The torch that Benyamin Netanyahu’s government passed on to Naftali Bennett’s was represented in the March of the Flags, with its chanted slogan, “Death to the Arabs.”
By giving the green light to the extreme right procession at the Damascus Gate, a symbolic place of Arab Jerusalem, and through the Old City, Bennett confirmed that his government is in continuity with the previous one with regard to the Palestinians, in spite of the cosmetic presence within the coalition of center-left parties and the Islamist Raam.
A leading exponent of religious nationalism, Bennett chose to deploy thousands of policemen in the center of East Jerusalem, the theater of very powerful tensions in the last two months, rather than ban an initiative not so much aimed at “celebrating” the city, as it claims, but rather at affirming Israel’s total control over it, including the Arab area occupied in 1967.
Not coincidentally, most of the 5,000 Israelis who took part in the march were settlers, often very young, a sector of the Israeli population represented in part by Yamina, the new Prime Minister’s party. Among the demonstrators, there were a number of representatives of the extreme right, including the leaders of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, who have been top promoters since April of the racist rally during which the slogan “Death to the Arabs” echoed in the streets between the two Jerusalems.
Initially organized for May 10, the March of the Flags was cancelled on a day in which tensions skyrocketed, culminating with the launching of rockets by Hamas and the Israeli air raids on Gaza, which continued for 11 days. The far right returned to push for the march at the end of the escalation. Overruling the doubts expressed by the police leadership, former Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers decided to authorize it, keeping the original route except for the passage through the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Nonetheless, the participants were jubilant as they waved thousands of flags in front of the Damascus Gate.
The procession, which began on Neviim Street, a few hundred meters from the Damascus Gate, began after 6 p.m. local time. In the hours before, the police had isolated the whole area and forcibly evacuated every Palestinian on the steps of the Damascus Gate. It was a move that immediately triggered clashes. The Palestinian demonstrators managed to close down the Salah Edin and Zahra streets for several minutes, setting garbage bins on fire and using stones to repel the Israeli police, including those on horseback. At least 17 Palestinians were arrested and 33 injured. The participants in the March of the Flags also shouted slogans against Bennett, accused of being a “liar” and a “traitor” for having allied himself with an Arab party.
The Raam leader, Mansour Abbas, was in a position of political embarrassment throughout the day. In previous days, he had explained that his participation in the government was due to the need to turn over a new leaf in Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. However, the “Death to the Arabs” chanted by the participants in the March of the Flags made him vulnerable to the criticism of the many who are accusing him of playing the role of “the good Arab,” without any power in the new executive. Put on the spot during a radio interview, Abbas said he was “against any provocation” and hoped “that the police and the authorities are able to prevent any escalation and any friction.”
More decisive was his cabinet colleague and foreign minister Yair Lapid, who, unlike him, publicly condemned the slogan calling for the death of Arabs chanted during the march.
There was no ”military reaction” or rocket fire from Gaza as there was on May 10, despite warnings issued by Hamas’s armed wing and other Palestinian organizations about the “desecration” of the Old City of Jerusalem by the March of the Flags. There were incendiary balloons launched from Gaza into Israel, in addition to protest rallies at the border barrier.
According to a poll released on Tuesday by the Center for Politics and Statistical Research in Ramallah, support for Hamas has increased in the Territories. Fifty-three percent of Palestinians believe the Islamic movement is “the most deserving to represent and lead the Palestinian people.” Only 14% said the same of President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.
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