JERUSALEM (AP) — A group of Israeli ultra-nationalists said it is determined to go ahead with a flag-waving march around predominantly Palestinian areas of Jerusalem’s Old City later Wednesday, brushing aside a police ban of an event that served as one of the triggers of last year’s Israel-Gaza war.
In a sign of the already heated atmosphere, a small group of Palestinian protesters threw rocks at police while hundreds of Jewish visitors entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
The hilltop shrine in Jerusalem’s Old City is the third holiest in Islam, while for Jews it is their holiest site, where two temples stood in antiquity. It is the emotional ground zero for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a flashpoint for previous rounds of violence.
Amateur video from the scene appeared to show police using sponge-tipped plastic projectiles intended to be non-lethal as the protesters barricaded themselves inside the mosque. Police said a firebomb thrown by one of the protesters set a carpet outside the mosque on fire, but it was quickly extinguished. No injuries were reported.
Israeli police said a large number of officers were deployed around Jerusalem’s historic Old City, home to religious sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims, out of concern that confrontations could further ignite an already tense situation in the city during the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Palestinian militant groups said Tuesday evening that they were “raising the state of general alert” and warned against Israeli radicals holding a flag march in Jerusalem.
“At this stage the police are not approving the protest march under the requested layout,” the police said in a statement, without elaborating. They could not be reached for comment Wednesday on whether the march would be banned altogether, or just on the proposed route past the Damascus Gate.
In a similar situation last May, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets toward Jerusalem as Israeli nationalists holding a flag march were making their way to the Old City. The events set off an 11-day war between Israel and the militant group Hamas that rules Gaza.
Israeli-Palestinian tensions have surged in recent weeks after a series of deadly attacks inside Israel, followed by military operations in the West Bank. On Monday, Palestinian militants fired a rocket from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel for the first time in months, and Israel responded with airstrikes. These followed days of clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem.
Noam Nisan, one of the organizers of the planned march, told Kan public radio that it would proceed as planned on Wednesday. “A Jew with a flag in Jerusalem is not a provocation,” he said.
He said that the demonstration was a response to buses being stoned earlier this week while driving to the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, located in Jerusalem’s Old City.