hamas which is spreading “fake news.”
“For over thirty years we have been marching along the same route,” Gozlan said. “There is no intention to change the existing route, and certainly not to enter the Temple Mount. All the lies being spread in media are a fatal blow to democracy and are inciting violence and rioting.”
He said there were no specific warnings of threats to the march.
He added that officers would be prepared to prevent any provocateurs among the marchers from trying to provoke trouble.