In tense Jerusalem, flag-waving Israeli march to go ahead

JERUSALEM (AP) — Police on Sunday gave the go-ahead to the annual Jerusalem Day parade, a flag-waving display of Israeli claims to all of the contested city, despite days of unrest and soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions at a flashpoint holy site.

Monday's parade was scheduled to pass through Jerusalem's Old City, part of east Jerusalem, which was captured and annexed by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The march was approved amid ongoing clashes between police and Palestinians in the Old City, the emotional epicenter of the long-running conflict, and in a nearby Arab neighborhood where Jewish settlers are trying to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes.

Before dawn Sunday, thousands of Muslim worshippers skirmished anew with police at the gates of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City. Videos on social media showed Palestinians hurling water bottles and rocks at officers, who fired stun grenades.

Amos Gilad, a former senior defense official, told Army Radio that the Jerusalem Day parade should be canceled or rerouted away from the Old City’s Damascus Gate, saying “the powder keg is burning and can explode at any time.” Israel's public broadcaster Kan said the final route of the parade had not yet been decided.

The site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, is considered the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam. It has been a tinderbox for serious violence in the past.

Dozens of Palestinians were wounded in violent confrontations with police in Jerusalem overnight from Saturday to Sunday, when Muslims marked Laylat al-Qadr, or the “night of destiny,” the holiest period of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

On Friday, more than 200 Palestinians were wounded in clashes at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem. The violence, along with the planned evictions in east Jerusalem, have drawn condemnations from Israel’s Arab allies and expressions of concern from the United States, Europe and the United Nations.

The violence has threatened to spread. Early Sunday, Gaza militants fired a rocket into Israel, prompting an Israeli airstrike on a post belonging to the ruling Hamas militant group in response. Later Sunday, Gazan protesters affiliated with Hamas launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel, setting off dozens of fires that closed roads in the area.

And toward the evening, Israeli police clashed with hundreds Arab students at Israel’s Hebrew University in Jerusalem, using stun grenades to disperse the crowd. Police said protesters threw stones and three officers were wounded, and three people were arrested.

The violence has threatened to spread. Late Sunday, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets into Israel, setting off air raid sirens in the city of Ashkelon, the Israeli military said. Earlier in the day, Israel carried out an airstrike on a post belonging to Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group in response to another rocket attack.

Gazan protesters affiliated with Hamas militant group also launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel during the day, setting off dozens of fires that closed roads in the area.

In Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israeli police clashed with hundreds of Arab students at Israel’s Hebrew University, using stun grenades to disperse the crowd. Police said protesters threw stones and three officers were wounded, and three people were arrested.

Pope Francis said he was following the events in Jerusalem with worry. “I pray that it be a place of encounter and not of clashes, a place of prayer and peace,’’ Francis told the public gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his traditional Sunday noon remarks.

“I invite all to find shared solutions so that the multi-religious and multi-cultural identity of the Holy City is respected,” Francis said. “Violence only generates violence,” he added, calling for an end to the clashes.

Jordan's King Abdullah II, who acts as custodian of Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites, condemned what he called “Israeli violations and escalating practices” and urged Israel to halt its “provocations against Jerusalemites.” The statement issued by the palace said he also called on Israel to halt the planned evictions in east Jerusalem.

In the Jordanian capital of Amman, some 700 protesters marched near Israel's embassy, calling on the government to deport the ambassador and annul a 1994 peace treaty with Israel. Security forces prevented protesters from reaching the embassy, and about 10 protesters were arrested.

Addressing a Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel “will not allow any extremists to destabilize 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.

On Sunday, COGAT, Israel’s defense ministry body controlling crossings with the Gaza Strip, said it had suspended entry of 350 Gaza merchants until further notice because of the upsurge in violence. It also closed Gaza's waters to local fishermen, a common move in times of heightened tensions.

Police spokesman Eli Levi said Sunday that there were no plans to call off the Jerusalem Day parade, despite the rising friction and the potential for violence. He said police were constantly assessing the situation.

Monday afternoon's march marks Israel's capture of east Jerusalem and is typically attended by hardline nationalist Israelis, who wend their way through the Damascus Gate of the Old City and through the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.

The annual event is widely perceived as provocative, and this year's parade comes at a particularly volatile time.

Adding to the tensions has been legal proceedings by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem.

The Supreme Court had been expected to issue a decision Monday — coinciding with Jerusalem Day. But on Sunday, the court, citing the current “circumstances,” postponed the decision and said a new date would be set in the next 30 days.

Palestinians and international rights groups portray the planned evictions as an ongoing campaign by Israel to drive Palestinians from traditionally Arab neighborhoods, especially in the heart of Jerusalem. Israel has cast the Sheikh Jarrah evictions case as a mere real estate dispute.

The neighborhood has been the scene of regular confrontations, particularly during Ramadan, between Palestinian residents and their supporters on one side, and Israeli police and ultra-nationalist Israeli activists on the other.

The flare-up in hostilities comes at a crucial point in Israel’s political crisis after longtime leader Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition. His opponents are now working to build an alternate government. If they succeed, Netanyahu would be pushed to the opposition for the first time in 12 years.

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AP correspondent Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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