On Sunday 29 May, thousands of Israelis participated in the Flag March marking the anniversary of what Israeli nationalists call the “Unification of Jerusalem”, parading through the Bab Al-Amoud neighbourhood of Jerusalem and dancing on the streets to provoke Palestinians. They raised Israeli flags under close and heavy protection from the Israeli police.
Israeli estimates put the number of participants in this year’s march at 30,000, an unprecedented number since the event began in 1974, seven years after Israel occupied the Holy City.
The march was preceded by a major storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque by 2,000 Israelis who held Talmudic prayers in the courtyard, and performed what is known as “full prostration” where religious Jews lie down with their faces on the ground as part of a Torah ritual.
This year’s Flag March was especially controversial because it was preceded by Palestinian, Arab and international warnings that the parade route passing through the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem may trigger clashes in the Palestinian territories or even a regional confrontation, since Hizbullah in Lebanon also issued warnings.
This march is linked to the war on Gaza in May last year, which began when armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip fired missiles at Israeli settlements in Jerusalem. A ferocious battle took place with Israel, but Arab intervention led by Qatar and Egypt, which sent a security delegation to the Gaza Strip, managed to prevent the recurrence of a large-scale war on Gaza due to the march.
Israel decided to go ahead and approve the parade as planned to show that Jerusalem is the unified capital of Israel, and it has full sovereignty there, as asserted by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Bennett also instructed police and additional battalions of border guard, who were sent to Jerusalem and Arab cities in Israel, to use force against Palestinians who confront the Flag March and suppress any marches attempting to raise Palestinian flag. There were clashes in Jerusalem and the West Bank that injured dozens of Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) views the Israeli march as evidence that Jerusalem is an occupied city. Israel needed more than 4,000 policemen to protect the march using force, and there were clashes with Palestinians who raised their own flag in Jerusalem and along the march route.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh said that Israel has crossed all red lines with this march, but added that “Israel was unable to break the will of the Palestinians and impose its sovereignty over them or subjugate them. Military occupation is one thing, but imposing sovereignty is another.”
The PA, which does not believe in armed struggle, views the popular resistance of Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem as the way to shatter the fait accompli that Israel is trying to impose. Israel is racing against time to impose its sovereignty over Jerusalem, including at Al-Aqsa Mosque, where it wants to allocate a time to Jewish worship exclusively.
Bennett’s government is hoping that escalation against Palestinians will appease right-wing voters in the next round of elections, since it appears the incumbent government will likely collapse. It is also a personal fight between Bennett and his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, who is trying to undermine Bennett by repeatedly talking about the latter’s collaboration with left-wing and Arab parties in the incumbent cabinet.
Netanyahu has called for Bennett’s resignation several times, and forming a fully right-wing government. However, Bennett wants to prove he is heading a strong government that can achieve the goals of right-wing parties and forces in Israel.
Wajih Abu Zarifeh, an expert on Israeli affairs, said the face-off between Bennett and Netanyahu “has become a battle to grab the votes of extremists in Israel. Bennett understands that by the end of the year at the latest, his government will collapse and new elections will take place. He wants to empower his Yamina Party.”
Abu Zarifeh told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Bennett’s cabinet has become a government for settlers, and that government support of the flag march (which had essentially been an activity for Israeli extremists in the past), slams the door in the face of any possible peace process with Palestinians.”
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Srip and has a military build-up there, said Israel’s actions are unforgivable. “We cannot guarantee what will happen in the situation with Israel,” Hamas said, quoting statements by its Politburo Chief Ismail Haniyyeh. The group’s position keeps the door open to several options, after it acquiesced to mediation efforts not to be drawn into a broad military confrontation with Israel. This ambiguous position comes in the wake of criticism that it used inflammatory rhetoric ahead of the flag march.
Hamas had threatened to resort to all options in reaction to the march, and for the first time explicitly revealed partnering with several pro-Iran forces in the region, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In a programme on Qatar’s AlJazeera channel, Hamas revealed there was a war room that included these parties during the previous war on Gaza.
Palestinian observers assert that Hamas’ response on the ground was inadequate, compared to the sabre rattling and rhetoric that preceded the march. Meanwhile, Israel was well prepared for extensive military confrontations with Gaza if Hamas launched rockets.
Abu Zarifeh believes Israel was not only prepared for such confrontations, but even tried to provoke them by deploying remotely controlled military vehicles on the border with the Gaza Strip so that Palestinian factions target them and trigger a war on Gaza.
“Bennett chose the most radical option in dealing with Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” he said, which indicates that the Israeli government is in its final throes and drumming up its popularity ahead of imminent elections.
Israel wants to impose a new reality on the ground in Jerusalem and especially Al-Aqsa Mosque. The PA is deciding its response to Israel’s actions, by implementing resolutions by the Palestinian Central Council regarding withdrawing the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s recognition of Israel as well as ending security coordination with Israel. However, these are steps that could lead to the complete collapse of the PA.
Meanwhile, armed Palestinian factions in Gaza want to strike a balance between linking events in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, eager not to lose the political gains they have made during the last confrontation with Israel on this issue, namely, using their influence in Gaza to stop Israeli violations in Jerusalem.
But striking this balance may cost Gaza to enter broad military confrontations with Israel, and further aggravate conditions in the region. This would complicate the mission of mediators who are trying to find a formula that will frame all sides as victors in front of their popular bases, and prevent escalation to irreversible levels.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.