The virus blockade forces Iran to enter its first virtual day of Quds


For the past four decades, on the last Friday of Ramadan, supporters of the Iranian government marched to denounce Israel. They burn the flag of Israel. They scoff at the effigies of Israel's leaders and their patron, the United States. They sing promises to liberate Jerusalem, or Quds, as the city is known in Arabic.

But the coronavirus pandemic forced Iran to cancel its annual Quds Day parade on Friday. Instead, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a televised speech, rhetorically compensating for the silence on the streets.

Khamenei, reading a prepared script, compared Israel to a "cancerous tumor in the region,quot; that must be removed and to the coronavirus as "a reality that all sages consider fighting obligatory."

Officials in Israel, the United States and the European Union condemned the comments as anti-Semitic and cause for concern.

"The State of Israel faces great challenges in a variety of arenas," Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz posted on Facebook. "Khamenei's statement that Israel is,quot; cancerous growth "demonstrates this better than anything."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that the comments were "disgusting and hateful antisemitic comments"That did not represent the general view of the Iranians. Pompeo also harshly criticized a cartoon from Mr. Khamenei's office circulating on social media, saying that the leader was "Echoing Hitler's call for genocide."

The cartoon depicted Jerusalem with the flags of Iran and the Palestinian state waving over the golden dome of the rock, a religious site revered in Islam, and invoking the phrase "final solution,quot; that is associated with the Nazi campaign to eradicate the Jews.

Josep Borrell, head of foreign policy for the European Union, called Mr. Khamenei's comments "totally unacceptable,quot; and said that "they represent a deep source of concern."

Khamenei denied that Iran's position towards Israel was anti-Semitic.

Since its inception in 1979, the state policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been to dispute Israel's right to exist as an independent nation. It has financed, armed and cultivated close ties with Palestinian armed groups of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its former leader, Yasir Arafat, who died in 2004, with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its leaders.

In his speech on Friday, Khamenei openly acknowledged, apparently for the first time, that Iran supported Palestinian armed groups fighting against the Jewish state.

A common thread in Friday's speeches, from Iran to Lebanon and Gaza, highlighted the importance of the most senior Iranian general, Major General Qassim Suleimani, in the regional battle to defeat Israel. General Suleimani was a commander of the Quds Force until he died in a US airstrike in Baghdad in January.

The general's official Twitter account released a video of Ziyad al-Nakhalah, the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in which he revealed that General Suleimani personally organized and supervised the delivery of weapons to the Gaza Strip. He said that the general had traveled to various countries to secure weapons for delivery to the Palestinians.

Iran also hosted an online Quds Day event through a website where participants waved Palestine flags, held photos of General Suleimani, and donned kaffiyehs, the checkered scarf that is the hallmark of Palestinian fighters.

Although attacking Israel is a state policy in Iran, many ordinary Iranians do not participate in the annual Quds rally and reject the government's call to eradicate Israel from the region. On some occasions, through art and music, Iranians and Israelis have shared messages of tolerance and peace among themselves.

Israeli pop diva Rita, for example, is popular and admired in Iran, especially after she released an album singing old Persian songs in Farsi.

Quds Day fell this year on the same calendar day as the birth in 1997 of Iran's reform movement known for its date, "Dovom Khordad,quot;.

Mehrnoosh Dozham, a PhD student in Persian literature, tweeted that for some Iranians, Friday was Quds Day and for others, Reformers' Day. "But for me, today it symbolizes the failure of all the rhetoric of the Islamic Republic."

David M. Halbfinger contributed reporting.