Some 2,000 police officers were deployed Tuesday afternoon to the scene of a nationalist march through Jerusalem by flag-waving participants for an annual event that drew Palestinian warnings of violent protests and posed a first test for the new government.
The parade, which was cut short on its original May 10 date due to rocket fire on Jerusalem from Gaza, was expected to draw some 5,000 participants.
The streets surrounding the Damascus Gate, which the parade passed by, were cleared of people and traffic on Tuesday afternoon. The light rail stop at the gate was also suspended.
Once the march reached the Damascus Gate, clashes broke out between marchers and Arab youths waving Palestinian flags, which were quickly broken up by police forces.
In addition, in East Jerusalem about 20 people were hurt in clashes with the police, most of them sustaining mild injuries. Three people were evacuated to a hospital.
An hour before the march was due to begin, the head of Jerusalem police, Doron Turgeman, visited the scene to verify that the area was "sterile."
The marchers gathered at 5:30pm at the Education Ministry compound in the capital, close to the Old City, an hour before the parade was due to start.
With tensions still high after last month's Gaza conflict, the marchers who normally make their way through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City were this year directed to proceed solely through the Jewish Quarter in an effort to avoid clashes.
The police said the marchers would walk around the ancient walls of the Old City and then enter through the Jaffa Gate, a main thoroughfare for tourists, head toward the Jewish Quarter and on to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
One of the organizers of the parade said Tuesday that the event would follow the route provided by officials. The evet celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the eastern part of the city from Jordan.
"We will march, thousands of us, with flags where we're told. Anywhere we're told not to march - we won't march," Matan Peleg told Army Radio.
Tensions rose ahead of the procession, with Hamas warning that it would launch rockets into Israel if the march went ahead.
But a Palestinian source told Ynet on Tuesday that the terror group that rules Gaza had instructed the Palestinian factions there to refrain from rocket fire and limit their activities to protests on the border, including igniting fires in nearby Israeli fields with the use of incendiary balloons.
Local officials said at least 20 fires broke out in communities bordering Gaza since the morning hours. In addition, an explosive device attached to a balloon exploded mid-air above a kindergarten in Sha'ar HaNegev Regional Council.
The head of Ra'am, the first Arab party to ever formally join an Israeli coalition, categorically condemned the decision to hold the parade.
The march is "an unbridled provocation, the essence of which is shouts of hatred and incitement to violence and an attempt to set the area on fire for political purposes," said Mansour Abbas, adding that Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and the police should have pulled the plug on the event.
Barlev said the event could go ahead on the grounds that in a democracy, citizens have the right to demonstrate.
But Abbas also warned the march was part of a campaign to rip apart the new government through repeated goading.
"There is no doubt that the organizers' goal is to challenge the new government, exhaust it in a series of explosive events in the near future, and take us back to an unnecessary escalation that will endanger human lives," Abbas said.
Extra batteries of the Iron Dome missile defense system were deployed to the south of the country and to other locations following the warning from Hamas that it would launch rockets over the parade
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem prohibited its employees and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday.
"Due to calls for a Jerusalem Flag March in Jerusalem’s Old City, U.S. government employees are prohibited from Jerusalem’s Old City on June 15. U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged to take appropriate steps to increase security awareness," the embassy said in a statement.