Police barriers at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate plaza were removed on Sunday evening on the orders of the police commissioner, allowing crowds to sit in the area for the first time in two weeks.
The area's closure, which took place during Ramadan, sparked protests by Palestinians angered by the decision to prevent people from gathering in the area, the most popular public area in East Jerusalem during the holiday. Authorities explained the decision as an attempt to regulate the number of pedestrians entering the Old City.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai gave the order to remove the barriers after requests by Islamic religious figures and in coordination with the Jerusalem District police commander Maj. Gen. Doron Turgeman.
Senior police officials were opposed to Shabtai's decision, saying it could be seen as a surrender to violence in the wake of clashes. Associates of Shabtai rejected the criticism, saying that the barriers may be put back in place if there are further disturbances. Earlier on Sunday, Turgeman said he did not plan to remove the barricades, despite requests from representatives of East Jerusalem's residents.
As has been the case every day recently, police deployed in large numbers in the area on Sunday evening, but there were no disturbances. Mohammed Abu Humus, an East Jerusalem resident who was among the first in the crowd to enter the plaza upon its reopening, said: "This is a victory. The Jerusalemites succeeded. The government is always coming down on us with new laws, but we took to the streets and pulled it off, and now we are celebrating."
Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said after news of the gate's reopening that "[h]e who runs away from terrorism will be chased by terrorism. These are the rules of the game in the Middle East," adding that authorties should not "destroy Israel's sterrence and sending a message of weakness to our enemies around us." Smotrich's party colleague, lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, said that "Israel's government has surrendered to rioters" and warned that "this capitulation will yet cost us much blood."
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List alliance of majority Arab parties, meanwhile said: "This is not the first time that the police and government have acted violently, then try to paper over it and are ultimately caught lying. It's good that they removed the barriers at Damascus Gate, which did nothing but sow violence and hatred. The price was paid by the residents of East Jerusalem, who will continue to struggle against the occupation policy's oppression and discrimination."
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On Saturday, Shabtai told reporters asking why the steps near the gate had been closed off that "the status quo forbidding people from sitting in the area around the Damascus Gate has existed for over a decade."
Yet investigations by Haaretz contradict this statement. Testimonies from Old City residents, Israeli activists and photos from the last decade show that the stairs leading to the main square have never been blocked off with barricades, as they have been this year.
The area surrounding the Damascus Gate is one of the main social gathering places for the Palestinian public during Ramadan. In all the photographs located by Haaretz that depict the area during Ramadan in recent years, hundreds of people can be seen gathering there.
However, in times of high tension, and occasionally during Ramadan, the police have been known to forcefully disperse groups of Palestinians and prevent loitering in the area for short periods of time. None of the people Haaretz spoke with could recall a time when the stairs were closed off for the entire month of Ramadan.
In 2016, during a wave of stabbing attacks in the area of the Damascus Gate, Israel closed off the stairs for a number of weeks, but it was not during the month of Ramadan.
Last week, clashes broke out after young Palestinian men tried to breach the barriers. The clashes involved dozens of police officers and residents, who hurled stones and bottles at the police. Twenty Palestinians and a few officers were slightly hurt during the confrontations.
Since then, violence in Jerusalem between its Jewish and Arab residents has been on the rise, with several incidents causing tensions to escalate. A number of young Palestinians posted videos on social media of attacks on Jews, while in central Jerusalem young right-wing Jews marched and assaulted Palestinians. Last week, dozens of Palestinians were wounded and dozens of people, both right-wing Israelis and Palestinians, were arrested as the far-right, anti-Arab group Lehava held a march in the city. Palestinian groups in Gaza that took credit for the firing of rockets on Friday said the action was in response to events in Jerusalem. Several attacks on Jews in Jerusalem were reported on Friday, ranging from firebombs and beatings.