Analysis |

The Violence in Jerusalem Started With Children. Then the Sirens Began to Wail

At some points during the long and tense Jerusalem Day on Monday, it seemed that the Israel-Palestine conflict is now being fought by teenagers, on both sides of the divided city

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Young Jewish demonstrators during the Jerusalem Day parade in Jerusalem yesterday.
Young Jewish demonstrators during the Jerusalem Day parade in Jerusalem yesterday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The day commemorating Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and the flag march at its center were the focus of tension and media attention on Monday, but few reported that nearly all those participating in the day’s events were teenagers. Particularly those from religious Zionist schools, who all traveled to Jerusalem that day for festive prayers at the Western Wall, guided tours and the march.

Shimmy and Yonatan, two giggling 16-year-olds from a yeshiva high school in the West Bank, emerged just before noon from Damascus Gate, blinking in the blinding sun. They had arrived late for prayers there, and meanwhile their classmates had gone off on a tour. Just like normal teenagers who missed the bus, they were looking for something to do in the city when they realized they had ended up at one of the main flash points of the Ramadan clashes in Jerusalem.

Not that anyone was causing much havoc at that hour. Three hours had passed since the police had burst into Al Aqsa mosque, 10 minutes away by foot, and the wounded already had been evacuated. Most of the Palestinian youngsters involved had gone home to sleep away the fast until evening. There were still a few youngsters of similar age lounging in the meager shade on the steps leading to the gate, the same steps which the police had fenced off at the beginning of Ramadan, leading to a month of confrontations.

The Palestinian youths caught sight of the two yeshiva boys and began taunting them with derogatory terms for gay men and other similar slurs to their manhood. Shimmy and Yonatan straightened their backs. They weren’t in any danger. The Palestinian kids showed no inclination of leaving the shade, and there were dozens of Border Police officers around the square anyway. But suddenly they were no longer absconding schoolchildren but proud patriots.

“That’s what happens when our whole attitude is apologizing,” said Shimmy, pointing at the police barricaded in their position with riot gear. “Such weakness, such limpness. Instead of standing up for the security of Am Yisrael,” he sniffed as another Palestinian kid who couldn’t be older than seven passed by on a scooter shouting “Go fuck yourself” at them.

“If only the hands of our soldiers weren’t tied by the media and the courts,” said Yonatan. “It’s as if this isn’t our Jerusalem.”

“They want to show us that this place belongs to Jews. Not to everyone,” said Abed, a 17-year-old from Silwan who said he dropped out of school last year and has no plan to go back. “I work some days and the rest of the time I’m here, going back and forth to Al Aqsa. I’m not particularly religious, but Al Aqsa is more than religion; it’s the heart of our identity.”

“These steps mean everything to us,” said one of his friends. “It’s also the place where we all hung out and had our first cigarettes, and it’s the way to Al Aqsa. There’s no way we were going to let anyone put fences here.”

The scene in Jerusalem earlier yesterday, prior to the sirens sounding.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

‘Younger than in previous clashes’

“The kids who are taking part in the last confrontations with the police are younger than in previous clashes,” says Jawad Siam, a local community organizer. “It’s much more like back in the first intifada [from the late 1980s]. Another difference is that many more of them join in. Not all teenagers are going to go up and fight with the police, but those who don’t, or whose parents won’t let them, now join in through social media.”

One of those is George, a 16-year-old from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, who lives down the street from the 13 Palestinian families that are currently facing eviction. He spends his time out of school posting TikTok videos of angry interactions between protesters, police and Jewish settlers, and claims to have gotten the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah trending.

It’s not only supporters of the Palestinian cause who have been checking out his account @localmaskdude but also Israeli teenagers from Jerusalem with whom he’s interacting.

Young Jews marching on Jerusalem Day yesterday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Most of them argue with me and say there’s no such thing as Palestine,” he says. “Someone answered that he hopes my family is slaughtered and that my eyes are gouged out. It’s strange because they’re kids on TikTok like me and I think that if we just met in real life we wouldn’t be that different. But they’ve been brainwashed to hate me.”

The young activists don’t seem very excited when Knesset members, first from the Joint List and later, from the other end of the political spectrum, Religious Zionism, come to Sheikh Jarrah to make media statements.

One activist who came from Umm al-Fahm to show solidarity says, “I spit on all of them. They’re all playing in the political game.”

On the Jewish side, it doesn’t seem that different. Most of the kids speak derisively of adult politicians, with the exception of Otzma Yehudit lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Meir Kahane disciple who always seems to have a retinue of teenagers in his wake. Some of them would make a reappearance later in the afternoon at the flag march, waving the black and yellow flags of the fascist anti-Arab Lehava movement.

An Arab youngster and police officer at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And then the rockets came

An hour before the march was set to begin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered police to change the route so it wouldn’t go through Damascus Gate. “Bummer,” said one of the Jewish kids. “Well, at least we’ll be able to be with the girls,” he said, referring to the alternative march route that high schools planned for female students.

When the flag march originally began, back in the late 1980s, all the marchers went through the calmer Jaffa Gate route. The route was shifted to Damascus Gate not with the specific intention of provoking Palestinians, but because the rabbis who led the high schools didn’t like how boys and girls mixed on the march and so insisted on gender-segregated routes.

On Monday, as some of the youngsters reached IDF Square, opposite the southeast corner of the Old City walls, they began chanting “to the Damascus Gate, to the Damascus Gate” alongside the police roadblock preventing them from heading that way. But most of them seemed quite happy to turn right to Jaffa Gate with the girls.

A few were still insisting on making an ideological point, though.

“I feel we’ve given in to the Arabs,” said Shlomo, a serious-looking yeshiva student. “It worries me because it creates a precedent and next year we won’t be allowed to go through Damascus Gate again. Netanyahu is scared, when he should be sending the police in to sort things out. I hope when I grow up, it will be in a Jerusalem without Arabs.”

An Arab youngster being detained by the police at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday evening.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And just as he went back to dancing with his friends, a wail was heard, at first barely audible above the singing.

It took a few seconds for it to sink in among the crowd that it was a missile-warning siren. Even when everyone finally understood, no one had any idea what to do. The police shouted for everyone to take shelter. But there was nowhere to go, except from one side of IDF Square to the other. Most of the kids didn’t even take the siren seriously, and the few teachers there were clueless as the police milled around ineffectually.

Then the siren ended. A few dozen youngsters saw their chance and made a dash for the roadblock, in the hope of vaulting over it and heading for Damascus Gate. The police got there first, though, making a three-deep cordon, with those at the back pointing their assault rifles in the air.

Finally reality intruded. The hubristic nationalistic bubble was burst for a few moments by the hard men in Gaza who had jumped on Jerusalem’s wide bandwagon, taking advantage of the Palestinian kids fighting on its streets. It wasn’t their “unified capital,” but an irrevocably split city.

As the police begged them to disperse, the high schoolers began chanting “Death to the Arabs!”

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