Jerusalem is on edge in advance of a rightwing Israeli parade that will pass through Muslim parts of the Old City, after violence during the same event last year helped spark an 11-day-war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip.
The annual flag march, in which thousands of religious nationalists enter the highly symbolic Damascus Gate and walk through the Muslim Quarter waving Israeli flags, takes place at sunset on what Israel calls Jerusalem Day, the celebration of its capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
It is often accompanied by racist chants and violence and viewed as deeply provocative by the Palestinians. This year the flag march comes at a particularly tense time: in the last two months Israel has suffered its worst wave of terrorist attacks in years, which have killed 19 people, while retaliatory Israel Defence Forces (IDF) raids in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank have left about 35 Palestinians dead, including the Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh.
Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters at Jerusalem’s sensitive al-Aqsa compound, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims, have injured hundreds of people.
Early on Sunday, about 2,000 Jewish pilgrims, among them Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a small ultranationalist opposition party in the Knesset, visited al-Aqsa, known in Judaism as the Temple Mount, accompanied by Israeli police. The visit prompted about 40 Palestinians, who had barricaded themselves inside the mosque overnight, to throw rocks and fireworks.
Police said in a statement that they locked the gates of the mosque and made several arrests before the situation quietened around midday. There were no reports of injuries.
Informally, Jews are allowed to visit, but not pray at the site. In recent years, however, growing numbers of Jewish visitors, sometimes praying or with police escorts, have inflamed longstanding Palestinian fears that Israel plans to annex the area. Israel says it is committed to maintaining the status quo, and accuses Hamas of inciting the recent violence.
About 3,000 Israeli police were deployed throughout Jerusalem on Sunday. According to Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, the IDF is on a heightened state of alert across the occupied Palestinian Territories, and has adjusted its deployment of anti-missile batteries in anticipation of possible rocket fire from both Gaza and Lebanon.
Last year, the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to diffuse tensions ahead of the flag march by ordering the usual route to diverte away from Damascus Gate, but it was not enough to prevent clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Temple Mount. The violence at the holy site led Hamas to fire a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem, sparking last May’s devastating war.
Despite calls for cancellation or rerouting of the march this year from some of his own coalition allies, Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has allowed the parade to proceed as planned, a decision met with anger by Palestinians, who warned it could trigger more violence.
Palestinian Authority spokesperson, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, condemned the clashes at al-Aqsa on Sunday morning, telling the Voice of Palestine radio station that Israel considers itself above international law and is “playing with fire by irresponsibly and recklessly allowing settlers to desecrate sanctities in occupied Jerusalem”.