Post-Flag Parade Impressions, Jerusalem Day 2016

By Yudith Oppenheimer, Executive Director of Ir Amim
Somewhere between 7:00 and 7:30 PM, quiet prevailed in the Muslim Quarter. The last of the marchers, the flags and the loud voices disappeared down the alleyways leading to the Western Wall, and the Muslim Quarter returned to its residents. Here and there shops opened, families came out of their homes, and even the heat wave broke and a pleasant breeze began to blow as the sun set. All around, colorful lights winked on, lights that were left hanging all day ‘between heaven and earth’ along with the suspense as to whether the signal would be given that evening from Saudi Arabia and the month of Ramadan would start for millions of believers throughout the world. Now all doubt had been removed. The owner of a sweet shop opened his stand and invited passers-by to taste the holiday delicacies. For a moment it was a different Jerusalem. Jews danced and prayed at the Western Wall plaza. Muslims began to prepare for the Tarawih prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque. Passers-by exchanged holiday greetings near a sweet stand. Outside, a handful of activists sat down on the steps in the plaza outside Damascus Gate, which was now quiet and calm after the great commotion, shimmering in the holiday lights, and exchanged their impressions of the day’s events. It was a moment when we understood that we had made something of a difference.
So what did we have this year in the Flag Parade? About six weeks ago, we first contacted the Police and pointed out that there was a good chance that Jerusalem Day would coincide with the start of Ramadan, or at least with peak preparations for Ramadan, and we demanded that the Flag Parade be rerouted out of the Muslim Quarter. It is unthinkable, we said, that at the time of gathering for the Tarawih prayer for the start of Ramadan, the Muslim Quarter will be closed to Muslims and the blatant and vocal Flag Parade will pass through, accompanied – as has frequently been the case – by racist chants, violence and the defacing of Palestinian property. Just a few days before the scheduled parade, a response was received from the Police, which did not accept our demand to keep the parade out of the Muslim Quarter, but did recognize – due to the start of Ramadan – the need to restrict the entry hour of the marchers to the Muslim Quarter, which in previous years had lasted until the late night hours. The Police response was far from satisfactory, and we therefore, petitioned the High Court of Justice. The High Court’s ruling was critical. True, it backed the Police decision to permit the parade to be routed through the Muslim Quarter, and moved up by a mere 15 minutes the time at which the marchers were barred from entry. However – and this is the critical point – the High Court set a strict exit time by which the last of the marchers had to leave the Muslim Quarter. This is something that the Police had previously refrained from doing, quite possibly under pressure from the parade’s organizers. This time limit prevented a prolonged stay of the marchers in the Muslim Quarter, along with their displays of confrontational and outspoken behavior, and in some cases their incitement and violence as well. At the time of the declaration of the start of Ramadan, shortly before the Tarawih prayer, a blessed quiet prevailed in the Muslim Quarter. It seemed to us that the police officers on duty also breathed a sigh of relief.
As in past years, and in cooperation with many volunteers, we documented the Flag Parade this year too. We have not yet had time to gather and view all the footage, and we are not rushing to draw conclusions from partial findings. However, it should be noted that we witnessed racist chants this year too, but saw in the Muslim Quarter more police officers dealing firmly with attempts by marchers to commit harm. Had the parade continued into the night, and a double or triple number of marchers had entered the crowded and narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter and stayed there, the results are likely to have been different.
Though this year appears to have marked some significant changes – the heart nevertheless remains heavy. The Flag Parade itself, with or without its most extreme manifestations, is a grave demonstration of militant nationalism and its passage through the Muslim Quarter – in the very heart of Palestinian life in the city – is both a provocation and a severe disruption of the way of life and daily routine of the residents of East Jerusalem. It does nothing for the good of Jerusalem, and a majority of Jerusalem’s residents, both Palestinians and Israelis, are opposed to it. Until about three years ago, the parade used to pass almost without criticism and entailed a full curfew imposed on Palestinian residents from the afternoon until the late night hours. Since we have put the issue on the public agenda, more and more voices have been heard from within civil society in Jerusalem and other places, religious and non-religious alike, who object to the parade – either by opposing it explicitly or by offering alternative ways to mark Jerusalem Day. We thank the many individuals and organizations that mobilized to assist this important campaign, and all those who fight day after day for Jerusalem as the home of two peoples.