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Palestinian Israeli conflict

Hamas challenges Israel over nationalist flag march in Jerusalem

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The Palestinian militant group Hamas that runs the Gaza Strip is looking to impose new red lines in Jerusalem, epicenter of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, even if that risks provoking another war.

For years, flag-waving Israeli nationalists have staged an annual march through Jerusalem to celebrate Israel’s capture of the Old City in the 1967 Middle East war.

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The procession through the narrow streets of the Muslim quarter was always controversial, but legal efforts to ban the event failed, with supporters arguing that it was a legitimate festival marking an extraordinary moment in Jewish history.

Hamas significantly raised the stakes last year, firing rockets into Israel minutes after the 2021 march kicked off, triggering an 11-day war.

Leaders of the group say they are ready for renewed violence on Sunday if the Israeli government does not keep this year’s march out of Muslim neighborhoods.

“They can avoid a war and escalation if they stop this mad (march),” Bassem Naim, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters in Gaza this week.

For many Palestinians, the march is a blatant provocation and a gross violation of one of the few places in the city, increasingly hemmed in by Jewish development and settlement, which retains a strong Arab flavor.

For Hamas it is also a religious affront, given the Old City is home to the al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam, which Jews also revere as the Temple Mount - a vestige of their faith’s two ancient temples.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has defended a decision by security officials to let Sunday’s procession enter Damascus Gate and pass through the Muslim quarter.

Some members of his coalition have urged him to rethink the route and suggested there might be a last-minute change of heart. However, a senior Western diplomatic source doubted that Bennett would bow to Hamas’s demand.

“He has only been in office for a year and it would make him look weak,” said the diplomat, who declined to be named.

Funerals and riots

Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital, while Palestinians want the eastern section as a capital of their future state. Hamas sees all of modern-day Israel as occupied.

“For Israel, Jerusalem is off the table, for the Palestinians it is the table. It is their Alamo,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and campaigner for Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem.

Tensions have been rising in the city for weeks.

There were repeated clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in the al-Aqsa compound in April, during the holy month of Ramadan, with Muslims angered by rising numbers of Jewish visitors to the mosque esplanade.

On one night during Ramadan, youths managed to smuggle into the site a gigantic banner showing a Hamas fighter, which they hung up in front of the gilded seventh-century Dome of the Rock.

“A few years ago that would have been unthinkable. It shows that Hamas’s defense of Jerusalem is resonating and that support for them is growing,” the Western diplomat said.

Two weeks ago, the funeral of al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed during an Israeli army West Bank raid, descended into chaos when police charged the mourners. Two days later, the funeral procession of a young man fatally injured in al-Aqsa clashes led to a full-blown riot in East Jerusalem.

A senior Israeli lawmaker from the ruling coalition said this week it was too risky to let Sunday’s march continue in its present form given the tensions.

“We should not, with our own hands, cause a religious war here or all kinds of provocations that are liable to ignite the Middle East,” Ram Ben-Barak told Kan radio.

Highlighting his concerns over likely violence, the US Embassy in Jerusalem has banned US government employees and their families from entering the Old City on Sunday and has said Damascus Gate is off-limits to them until further notice.

However, calls for a rethink of the route have been scorned by the organizers, who deny that the procession, which often features anti-Arab chanting, is a provocation.

“It’s all about celebration, of the liberation of Jerusalem and the return of the Jewish people to the Jewish city, Jerusalem,” said Arieh King, a Jerusalem deputy mayor.

For Hamas such sentiment is an anathema - highlighting the impossibility of reconciling two diametrically opposed visions of history.

“Any attempt to continue the judaization of Jerusalem means they are touching a very raw nerve,” said Naim.

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