Thousands of Jewish nationalists, some of them chanting “Death to Arabs” and other racist slogans, paraded on Thursday through the main Palestinian thoroughfare of Jerusalem’s Old City, in an annual display that caused new friction between Jews and Palestinians in the tense city.
The marchers, who were overwhelmingly male Orthodox teens and young men, were celebrating “Jerusalem Day”, which marks Israel’s capture of the Old City 56 years ago.
The Palestinians see the event as a provocation. Two years ago, the parade helped fuel an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Throughout the afternoon, dozens of groups hoisting blue and white Israeli flags streamed through Damascus Gate – the entry to the area’s Muslim Quarter – as they made their way across the Old City to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
The boisterous crowds danced and chanted Jewish religious songs outside Damascus Gate as scores of Israeli police stood guard.
In several cases, groups chanted slogans such as “Death to Arabs”, “Mohammed is Dead” and “May Your Village Burn” as they stared at Palestinian onlookers.
Some of the youths wore clothing identifying themselves as members of Lehava – a far-right Jewish supremacist group that opposes assimilation or romantic relationships between Jews and Palestinians.
Palestinian businesses were either shuttered or empty, and marchers occasionally threw water bottles at nearby journalists, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Police said two people were arrested for throwing objects.
Several lawmakers in Israel’s new far-right governing coalition, including national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, joined the procession.
Under heavy police guard, Mr Ben-Gvir waved to the crowd as he made his way into Damascus Gate and then high-fived security forces inside.
While there were repeated scuffles and confrontations between Jews and Palestinians, the parade appeared to pass without serious violence. By nightfall, the massive crowd had converged in the plaza in front of the Western Wall.
Jerusalem Day is meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, but its annexation of east Jerusalem is not internationally recognised.
The Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
The event has been a source of friction over the years, and more than 2,500 police were deployed for this year’s parade, with hundreds more stationed around the city.
Israel decided to allow the marchers to take the traditional route through Damascus Gate, instead of an alternate path circumventing the Muslim Quarter, despite an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence over the past year and heavy fighting last week between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Ahead of the march, Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group called on Palestinians to oppose the event.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for the Palestinian president in the occupied West Bank, said allowing the march to snake through Palestinian areas of the Old City “will only lead to a rise in tension and could lead to an explosion”.