Several thousand flag-waving Israeli ultra-nationalists marched though occupied East Jerusalem on Tuesday evening, handing new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett his first diplomatic and security challenge and testing the fragile ceasefire reached a month ago between Israel and Hamas.
Hours later, Israel carried out air strikes in the Gaza Strip, the first since the ceasefire, in response to incendiary balloons launched from the Palestinian territory by Hamas militants.
The Israeli marchers on Tuesday stopped first at Damascus Gate but were blocked from using it to enter the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. The noisy gathering saw the nationalists, mostly young men, dancing while they chanted “Death to the Arabs” and “May your house burn,” another anti-Arab chant. A couple of far-right members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, made their way through the crowd in a show of support.
The hate messages were condemned by Yair Lapid, the leader of centrist Yesh Atid, the biggest party in the governing coalition that unseated Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister on Sunday.
“It is inconceivable how one can hold the Israeli flag in one hand and shout ‘Death to the Arabs’ at the same time,” he said in a tweet. “This is neither Judaism nor Israelness. …These people are a disgrace to the people of Israel.”
The march was smaller and more peaceful that the one on May 10, when the ultranationalists were diverted from Damascus Gate at the last minute amid clashes with Palestinians that spread to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Hamas, the political and militia force in Gaza that considers itself the protector of Jerusalem and its Muslim holy sites, unleashed volleys of missiles into Israel that night, triggering an 11-day war that killed 263 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military said its aircraft attacked Hamas armed compounds in Gaza City and the southern town of Khan Younis. The BBC reported that no Gazans were injured according to Hamas-affiliated media.
The Israeli fire brigade reported that the incendiary balloons launched from the Palestinian territory caused 20 blazes in open fields in communities near the Gaza border.
The nationalists’ flag march saw pockets of violence. The Times of Israel reported that 27 Palestinians were injured in clashes with police in the streets beyond Damascus Gate, with police firing rubber-tipped bullets at some protesters. Seventeen arrests were made, police said. Some streets were covered with rubble after the clashes, and fires burned in a few roadside trash containers.
Israeli media reported that about 2,000 heavily armed police officers were used to clear and secure the area.
Israel went on high alert on Monday, when Hamas asked Israel to stop the march. “The flags march is like an explosive that will cause a new campaign to protect Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to ignite,” Hamas spokesman Abd al-Latif Qanou said in a statement.
Hamas called on Palestinians to “confront Israeli settlers” if the march were to go ahead. In response, Israel tightened up security measures and put its Iron Dome anti-missile batteries on standby. The Iron Dome destroyed most of the 4,000 missiles launch by Hamas in last month’s war.
Tuesday’s march was supposed to happen last Thursday, during the waning days of Mr. Netanyahu’s premiership. But the police would not authorize the planned route through the Old City’s Damascus Gate and postponed the event.
The march was seen as an early test of Mr. Bennett, a right-wing nationalist who partly earned his credentials by taking a hard-line stance against Palestinians. He opposes Palestinian statehood and supports Israel’s annexation of much of the West Bank.
Cancelling the march risked being interpreted by the nationalists as capitulation to Hamas, which Israel and some other countries, including Canada, deem a terrorist organization. It appears that Mr. Bennett and his security advisers gambled that allowing the march to proceed while preventing it from travelling through the Muslim Quarter would limit any violence and prevent wholesale retaliation from Hamas.
Before the march began, Israel’s Arab leaders pleaded with the new government to cancel the event, for fear it would trigger a deadly crisis on the scale of last month’s war.
Speaking to the media in the late afternoon at Damascus Gate, Ahmad Tibi, the Knesset’s senior Arab lawmaker, called the marchers “crazy people who are celebrating the occupation of the Palestinian people.”
Earlier, Mansour Abbas, leader of the United Arab List, the small Muslim party that joined Mr. Bennett’s governing coalition, allowing it to achieve a razor-thin majority in the Knesset, pleaded for the march to be cancelled. He said the march was “an attempt to set the region on fire for political aims” and urged “maximum restraint.”
Some of Mr. Abbas’s Arab rivals refused to be part of the governing coalition and said it was shameful that he joined a government that endorsed a march that could have triggered widespread violence, even a new war. “Whether they like it or not, they [members of Mr. Abbas’s party] are positioning themselves on the side of the Israeli government,” Arab Knesset member Sami Abu Shehadeh told reporters just before the march.
Hamas has gained in popularity among Palestinians since last month’s war. A new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that three-quarters of Palestinians think Hamas emerged as the victor in the battle to defend Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites.
Polls suggest that Hamas will win the Palestinian elections, which may happen in the late fall or early in 2022, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s ailing Fatah Party.
With a file from Reuters
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