Some 70,000 Jewish nationalists marched through and around Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday afternoon to mark Jerusalem Day, some of them chanting racist slogans and clashing with Palestinians and police.
Many demonstrators chanted standard slogans and hymns honoring Jerusalem. But throughout the parade in the Old City, hundreds of other marchers called out “May your villages burn” and “Death to Arabs.”
“Shuafat is up in flames!” other Jewish Israeli participants yelled, referring to Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a teenage resident of that Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem who was burned to death by Jewish extremists in 2014.
Sporadic clashes broke out between right-wing Israeli marchers and Palestinians throughout the day. At least 60 people were detained for violence, according to the Israel Police. Five Israeli police officers, three Israelis and 40 Palestinians were wounded, according to police and medics.
The procession was seen as the largest Jerusalem Day march in years, with tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis swamping downtown Jerusalem and heading to Damascus Gate, where a wave of blue-and-white flags could be seen stretching well into the distance.
“Many Jews over the past year have awoken to nationalism and to the importance of Damascus Gate,” said Nehama Dina, 21, a resident of Tekoa in the West Bank.
Before the march, more than 2,600 Jewish Israelis were granted entry to the Temple Mount, a record-breaking figure. The holy site — Judaism’s most sacred sanctuary and Islam’s third-holiest — is a deeply contested flashpoint between Jews and Muslims.
Despite being a national holiday, Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s conquest of the Old City and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, is celebrated nowadays mainly by right-wing religious Jews.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday morning called on those taking part in the afternoon march to behave responsibly as he wished Israelis a happy Jerusalem Day.
“Flying the Israeli flag in the capital of Israel is self-evident,” Bennett said. “I request that the participants celebrate responsibly and in a respectful manner.”
But for hours during the long, tense day, the Old City felt like a powder keg on the verge of exploding. Police deployed some 2,000 officers to secure the rally, anticipating the tensions, and plainclothes security officers dotted the Old City’s alleyways.
From the late morning until well into the evening, sporadic brawls broke out between Israeli marchers and local Palestinians. Police said at least three people were detained during the clashes.
“I will take one revenge for both my eyes against Palestine — damn them,” a group of Jewish teenagers sang in the Old City, modifying a biblical verse sung by Samson about the Philistines.
Other participants hurled slurs at Palestinian journalists on the scene, calling them “whores” and “dogs.” A large group of Jewish marchers mobbed a section of the plaza cordoned off for media, making obscene gestures at Arab journalists.
“This is our land!” several participants called at them.
An Arab Israeli police officer pleaded with young Palestinian men to keep their cool, even as the far-right marchers walked by calling for their villages to burn.
“If you respond, you’ll only make it worse. I’m telling you this for your interest,” the cop told them as the sun beat down near the Old City’s Austrian Hospice.
Shortly before the march, rocks, bottles, and chairs were hurled between both sides in the Old City, with police seeking to restore order. In one of the brawls, a Jewish Israeli man was seen using pepper spray against a Palestinian woman.
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Like other right-wing marchers, Dina, the student from Tekoa, said she was not bothered by the violent chants emanating from the Flag March.
“We have to understand — are we the owners here? If so, let’s get rid of them,” Dina said, referring to Arabs and Palestinians.
At another incident in the early afternoon, Palestinians ran past Jewish Israelis standing near the Chain Gate entrance to the Temple Mount, some throwing bottles. The Israeli teens gave chase, with the police in hot pursuit.
A young Palestinian man pushed a police officer. Several cops shoved him back, occasionally hitting him with clubs as he dragged his feet while walking away.
Other Israelis scuffled with Palestinians farther down the alleyways winding toward the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Separately, Israeli youths were seen tearing a Palestinian flag outside Damascus Gate.
עימותים אלימים בשער שכם בין, הרבה מאוד גז באוויר פה pic.twitter.com/nvDtCRQPAG
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Jerusalem Day’s central event is the contentious Flag March through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Many Palestinian shops and stands were closed and deserted ahead of the procession, with Palestinians citing a fear of violence.
“Every year they come here and provoke us. But this year is worse. It feels like a challenge,” said a Palestinian bystander, who declined to be identified.
But Israeli marchers said they were the ones under attack.
“They call us a provocation. But if I tell you I’m provoked by you breathing, how is that any different?” said Ori, a Jerusalem resident in his 20s.
Ori said that local Palestinians have repeatedly provoked, cursed, and attacked the marchers. He denied that the marchers act violently — but said that if any do, “it’s an exception that proves the rule.”
Four teenage participants in the march — three from the United States and one from Spain — stopped to speak with The Times of Israel by the Old City’s Chain Gate. All four are students at the Atzmona pre-military academy.
“We don’t want to fight. But if they fight, we’re gonna fight back,” said Yosef Ruderman, 19, originally from Colorado.
Asked how they felt about some of the chants at the march — “may your villages burn” and “[Islamic Prophet] Mohammad is dead” — the four said they disagreed with the violent slogans. But Menahem Drew, 18, said the chants did not necessarily make him “feel uncomfortable.”
“You have to fight fire with fire,” said Drew.
Earlier, a bodyguard for opposition Likud MK Miri Regev was lightly hurt after being struck by a rock hurled during one of the clashes. Police said he was taken for medical treatment.
The day began with the mass visit by Jewish Israelis to the Temple Mount holy site. Hundreds had arrived early in the morning to wait for a chance to tour the sanctuary. Among them was far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir.
Prior to the arrival of the Jewish visitors, dozens of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque and hurled rocks at security forces stationed outside.
According to police, 18 people were arrested on suspicion of rioting and assaulting officers and civilians during the Temple Mount visit.
In an apparent violation of the so-called status quo, several Jewish visitors who visited the mount raised Israeli flags. The Hamas terror group has previously signaled that the waving of the Israeli flag at the holy site, which includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque, could trigger a violent response.
The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, is the holiest site for Jews and site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam.
It is the emotional epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and tensions there helped ignite the 11-day Gaza war in May last year that was triggered into open conflict when Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem during the Flag March.
Dina vowed that her generation of Israelis would rebuild the destroyed biblical Temple. “If the Arabs control the Temple Mount, we have nothing to do here. Because the reason we’re here in the Land of Israel is to build the Temple,” she said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.