The ruling Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday called on Palestinians to confront a flag-waving parade planned by Jewish nationalists through the main Palestinian thoroughfare in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The comments by Hamas added to the already heightened tensions ahead of Thursday’s march and threatened to reignite fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, just days after a cease-fire took hold. Two years ago, an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas erupted during the annual march.
While Hamas stayed out of the latest round of fighting, officials with the ruling Islamic militant group urged Palestinians to oppose Thursday’s parade.
"We ask the people of Jerusalem to mobilize the masses to confront the march of the flags in Jerusalem tomorrow," said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas official in Gaza.
Hamas also urged Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and inside Israel to "clash with the occupation" and said it would hold a demonstration with Palestinian flags along Gaza’s heavily fortified frontier with Israel.
The parade is meant to mark "Jerusalem Day," Israel's annual celebration of its capture of east Jerusalem, including the Old City and its holy sites, in the 1967 Mideast war.
Israel considers the entire city to be its eternal capital. But the international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem, and the Palestinians claim the area as the capital of a future state.
In a speech marking Jerusalem Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has broken "new horizons" since capturing east Jerusalem.
"We are committed to safeguarding the security of Jerusalem, to ensuring its prosperity and to continuing its momentum," he said. "We are also doing this against all of the threats around us."
Each year, thousands of Israeli nationalists participate in the march, waving blue and white Israeli flags and singing songs as they walk through the Muslim Quarter and toward the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Israelis describe the parade as a festive event. But in past years, it has been marred by anti-Arab racist chants and violence toward local Palestinians by some of the marchers.
Adding to the combustible atmosphere, large numbers of Jews are expected to visit Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site early Thursday before the parade.
The hilltop compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, home to the biblical Jewish Temples, and is the holiest site in Judaism. Palestinians call it the Noble Sanctuary, and today it is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.
Under longstanding agreements, Jews are permitted to visit the compound but not pray there. But an increase in such visits in recent years, along with scenes of some Jews quietly praying, have raised concerns among Palestinians that Israel is trying to alter the status quo — a charge Israel denies.
The competing claims to the site lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and often spill over into violence.
Chief Supt Yoram Segal, a senior police official in Jerusalem, said police would deploy some 2,500 officers on Thursday to ensure the day passes without violence.
"We are going to deal harshly with anyone who tries to disturb the peace," he told reporters.
The march comes less than a week after Israel and the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza reached a cease-fire that ended five days of heavy fighting.
Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza responsible for the plight of the territory’s 2.3 million people, stayed out of the fighting, while Israel avoided attacking the militant group.
Reham Owda, an independent Gaza-based analyst, said that neither side appears interested in resuming cross-border violence.
"No one is interested in fierce escalation," she said, but she said the parade could trigger "limited, symbolic" firing of rockets that could in turn spark Israeli airstrikes in retaliation.
If violence erupts in Jerusalem, Hamas could jump into the fray, as it did two years ago.
"The resistance is ready to protect Al-Aqsa Mosque and prevent the Judaization of Jerusalem," al-Masri said.