Laylat al-Qadr is the holiest night during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Generally it falls on the 27th of the month. But no one can know for sure in advance when it will take place; it is identified by religious leaders using various signs. One of the signs of the night is a good smell in the air.
But on Sunday and throughout almost the entire past month, there was an entirely different smell in the air around Jerusalem’s Old City: the smell of skunk. The skunk spray is an awful Israeli nonlethal weapon, which is employed to disperse crowds. If you haven’t smelled it, you can’t imagine it. It’s a nauseating mixture that smells like public toilets, sewage and decay that can set off one’s gag reflex. This stench was fired Sunday by police water cannons in all directions at groups of Palestinians, some of whom might have thrown water bottles at policemen. It was also sprayed for no particular reason across the square facing the Damascus Gate.
The smell gets carried quite far and could be felt deep in the alleys of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. For the tens of thousands of men women and children who live there, the smell was a cruel disruption of the joyful and holy evening; one cannot eat or drink when this smell is in the air; one can barely speak or breathe. The vast majority of them, of course, were not involved in the violent clashes with police.
It is easy to point out the police mistakes, from placing checkpoints at the Damascus Gate at the beginning of Ramadan to the strange decision to stop worshippers’ buses on Route 1 on Saturday. That decision not only expanded the boundaries of violence to the main entrance to Jerusalem, far beyond the Old City, but also fueled feelings of anger and humiliation. It is more difficult to advise the police on how to act when faced with a celebrating, riled up and occasionally violent Palestinian crowd.
It’s important to recall that united Jerusalem is an abnormal place. Its Palestinian residents, who make up around 40 percent of the city’s population, are not citizens of any country. They live under an undemocratic regime that most of them consider foreign and oppressive. Of course, the police are not responsible for this situation and cannot resolve it. But they must find a way to manage the city to reduce the tensions and prevent violence.
To do so, the police must act to reduce friction with the Palestinian residents and allow them to celebrate their holidays and rituals with as little interference as possible. In the majority of cases in recent weeks the target of the violent outbursts were the police themselves – not Jewish worshippers, not the roads, not the settler homes or government buildings. Ramadan is not the time for demonstrating sovereignty and aggression. Everyone knows that Israel captured and united Jerusalem, there’s no need for dozens of armed border policemen at Damascus Gate to prove it.
The policemen must be instructed to ignore provocations to the highest possible degree. Not every bottle thrown or curse uttered must lead to the forced dispersal of thousands of people who were not involved. The most dangerous stage in the clashes is the wild flight of the mounted police, the water cannons and the stun grenades. There are always families with little children around, and this police conduct endangers them. Contrary to the empty words of right-wing politicians, the honor of the state and the police are not undercut if policemen decide not to respond to provocations, on the contrary. Using exaggerated force demonstrates weakness and a lack of control, not strength.
It should be noted that on Saturday there were many instances in which police showed tolerance in the face of provocations. On the other hand, just before midnight, while thousands of worshipers were making their way from the Temple Mount along Hagai Street, the main road through the Muslim Quarter, a young policeman decided that the music coming from a nearby stall was not to his liking. “If you put that song on one more time, I will smash your stall,” he yelled at the young proprietor. People at the scene started to get angry, and without the intervention of some older Palestinians it could have ended in a violent, totally superfluous confrontation.
The police also must avoid the use of measures that constitute collective punishment. Would it really be less effective if the skunk spray were replaced with regular water, as was used against the demonstrators at Balfour Street? It would simply reduce the animosity of tens of thousands of people. The same is true of the overuse of stun grenades.
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Recent events reminded Carmi Gillon, the former Shin Bet director, of the disappearance of the Committee for Jerusalem’s Security, which was set up by then-Mayor Teddy Kollek shortly after the city’s reunification. The committee was chaired by the police minister and members included the Jerusalem police commander, the Shin Bet director, representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the municipality, and others. The committee would meet once a month to discuss upcoming events in the city. It discussed everything – mass events, holidays, demonstrations, sensitive issues like allowing Jews to ascend the Temple Mount and more.
Unlike the police, who focus on the operational aspects, the committee’s outlook was broader and took diplomatic, security and civilian factors into account before instructing the police how to act. No one knows when this committee disbanded, but Ami Ayalon, who replaced Gillon in 1996, has no recollection of it. Perhaps coincidentally, that was the year of the Western Wall tunnels crisis, a gross miscalculation by Netanyahu during his first term as premier. It was an error that cost 117 lives.
In the absence of the Committee for Jerusalem’s Security, in the absence of a functioning government, and in the absence of a responsible person serving as public security minister, here is some other advice for the police: Try to get into the skin of your Palestinians subjects. Try to see the abusive, aggressive and controlling reality through their eyes. Try to think of the dreams and hopes that they had for Ramadan and think of how they’ve been shattered. In the end, it’s not so complicated. We are all human beings.