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Police on Thursday night took unexpectedly severe measures to shut down a far-right Israeli demonstration in Jerusalem, which many feared could escalate the conflict with Hamas and spread it beyond Gaza.
Seemingly at the last minute, police stopped hundreds of marchers entering Damascus Gate – the main entrance to the city’s Muslim Quarter – amid warnings from Israelis and Palestinians that anger could push Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank into chaos.
The original approved route would have led the group of mostly young Israeli men past Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam and one of the most bitter points of contention in the decades-long conflict.
Organisers billed the march as a call to restore full Jewish control over Al Aqsa Mosque compound and Jerusalem.
Israeli activist and Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to allow the march to go ahead was “outrageously irresponsible” and described the event as “pyromania”.
“If there is any provocation more dangerous, more incendiary and more likely to trigger an eruption of violence in East Jerusalem and/or the West Bank and/or the Lebanese border, I can't think of one,” he wrote in a tweet before the event.
Mr Netanyahu formed the most right-wing government in Israeli history at the start of the year. It has a number of ministers closely linked to far-right activism of the kind on display on Thursday night.
People at the march held signs with slogans such as “a bullet to the head for every terrorist” and chanted “eliminate the Waqf,” referring to the Jordanian organisation that oversees Al Aqsa.
Joseph Kahn, 29, said he joined the march to “show support for the cause" of taking over the site, which is also of religious significance to Jews.
“This march gives our movement power and attention in the media,” Mr Kahn said.
Jerusalem, particularly the Old City which is home to Al Aqsa Mosque, has been under intense strain since October 7 when Hamas rampaged through southern Israel, killing about 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostage.
Much of the Old City relies on tourism and pilgrimage for its income, both of which have been severely limited by international reluctance to travel after October 7 and Israeli controls on who can access the area and pray at Al Aqsa.