An estimated 25,000 far-right Israeli ultra-nationalists, some chanting "Death to Arabs", marched through the Muslim quarter of occupied Jerusalem yesterday in a now annual event seen as a major threat to the status quo in the city. The so-called flag march saw some far-right Israelis storm Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – Islam's third holiest site – in violation of the status quo. Jewish prayers are prohibited at the Noble Sanctuary, where some Jews believe the Biblical temple once stood. Over recent years, however, the religious taboo against walking around the "temple mount" has been eroded to the point of being non-existent.
With almost 2,600 Jewish settlers going into Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, yesterday marked a record high. The status quo has maintained relative peace in the Holy City since 1967 when Jordan and Israel agreed that the Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Religious Endowments) would have control over matters inside the sanctuary, while the occupation state would control external security. Non-Muslims are allowed onto the site during visiting hours, but are not allowed to pray there.
However, extremist groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute have challenged the Israeli government's ban on allowing Jews to enter Al-Aqsa. They want to destroy the mosques and build a temple on the ruins. Such groups are funded by tax-exempt Zionist charities in the West as well as members of the Israeli government, although the latter claims that it wants to maintain the status quo at the site.
The threat posed by Israeli extremists has long been the source of violence. In 1990, for example, the Temple Mount Faithful declared the intention lay a cornerstone for the temple in place of the Dome of the Rock. The resultant riots saw 20 Palestinians killed by Israeli police. In 2000, Israeli politician Ariel Sharon entered the holy site accompanied by 1,000 Israeli police while peace talks were being held; this deliberate provocation sparked the Second Intifada.
In what has become an all too familiar scene, Israeli marchers yesterday chanted obscene, racist and provocative slogans. In a new low, marching settlers also mocked Shireen Abu Akleh who was killed by Israeli forces earlier this month.
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Such provocation was denounced by Palestinian leaders. "Israel is irresponsibly and recklessly playing with fire by allowing settlers to desecrate the holy sites" in East Jerusalem, said presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh, according to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency.
Read: Israel court allows settlers to pray out loud in Al-Aqsa
Despite the threat of violence and racist chants, Israeli security forces protected the ultra-nationalists. During yesterday's march, Israeli troops occupied the rooftop of a mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem, and besieged Muslim worshippers inside to enable the settlers to pass unhindered.
Israeli forces also prevented Palestinian journalists and photographers from entering Al-Aqsa Mosque and threatened them with arrest. Although at least 18 Palestinians were arrested, reports suggest that intimidation and violence was overwhelmingly from the mob of illegal settlers.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society confirmed that the settlers attacked an ambulance crew while trying to reach an injured person in Al-Wad neighbourhood. In violation of the status quo, some Jews entered Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and attempted to pray. Palestinian fears that their sovereignty over the sanctuary is being eroded were confirmed.
"The flag march is intended to present Jewish supremacy — to spit at a Palestinian woman, or to shout 'Muhammad is dead' and to raise the Israeli flag," said Haaretz journalist Sheren Falah Saab on Twitter. "All these are new social processes under the auspices of the discourse of incitement and racism that permeate the heart of Israeli society."
Predicting Israel's moral disintegration, Saab continued: "Everyone for whom the State of Israel is important should take care of the developing policy in which one can shout and say 'Muhammad is dead', 'Death to the Arabs', 'May your village be burned' and more under the auspices of the government and the use of state symbols. We see with our own eyes the destruction not only of the image of the state — but of gradual social destruction."