Tens of thousands of flag-waving Israelis on Sunday marched in celebration of Jerusalem Day when Israel captured the Arab eastern sector of the city 45 years ago during the Six-Day War.
The annual flag march, which tends to draw thousands of religious Zionist nationalists, started near the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with demonstrators expected to march around the outskirts of the Old City before ending at the Western Wall.
The parade is the high point of Jerusalem Day which marks the “reunification” of the city which took place after Israel occupied the eastern sector during the 1967 war in a move never recognised by the international community.
For Israelis, Jerusalem is their “eternal and undivided capital,” but Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.
Security was tight throughout the city, with more than 25,000 people expected to join the parade and thousands of police on duty to secure it, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Ahead of the march, people gathered at various points throughout the city, with thousands of young men and boys singing and dancing energetically outside the Great Synagogue, many wearing blue and white T-shirts reading: “Jerusalem Forever.”
Police were on high alert along the Old City walls, where Palestinians near the Damascus Gate were calling “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) as groups of Jews approached.
Other marchers gathered outside the Old City at Jaffa Gate, dancing in circles to the rhythmic thud of bongo drums.
Just inside the gate, many Palestinian shopkeepers could be seen shutting up for the day, fearing the march could get out of hand.
“They mean to upset us but what can they do? We’re here to stay,” one shopkeeper told AFP. “But we’re closing down like everyone is because you never know what can happen.”
Last year’s march began in the flashpoint east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where demonstrators chanting racists anti-Arab slogans clashed with angry locals.
Near Damascus Gate in east Jerusalem, around 100 flag-waving Israeli youngsters traded insults with a group of some 70 Palestinians, with both sides pushing and shoving until police intervened and broke up the crowd, arresting three Palestinians.
They also arrested another two people attending “an anti-Jerusalem Day rally” arranged by Arab Israelis in the city centre, Rosenfeld said, indicating that police had broken up the demonstration as it did not have a permit.
The festivities were roundly condemned by the Palestinians, with negotiator Saeb Erakat slamming the Israeli government for “allowing thousands of extremists and zealots to march through the occupied city and threaten Palestinian civilians.”
“We hold the Israeli government responsible for its reckless endorsement of these provocative acts, which inflame religious passions and further obstruct the international community’s efforts at reaching a negotiated settlement to the conflict,” he said in a statement.
But Netanyahu vowed that Israel would never again divide Jerusalem at a formal ceremony on Ammunition Hill in east Jerusalem, a former Jordanian military post that saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.
“Israel without Jerusalem is like a body without a heart,” he said.
“On this hill, 45 years ago, the unified heart of our people began beating again with all its force. And our heart will never be divided again.”
Netanyahu also said that relinquishing control over the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of east Jerusalem, referred to by Jews as the Temple Mount, would spark “a religious and sectarian war.”
“Sustainable peace is done with a strong nation, and Israel without a unified Jerusalem would be like a body with a weak heart. A nation that is willing to sacrifice its heart would only convince its enemies that it has no will-power to fight for anything,” he said.
Figures released by the Central Bureau of Statistics show Jerusalem has a population of 801,000, including 497,000 Jews (62 percent), 281,l000 Muslims (35 percent) and 14,000 Christians (two percent).