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In Jerusalem, eve of Ramadan marked by extremist Israelis' racist taunts

June 6, 2016 5:48 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 14, 2016 6:51 P.M.)
Ultranationalist Israelis gather outside Damascus Gate to commence the flag march in celebration of Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (MaanImages/Yumna Patel)
By: Jaclynn Ashly, Yumna Patel

JERUSALEM (Ma'an) -- In the Muslim quarter of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli army checkpoints, barriers, raids, and the presence of extremist Jewish groups are an almost daily occurrence, the holy month of Ramadan is anticipated as a time of relative calm and respite.

As the month-long Muslim holiday begins, Palestinian residents and Muslim worshipers transform the typically dark, narrow alleyways of the Old City into glittering walkways, adorned with hanging lights, lanterns decorated with Arabic scripture, and filled with the sounds of Ramadan songs as worshipers prepare for the first day of fasting.

However this year, on the eve of Ramadan, the usual sights and sounds of the Old City were put on hold and drowned out by several thousand ultranationalist and religiously conservative Israelis marching through the city shouting anti-Palestinian chants, harassing Palestinian shop owners, and waving Israeli flags, as they flooded the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter on Sunday.

The “flag march,” as it is known, is a central part of Jerusalem Day, celebrated by the ultra-right religious Zionist community to commemorate the 1967 Israeli annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, the same day Palestinians remember the “Naksa,” meaning “setback,” referring to the mass displacement that accompanied the Israeli takeover of the Palestinian territory.

Young Israeli men, elderly, children, and parents fumbling to push their baby strollers on the narrow cobbled alleyways, all took part in the march, as Israeli soldiers barricaded streets leading to the Muslim Quarter, leaving many Palestinians coming home from shopping for the start of Ramadan stranded behind Israeli blockades.

A Palestinian family is held behind an Israeli police barrier in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, as Jewish paraders pass by in celebration of Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (MaanImages/Yumna Patel)

Israeli youth taunted and verbally harassed Palestinians stationed outside their closed shops, with several marchers throwing trash and water bottles at Palestinian pedestrians.

Popular chants heard during the march were centered on the destruction of Palestine. Locals told Ma’an one of the chants heard numerous times alluded to a Hebrew insult, calling on Palestinians to be “erased from the earth and from all of history.”

Other chants heard included “Mohammed is dead,” and “the Temple will be built, the [Al-Aqsa] Mosque will be burned,” -- referring to right-wing Israelis' calls to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque and replace it with a third Jewish temple.

Intermittently, Israeli soldiers stopped the march to allow Palestinians stranded behind barricades to cross to their homes, who were met with Israelis shouting insults and waving Israeli flags at them while they rushed past the screaming marchers with their families.

Most Palestinians during the march closed their shops and stayed inside. However, a few Palestinians came on their balcony to look down on the march, with several shop owners refusing Israeli army requests to shut down their stores.

Palestinian residents in the Muslim quarter of the Old City look down at extremist Jewish Israelis waving flags below in celebration of Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (MaanImages/Yumna Patel)

Middle-aged Israeli men were seen pointing and laughing towards a crowd of Palestinians stuck behind a police barrier, as the Jewish men imitated the Arab “zaghrouta,” or ululation, commonly performed by Arab women at weddings or holidays as a form of celebration.

Ma’an reporters witnessed a group of Jewish boys heckling an elderly Palestinian man standing outside of his shop, which he refused to close for the march, chanting nationalist slogans in Hebrew while they danced in circles in front of the man.

Ali Jiddah, an Afro-Palestinian who lives in a small Old City neighborhood adjoining the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, told Ma’an before the march began that, like every year, “the [marchers] will come down in an arrogant way. They will be shouting, insulting people, even sometimes attacking people. Due to this, most of us will not go outside [during the march].”

For Jiddah, the march reflects the reality of the “racism” and “fascism” which has characterized Israeli policies against Palestinians, adding: “If we want to get rid of these marchers, we must end the Israeli occupation.”

