A week after the police barricades were removed from Damascus Gate, and after days of relatively few confrontations between Palestinians and police, the tensions in East Jerusalem are escalating again. The direct cause this time is the fear that Jewish settlers will move into homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, after several Palestinian families are facing eviction suffered legal defeats recently.
A large demonstration was held overnight Monday in Sheikh Jarrah. Ten people were injured after clashes erupted with the police, according to the Palestinians. The police said two people were arrested for hurling rocks and assaulting police officers.
The police said in a statement that clashes broke out in Sheikh Jarrah after "dozens of demonstrators blocked roads and hurled rocks and bottles at police forces."
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"After the police said the demonstrations was illegal and protesters had been given a reasonable time period to leave the area, police forces had no choice but to respond with riot dispersal means," police said.
"Israel Police will continue allowing the right to protest as long as it is implemented in accordance with the law, but we will not allow this to become a show of violence against police forces and the public," the statement added.
The discussions on social media and on the street are lively, and over the past two days the police forcibly dispersed two Palestinian demonstrations in the neighborhood and arrested a few protesters. On Monday night, a Jewish resident was hit in the head by a stone and needed medical attention.
But this isn’t the only source of tension that could rekindle the friction in the capital. Several events – some that have already happened and some that will be marked in the coming days, are increasing the strain. Tuesday marks the start of the final 10 days of Ramadan, always a tense period in Jerusalem.
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As a precautionary measure, police told Jewish Temple Mount activists that the compound would be closed to Jews for those 10 days – with the exception of Jerusalem Day, which begins at sunset Sunday and ends at sunset Monday. Tensions are always high on this Israeli holiday celebrating the reunification of the city and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War. Particularly problematic is the Flag March, when thousands of young Israeli Jews, most of them religiously observant and many of them from right-wing organizations, march through the Old City, including the Muslim Quarter.
Next week, meanwhile, Muslims celebrate Laylat al-Qadr – the Night of Destiny – when, according to Muslim tradition, God sent the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed and revealed the first verses of the Koran. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims gather on the Temple Mount to pray.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ postponement of the Palestinian legislative election scheduled for May 22 is adding to the stress.
The first half of the holy month of Ramadan was marked by the Israeli police closure of the steps outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate, where hundreds of Palestinians usually gather during the nights of Ramadan. The move, which was explained as being needed to regulate pedestrian traffic to the Old City, provoked anger in East Jerusalem, and many attributed the recent clashes in the area to this decision. There were also several assaults on Jews by Palestinians and by Jews against Palestinians, with the tensions peaking during a demonstration by the far-right organization Lehava.
Last week, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai ordered the checkpoints removed and the stairs opened, which was considered a victory for the Palestinians in Jerusalem. The joy at the victory and the flying of Palestinian flags at the site led to continued friction with police, but in recent days there has been mainly popular Ramadan celebrations. The city of Jerusalem also began staging cultural events at the site in an effort to calm things down.
Alongside the celebrations, however, there have been calls to expand the popular struggle, and exploit the momentum from the victory against the checkpoints to protest other issues on the agenda of East Jerusalem’s residents, like home demolitions and evictions in favor of settlers.
Similar calls were made in 2017, after clashes over the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the Temple Mount prompted their removal. Those efforts failed, however; the protests did not extend beyond the Old City and the demand to preserve the status quo in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
These past few days, though, it seemed from the protests in Sheikh Jarrah that the current effort is a bit more successful. On Saturday the demonstrations against the planned evictions drew protesters from Umm al-Fahm and other predominantly Muslim Israeli cities. On Monday, hundreds of Muslims heeded calls to protest in Sheikh Jarrah after the Ramadan prayer at Al-Aqsa.
On Monday there was also a Supreme Court hearing to request the right to appeal the evictions, submitted by four families from Sheikh Jarrah. Justice Daphne Barak-Erez pressured the parties to reach an agreement similar to an agreement reached between residents and right-wing organizations in the 1980s. The agreement then included Palestinian recognition of Jewish ownership of the homes, in return for recognition of the Palestinian residents as protected tenants who could not be evicted until they died.
The current arrangement under discussion was expected to include similar components, and would have delayed the evictions but strengthened the Jewish position in the neighborhood in the long term. Barak-Erez told the parties to try to come to an agreement by Thursday, but discussions by the lawyers for the two sides made no progress and there apparently will be no agreement. On Thursday, therefore, Barak-Erez will decide whether to allow the Palestinian families to appeal the decision by the district court to evict them.