The epicenter of the clashes in Jerusalem’s Old City in recent weeks has been its Damascus Gate. This is a wide plaza surrounded by stairs that regularly attracts large crowds of Muslims – young and old, men and women – during the holy month of Ramadan. They come every night to hear the prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque marking the end of the daily fast.
But this year, due to a decision by the Israel Police to close off the stairs to pedestrians, the plaza became the scene of a battle that included large numbers of police officers, including mounted ones, wielding water cannons to disperse gatherings at the site.
Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai told the media last week that the area around Damascus Gate has been barricaded during Ramadan for many years and the policy wasn't changed this year. But both verbal testimony and video footage from the site show that it wasn’t like this in the past. The plaza was indeed closed in exceptional cases, but not for a few weeks during Ramadan as it was this year.
The site known in Arabic as Bab al-Amud and in Hebrew as Sha’ar Shekhem – Nablus Gate – is especially important to residents of East Jerusalem. Its Hebrew and English names derive from the fact that the road from this gate leads to Nablus, and from there to Damascus. The name Bab al-Amud comes from the tall column (amud, in Arabic) that was erected in the inner courtyard of the gate during the Roman era. Distances from Jerusalem were measured from this pillar via milestones placed along the roads.
When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, buses left from Damascus Gate to take fleeing Palestinian residents to Jordan. Ever since then, the plaza has been the focal point of numerous demonstrations and riots, as well as violence and terror. Even protests and gatherings not related to events in the city, such as shows of solidarity with Negev Bedouin whose lands were expropriated, take place at this site.
Today, this is one of the Old City’s most important and beautiful gates. Most Muslim pilgrims heading to Al-Aqsa from Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods and the West Bank enter through it, which is the historical reason for its importance. But beyond that, Palestinians also see it is as East Jerusalem’s most important city square, from a social and cultural standpoint. Jewish worshippers go to the Western Wall through this gate as well, and a light rail station was built next to it.
Over the last decade, the plaza was renovated several times. It has also become the site of a beefed-up police and army presence, including two concrete observation posts that the police built on either side of the plaza. In 2020, the Jerusalem Municipality erected a memorial plaque there for Border Police officers Hadar Cohen and Hadas Malka who were, respectively, shot and stabbed there by Palestinians in 2016 and 2017.
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Many Palestinians see this plaque, together with the observation posts, as a demonstration of Jewish sovereignty over the site and an attempt to change its Muslim/Palestinian character. That, in their eyes, has increased the importance of the symbolic struggle over its character.
As a result of all this, the steps in the Damascus Gate plaza have become a symbol of Palestinian protest in recent years. “Bab al-Amud has over time become the most significant place, together with Al-Aqsa, for demonstrations and for making the voice of East Jerusalem heard,” said Mohammed Al-Arab, 34, who went to the plaza this week on his way to and from prayers. “In my eyes, it’s like Tahrir Square in Cairo. The entire Palestinian political spectrum meets in this plaza.”
Old City merchants at shops near the gate were divided this week about the demonstrations and the violent incidents that accompanied them recently. Some were in favor of the protests, others opposed them. But all of them primarily blamed the Israeli authorities for the violence and the way they handled the situation. They said the coronavirus crisis has made their lives very difficult in the past year, and they had hoped the month of Ramadan would provide an economic boost thanks to all the people streaming to prayers at Al-Aqsa.
Ahmed Shweiki, 20, who owns a stall near the gate, said that “during the coronavirus crisis, I worked in construction to support my family. I wanted to start at the stall and then these incidents began, which were very hard on all of us. But I understand the demonstrators’ anger and congratulate them on their achievement.
“Over the last three days, I’ve resumed my work at the stall, and I’ve sold more goods than in 2019,” he added. “There’s still another two weeks of the holy month, so we hope now everything will go smoothly and that more people will come to the mosque and the plaza.”
Ali Jaffar, 61, who has sold sweets for years in the Old City, agrees that the situation has been tough, but said the response was predictable: “Recent events were very difficult. Nobody really wanted to hurt Jews or come to demonstrations, but that’s what happens when people come and put restrictions on your most beautiful plaza, where everyone goes. I hope there will be peace there, that we’ll learn to respect the other side more and won’t see any more violence, but will have an economic boom.”
But the activists who demonstrated at the plaza in recent days sounded less conciliatory. Mohammed Abu Hummus, 55, from the Isawiyah neighborhood, was the first to burst into the plaza after police removed the barriers – even though he’s on crutches.
“This wasn’t an organized show of force,” he said. “Jerusalem’s young people understood that if they weren’t united, they’d lose a site they view as strategic, and then the Zionist establishment would have a pretext to take other places and close the markets whenever they please.
“We came as Jerusalemites to protest alongside residents of the Old City. We were violently dispersed for two weeks, but it was worth it. You can see the difference today."
Added Abu Hummus: “The police backed down and Damascus Gate is thriving, with singing, with food and drink. Families have resumed visiting the plaza and enjoying a cup of tea there. And that picture is a victory picture.”
Arij Khatib, a 25-year-old student, using Jerusalem’s Arabic name noted, “Anyone familiar with life in Al-Quds understands very well the significance of the fact that every stone has a story, and the significance of the fact that some things have a value that goes beyond their literal significance. Anyone who lives in Al-Quds knows that the battle [involving the Israeli police] wasn’t over ‘stairs,’ ‘walls’ or ‘home,’ but is an ongoing battle over being here and remaining here. Every stone that returns to us is another step in preserving Al-Quds as the capital of Palestine.”
A former Shin Bet security service official who is familiar with security activities in the vicinity told Haaretz this week that there are numerous behind-the-scenes efforts every year to mediate between East Jerusalem residents and the police during Ramadan. He saw this year’s decision to close off the stairway as going too far and inflaming the atmosphere.
Moreover, no cultural events or entertainment were organized for the young people who gathered at the plaza – something that generally calms tensions there – as in fact happened after the municipality suddenly remembered to allocate money for such activities when the unrest was at its height. Last week, it hastily transferred 189,000 shekels ($58,000) to the Beit David Community Center which serves Palestinian residents, for “a community intervention program that may help reduce tensions and crowds in the area, and direct them to leisure activities suited to Ramadan’s festive character.”
The lack of local cultural activities during the sensitive Ramadan period has stemmed also, in part, from the closure of many local Palestinian cultural institutions over recent years. That situation has an impact on activities throughout the year, including activities for children, cultural performances and soccer games.
With traffic though the Damascus Gate plaza back to normal, cultural activities resuming and the cessation of marches by extreme-right Jewish activists from the Lehava organization, at least for now – things are quite calm at the present time.
But in Jerusalem, everything is temporary. The Am Kalavi organization, which sponsors the annual march of the flags on Jerusalem Day (which commemorates the establishment of Israel's control over the Old City in 1967) – an event that always sparks friction – has already announced its plans to hold an especially large and festive parade on that holiday next Sunday, after last year’s march was canceled due to the coronavirus.
For their part, the merchants at Damascus Gate are worried that the procession will ignite tensions once again, and that if the police allow it to take place, they will again be forced to close their businesses without compensation.
Yanal Jabarin is studying communications and political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A social activist, he was born in Umm al-Fahm and now lives in Jerusalem, where he participates in the Haaretz 21 project to promote voices from Israel’s Arab community.