Jerusalem is bracing for a controversial “flag march” by Israelis on Sunday that has sparked warnings of a new escalation from Palestinian factions.
The “March of the Flags” threatens to exacerbate weeks of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and comes as Israel marks “Jerusalem Day”, commemorating the city’s unification following the capture of east Jerusalem in 1967.
Some 3,000 policemen are to be deployed ahead of the march, due to begin at 4pm (1300 GMT).
Clashes surrounding the Jewish calendar date for Jerusalem Day last year led to an 11-day conflict after Hamas fired rockets at Israel, prompting Israel to launch strikes in response. The war cost the lives of 260 Palestinians, including 66 children, while 14 people were killed in Israel, including one child.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the blockaded Gaza Strip, warned last week against the march passing through the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, saying it would use “all possibilities” to confront them.
Israeli marchers are expected to enter the Old City via Damascus Gate, heavily used by Palestinians, before making their way to the Western Wall.
But Israeli authorities have not approved requests to enter the flashpoint Al-Aqsa compound.
The path of the march has never included Al-Aqsa.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is Islam’s third-holiest site, which is also the most holy site for Jews, who call it the Temple Mount. By long-held convention, Jews are allowed to enter the compound but not to pray there.
On the eve of the march, Hamas called on Palestinians to gather at Al-Aqsa to “thwart the occupation’s Judaisation schemes”.
“We will not hesitate to use all means to stop the incursion of our holy places, and Israel will pay a big price,” Ghazi Hamad, a member of the Islamist group’s political bureau, told AFP.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has nonetheless confirmed the march would “take place according to the planned route, as it has for decades”.
The march has been described by leading Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot as a “personal test” for Bennett, marking a departure in strategy compared with that of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu.
Whereas Netanyahu chose a “noisy policy of capitulation” that ended with Hamas firing rockets at Israel, Bennett was adopting a “calm and calculated policy”, the daily said.
According to security analyst Shlomo Mofaz, Bennett was betting on the likelihood that “Hamas does not have any interest in another war”.
“The main policy of Hamas today is to encourage people inside Israel (to attack), while they continue to reconstruct the Gaza Strip,” added the former intelligence officer.
But there is another factor at play – Iran, the Jewish state’s arch-nemesis and a supporter of armed factions in Gaza.
According to the New York Times, Israel has informed the United States that it was responsible for an attack in which Iranian Revolutionary Guards colonel Sayyad Khodai was gunned down in Tehran last week.
As a result, Mofaz said, Iran may “encourage” Palestinian armed factions to launch rockets at Israel.
The United Nations envoy for Middle East peace, Tor Wennesland, on Friday appealed to “all sides to exercise maximum restraint… to avoid another violent conflict that will only claim more lives”.
“The message of the international community is clear; to avoid such an escalation,” he said.