A Palestinian restaurant owner, whose restaurant’s free internet attracts endless groups of hungry tourists, told Ma'an that the parade was much more than just a celebration for the Israeli participants. “The way they dance, they want to show us their muscles,” he said, just as a group of Jewish teenagers passed by, clad in blue and white, singing at the top of their lungs. “They are saying ‘we are not afraid, Jerusalem is for us, not for you.’”

A young Jewish boy sits on top of his father's shoulders as they march with other Israelis in the ultranationalist right wing flag march to celebrate Jerusalem Day on June 5, 2016. (MaanImages/Yumna Patel)

According to the restaurateur, who has held onto his lot just across the Austrian hospice for more than 22 years, in previous years Israeli marchers put small items in the locks of shuttered Palestinian shops in order to jam them and prevent store owners from reopening after the march had passed. Now, he said, “we make sure to cover the locks before we go home.”

As Israeli marchers trickled out of the Muslim Quarter, a crowd of Palestinians and Israeli soldiers began to gather around a young Palestinian boy, whom Israeli forces were attempting to detain for carrying a Palestinian flag. However, an Israeli lawyer who witnessed the situation intervened and convinced Israeli security forces to let him go.

After marchers cleared from the Muslim Quarter to make way for Palestinians getting ready to make their way to Al-Aqsa for Ramadan prayers, remnants of pamphlets of Quranic verses and Muslim prayers were found ripped up on the street amid leftover trash thrown by the Israeli marchers.

Pamphlets of Quranic verses and Muslim prayers ripped up and tossed with trash by Israeli marchers celebrating Jerusalem Day on June 5, 2016. (MaanImages/Yumna Patel)

Earlier in the day, 208 right-wing Israelis entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to mark the start of the march, with Israeli police detaining three of them for violating international agreements prohibiting non-Muslim worship at the site.

Although an urgent petition was submitted to the Israeli High Court to prevent Israeli extremists from marching through the Muslim Quarters of the Old City, it was rejected before the start of the march, paving the way for Israeli settlers to completely shut down the Palestinian neighborhoods.

According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, human rights attorney Itay Mack filed the petition, writing that “this decision [on the route] is extremely unreasonable and seriously impinges on basic rights that have long been recognized by this honorable court, such as the freedom of worship and the movement of worshipers, of residents and merchants within the Muslim Quarter and outside it.”

A similar petition filed last year was rejected, though the court noted that the police must show “zero tolerance” toward racist calls, particularly “Death to Arabs,” which have been increasingly heard in recent years, a warning the court reiterated again in Sunday’s ruling.

Despite the court order, racist chants and verbal harassment remained a central focus for this year’s march participants. However, Ma’an reporters on the scene witnessed Israeli soldiers and march organizers who lined both sides of the street leading from Damascus Gate to the Western Wall preventing several Israelis from physically harassing and assaulting Palestinians standing outside their shops.

Israeli forces were seen removing a red-faced and visibly passionate young Israeli teen from the crowd, and detaining him near one of the police barricades. The boy, crouched down with his Israeli flag between his legs, cried hysterically as Israeli police prevented him from leaving. Locals confirmed that the Israeli youth was removed from the parade for yelling inciteful and racist chants at Palestinian pedestrians.

For the past few years, dozens of cases have been documented every year of teens participating in the march banging on doors and windows in the Muslim Quarter with their flagpoles, cursing Palestinian pedestrians and making racist remarks.

Several Palestinians emphasized to Ma’an during the march that the event was a reflection of the violence and racism that has characterized their everyday lives in occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli settlers have steadily expanded into the Palestinian territory, displacing Palestinians from their homes along the way.

A crowd of Palestinian onlookers gather behind an Israeli police barricade in order to prevent clashes with Jewish extremists celebrating Jerusalem Day, June 5, 2016. (MaanImages/Yumna Patel)
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