As tens of thousands of Jewish Israelis flooded into Jerusalem on Sunday to celebrate the reunification of the city under Israeli rule following the defeat of the Arab armies during the Six-Day War in 1967, hundreds of Palestinians from the Old City and surrounding Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were forced behind barricades to make way for the revelers.
In a contested city that holds great religious and political significance for both Israelis and Palestinians, Jerusalem Day inflames tensions like no other event. This year's celebration marked 48 years since the Israeli victory. Palestinians were forced to close their shops along the main streets running through sections of the Old City's Muslim Quarter, with the shopkeepers looking on from behind metal gates and lines of heavily armed police as Israelis streamed pass waving flags on their on their way to the Western Wall.
Outside Damascus Gate, pro-settlement groups, including many teenagers, taunted Palestinian onlookers by singing nationalist songs and dancing. Small scuffles occasionally broke out at sidelines as the Israeli revelers broke through police lines. Both sides hurled rocks, bottles, and other projectiles. Small groups of Palestinian protesters set off fireworks, shouting "Free Palestine!" and "Allahu Akbar!"
Last Monday, Israel's High Court rejected a petition by two NGOs to change the route of the march, moving it away from the Muslim Quarter. In a statement released Sunday, Tag Meir, an Israeli anti-racism group, said the annual march had become a "focus for extremists," that is full of "racist slurs and insults, destruction of property and physical violence against the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem."
Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said that thousands of police were stationed around the Old City to prevent violent incidents. Two Palestinian protesters were arrested during the event, and at least one security official was taken away for medical treatment after he was hit in the head by a projectile.
Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Bayit Yehudyi (Israeli Home) party, made an appearance at the Western Wall during the festivities. Bennett's pro-settlement religious nationalist party wields significant power after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acceded to many of their demands in last-minute negotiations to form a coalition government that has slid even further to the right of the political spectrum.
"Jerusalem belongs to the Jewish people forever," Bennett said Sunday, according to the Israeli News site Arutz Sheva. "The world cannot divide Jerusalem. Soon, in our days, Jews will be able to enter and pray on the Temple Mount because the Temple Mount is ours."
Though Bayit Yehudyi has four fewer seats in the Israeli parliament than it held after the previous elections in 2013, it now controls the Ministries of Justice, Education, and Agriculture. Every one of the party's eight ministers is essential to maintaining the slim majority of Netanyahu's new government.
The newfound power was not lost on Bayit Yehudi supporters as they marched through the streets during the Jerusalem Day procession. Alan Simanowitz, an American-born Israeli who lives in the settlement of Elazar, just south of Jerusalem, said he voted for Bennett. "I'm very happy with how it turned out," Simanowitz told VICE News. "I believe it's very important for us to hold all of Israel as well as a united Jerusalem."
Most Palestinians living in Jerusalem already view the Israeli government as an occupying power, so the new government's tilt toward the right was largely considered business as usual rather than any additional cause for alarm.
"For us there is no left and no right," Saad Muna, a 40-year old Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and has spent most of his life living in the Old City, told VICE News on the day before the holiday. "Israelis are equal they are all occupiers in the end. I think in the majority opinion of my people we look at the Israelis as Israelis. The left and the right, Meretz and Likud — no matter what group you are, if you are a Zionist you are a criminal."
Sitting in an antique shop owned by his family, Muna dismissed the significance of Jerusalem Day. "The Israelis have a whole year as a holiday," he said. "They have a whole year of people coming to this city and dancing and shouting and yelling and praying. This is something we live daily."
In the last 48 years, Israeli authorities have destroyed 2,000 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and at least 14,000 Palestinians have had their Jerusalem residency revoked,according to figures from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Tens of thousands of Palestinians who hold Jerusalem residency but live elsewhere face difficulties when trying to enter the city to access basic services such as health and education. Palestinian residents also face staggering poverty and rampant discrimination at the hands of Jewish Israelis.
Despite the hardships, Muna intends to stay in Jerusalem. "I worship God by living in Jerusalem, under the situation with this difficulties and this tough life," he said. "I am not here because I'm out of choices. I choose to be here. I have one wish, is to die in the old city of Jerusalem."
Many Jews feel a strong spiritual connection to Jerusalem as well. The holiday has deep religious significance for a people who believe they have emerged from a 2,000-year exile to find themselves finally in possession their most sacred city.
"Jerusalem day is further step closer to a healthy relationship between the Jewish people and their land," Eitan Press, the social community director for the Voice of Israel radio station, told VICE News. An American who became a citizen of Israel in 2010 and has spent most of his time since living in Jerusalem, Press stressed that Jerusalem Day is a "Jewish celebration, not a political celebration."
"Jews coming to celebrate Jerusalem Day [is an] expression of Jewish pride and Jewish identify," Press said. "It just so happens that there was a war fought and that there were people who lost who are still bitter and pissed that they lost."
After marching through the city, thousands of Jewish Israelis gathered in the square in front of the Western Wall, where the Moroccan Quarter — home to around 650 Palestinians — once stood before the entire neighborhood was destroyed in the days following Israel's capture of the eastern half of the city.
"These people they come from all those settlements, from the West Bank and from the north, just to make it harder for us, to make you angry, make you think that you are occupied," Mohamed Sayyad, a Palestinian cab driver told VICE News, gesturing toward the crowd with a lit cigarette. "We live one day after another and I only hope my children don't have to deal with this."
Sayyad paused and smiled before adding, "but at the end of the day, they go home and we stay here."
Follow Daniel Tepper on Twitter: @daniel_tepper
Harriet Salem contributed to this report. Follow her on Twitter: @HarrietSalem