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Far-right march tests Israel’s new governing coalition, amid threats from Hamas

Jewish ultranationalists waving Israeli flags participate in the "Flags March" next to Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City, on Tuesday.
Jewish ultranationalists waving Israeli flags participate in the "Flags March" next to Damascus Gate, outside Jerusalem's Old City, on Tuesday.Mahmoud Illean/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Far-right Jewish activists marched through Palestinian areas of Jerusalem on Tuesday evening after receiving permission from Israel’s new coalition government, angering parts of the alliance and prompting threats from the militant group Hamas.

The march is a rescheduled version of an aborted far-right procession originally planned for last month, which the group cited to justify firing rockets toward Jerusalem on May 10, setting off an 11-day air war between Hamas and Israel.

Waving Israeli flags, marchers streamed toward the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. Many were chanting “The nation of Israel is alive.” Some younger boys could be seen shouting threats to Palestinians, including “Death to Arabs!”

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The police were out in force, moving Palestinian residents away from the march except for people who own or work in shops in the area. Several bystanders were detained.

The situation highlighted the frailties of the new coalition, which on Sunday night replaced Israel’s longest-serving leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a confidence vote in Parliament that passed by just one vote, 60 to 59, with one abstention. The bloc is an unwieldy alliance of the hard right, the left, and the center — as well as, for the first time, an independent Arab party, sharing little common ground beyond a desire to keep Netanyahu from returning to power.

For right-wing and many centrist members of the alliance, including Naftali Bennett, the new hard-right prime minister, the march is a matter of national pride: a celebration of their right to walk through areas of Jerusalem captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which Israel now considers part of its undivided capital. Known as a “flags march,” the event happens every year and features thousands of marchers waving Israeli flags, but it was aborted in May because of the rocket fire from Gaza.

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One of the last acts of the Netanyahu government was to reschedule the march for Tuesday. The decision was upheld on his first day in office by Omer Bar-Lev, the new center-left minister for public security — to the praise of his new right-wing allies.

“I congratulate public security minister Omer Bar-Lev for his decision to hold the flag dance tomorrow,” tweeted Nir Orbach, a hard-right member of the coalition who almost dropped out of the alliance before the confidence vote. “The flag dance is part of the culture of religious Zionism and is held regularly. It does not need to be a political dance or proof of governance, it needs to be a display of joy.”

But to Arab and left-wing members of the coalition, it is a provocative gesture. It offends Palestinians, who do not celebrate the capture of East Jerusalem, which is still considered occupied by much of the world, and who hope it will one day form the capital of a Palestinian state. Palestinian families living on the route of the march often board up their homes and shops in anticipation of abuse and violence from the marchers.

Following the decision to allow the march, the main United Nations envoy in the region, Tor Wennesland, warned of rising tensions and asked all sides to “avoid any provocations that could lead to another round of confrontation.”

The US State Department barred its employees from entering the Old City of Jerusalem, where the marchers were scheduled to proceed through Palestinian neighborhoods on their way to the Western Wall, a sacred site in Judaism.

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Inter-communal violence between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem and across Israel formed the backdrop to the recent war, and some fear a resurgence.

Mossi Raz, a lawmaker from Meretz, a left-wing party that controls three ministries in the new government, compared the march to holding a pride parade in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

“If we know it is dangerous, why do we need it?” he said in a radio interview on Tuesday. “They are interested in provocation.”

Mansour Abbas, the leader of Raam, an Arab Islamist party within the coalition, said he had not raised the issue with Bennett, and downplayed the idea of letting it become a wedge between the coalition partners.

“If we quarrel over everything, there is no doubt that this coalition will fall apart,” Abbas said in a radio interview Tuesday. But he nevertheless also called the march a provocation. “I hope it will pass without escalation but Jerusalem is a sensitive city,” he said. “The whole world looks at what is happening there and reacts to it.”

The march already risks another escalation in fighting with Hamas, which threatened a violent response, while nevertheless hinting that it may not resort to something as drastic as rocket fire.

“What is certain is we can’t be silent in the face of the flags march, which is deeply provocative and part of the occupation’s internal politics,” said Mohammad Hamada, a spokesman for the militant group. “If the occupation carries out this arrogance, we have several options in front of us. Armed resistance from Gaza is not the only option. We have the Jerusalem and West Bank fronts, where we can participate in popular resistance. But we also do not rule out armed resistance.”

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On Tuesday, fires broke out in southern Israel, which Israeli firefighters attributed to incendiary balloons released by militants in Gaza.

Gaza has barely begun to recover from last month’s fighting, which killed at least 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, and damaged more than 16,000 homes, 28 medical facilities, and water and sewage works in Gaza, according to the United Nations. Rebuilding has yet to restart in earnest, and Israel and Egypt, which control access to Gaza, are still withholding key financial and material assistance — all factors that some analysts believe will make Hamas wary of provoking Israel into another round of airstrikes.

But others expect that Hamas will want to give an early test to the new government. And having attempted to establish itself as a symbolic standard-bearer for Palestinians in Jerusalem during the conflict in May, Hamas leaders may not want to back down so quickly.

For its part, the new government is under pressure to avoid appearing to capitulate to Hamas.

“Israel cannot be a hostage of a terrorist organization,” Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence, said in a radio interview on Tuesday. “As far as Hamas is concerned, it dictates to Israel what to do in Jerusalem — it must be shown that it did not win here.”

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