Blue and white banners filled Jerusalem yesterday to mark 49 years of Israeli rule in the city. Crowds of settler youth chanted the slogan “the Jewish nation lives” as they marched under the ramparts of Damascus Gate. Many wore stickers supporting rabbi Meir Kahane, a former Knesset member kicked out of the government after calling for violence against Arabs, while others pasted their clothes with decals backing a greater Israel, a Jewish-nationalist movement that seeks to annex the occupied Palestinian territory. Meanwhile, Palestinians were barred from sections of the city and postponed the start of their own festivities for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to avoid conflicts with the settlers.
Typically the parade is accompanied by clashes between Palestinians and police over barricades erected to cordon off a path for the paraders as they weave through Palestinian neighborhoods. The bustling Israeli festivities set against empty Palestinian streets where residents are prevented from roaming freely is always a jarring feature of the event.
“The soldiers and the police came and said by 5 o’clock you should be inside and everyone should close their stores,” said a Palestinian boutique owner, “I told my neighbors it’s better for us. The police don’t provide security for us.”
“The stores are closed, for anyone, even for business with tourists,” said Mohammed who runs a souvenir stall in the Old City and requested his last name not be published.
“It is difficult today, the streets are empty,” said another store owner, Ezz Rajabi, pointing to a keyhole on the front gate of his shop. “They will break the lock,” he said, explaining in years past the paraders graffitied the outside of his store with Jewish stars, and stuffed glue into his locks.
Annually Jerusalem Day is observed on the Jewish calendar. Ramadan follows the lunar phases. The dates of both holidays fluctuate each year, with yesterday’s timing coinciding on the same evening for a first.
In advance of yesterday’s march, the Israeli human rights group Ir Amim filed a petition to prevent national events inside of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The rights organization hoped to avoid confrontations by re-routing the procession.
Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat opposed altering the path. Sunday morning he told Army Radio, “Jerusalem is celebrating, this is an appropriate march,” reported the Jerusalem Post.
Israeli police then announced a compromise: Jewish celebrators would vacate the Palestinian hubs of the Damascus Gate area and the Muslim Quarter by 6:30pm, in order to allow for Muslims greeting the start of Ramadan.
When the Sunday evening expiration time hit, Israeli marchers continued to pour into the Old City under lanterns displayed for the incoming Ramadan holiday.
The parade was sponsored by an Israeli non-governmental organization that received more than half of its funding from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a further grant from a settler groups, according to an investigation by the Israeli daily Haaretz.
“Jerusalem Day is about the freedom of Jerusalem from the war in 1967. We have to celebrate that we can be in the holy city, we can pray at the kotel [Western Wall],” said parader Yisahai, 19, who requested his last name not be published.
“We sing together and we are all together in one group, no difference between one person and another. We celebrate the togetherness,” Yishai said.
For participants, mostly contingents of youth in matching shirts with the name of religious schools printed on the backs, the holiday is seen as a blend of religion and patriotism. Many remember 1967 war in which Israel captured East Jerusalem as the moment in which Jews regained prayer access to the Western Wall, located in the Old City. From 1948 to 1967 Israeli worshippers were prohibited from reaching the sacred site by the former local authorities, the Jordanian government.
For Palestinians Jerusalem Day signifies the beginning of Israeli’s occupation of the eastern part of the city, along with the West Bank and Gaza. The 350,000 East Jerusalem Palestinian inhabitants are not citizens of any country, and hold a resident card. They can vote in Israeli local elections and pay municipal taxes, but cannot cast ballots in national elections.
Across town at a state ceremony in a Jerusalem park, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed Jerusalem the unified capital. He said the city would not be divided through a summit in Paris where world leaders met on Friday to kick-start a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with Israel not invited. The French initiative Netanyahu said, would “only distance peace,” reported the Times of Israel.
“One of the names of Jerusalem is the City of Peace. The State of Israel wants peace. I want peace and I would like to renew the peace process in order to achieve [this],” he said, again from the Times of Israel.
Yet in nearly every direction of the celebrations, as Israelis rejoiced in their city of peace, Palestinians were sealed behind police dividers.
“Damascus Gate is closed,” shouted an officer to a group of Palestinians in a kettle behind a metal fence erected in the afternoon.