The provocative marking yesterday of Jerusalem Day, when Israel commemorates its capture of the Holy City, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, was always going to bring trouble. It is an annual flashpoint between Arabs and rightwing settlers, who march through East Jerusalem under police protection and into the Muslim quarter of the old city.
But escalating tensions in East Jerusalem in recent weeks over expected Israeli supreme court-ordered evictions of Palestinian families from their homes has added fuel to the fire. The court’s decision was due yesterday but temporarily deferred on Sunday to allay concerns from the US and EU among others.
Close to 300 Palestinians were injured when police stormed the Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, in a bid to ensure that Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall would not face attacks from the compound. The invasion of the shrine has been condemned throughout the Arab world.
Although Israeli intelligence is reported to have advised the police to curtail the settlers’ march, the police agreed it should go ahead. Addressing cabinet, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel “will not allow any extremists to destabilise the calm in Jerusalem. We will enforce law and order decisively and responsibly”.
“We will continue to maintain freedom of worship for all faiths, but we will not allow violent disturbances,” he said, adding: “We emphatically reject the pressures not to build in Jerusalem.”
For Palestinians, who hope to see East Jerusalem as capital of their state, the march and evictions are expressions of the one issue: Israel’s determination to make that aspiration impossible and its related privileging of Jewish land claims in the city. Under Israeli law, Jews who can prove a title from before the 1948 war that accompanied the country’s creation can reclaim their Jerusalem properties, the central issue in the current court case. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs were displaced in the same conflict but no similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes .