Analysis |

Israeli Police Learned Last Ramadan's Lesson, and Jerusalem's Old City Remains Calm

Police are managing tensions well – for now – compared to an outburst of violence in May last year, by avoiding collective punishment and provocation

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Israel Police at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate in the Old City, this month.
Israel Police at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate in the Old City, this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Damascus Gate has become Jerusalem’s seismograph in recent years.

When tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in the city rise, you can feel it at the gate plaza, in numbers of police and the way they act and in Palestinian media presence.

Despite reports from last week about clashes between Palestinian youth and police in the Damascus Gate plaza, and despite the wave of terror attacks in various cities, as of today, a week after the beginning of Ramadan, relative quiet has prevailed. This is in no small measure due to the wise conduct of the Jerusalem police.

Damascus Gate is the main entryway to the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa, and to the commercial and cultural center of East Jerusalem. It was always a locus of Palestinian protest against the occupation.

But as opposed to other areas, like in the Palestinian neighborhoods in the city's east or north, or on the Temple Mount, there are Jewish pedestrians at Damascus Gate too – mostly ultra-Orthodox on their way to the Western Wall – and therefore also constant police presence.

Palestinians and Israeli police near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Damascus Gate has in recent years become a symbolic site of the Palestinian struggle. In the "knife intifada" of 2015, assailants tried repeatedly to attack police and Jewish passersby at the plaza. The Jerusalem police, for its part, did everything to show sovereignty there. New positions and new cameras were installed, and at tense times dozens of police officers and Border Police were on duty, outfitted with every possible riot control device. All of this made the place even more of a symbol for both sides, and violence around it swelled.

On Ramadan last year, clashes reached a new level. Before Ramadan, the police placed barriers on the steps to prevent Palestinians from gathering there, which Palestinians saw as a pretext for confrontation. From the first day of the holy month, violence broke out there between young people and the police.

From the point of view of the police, anything was a pretext for violent dispersal of protests – whether shouting nationalistic slogans or waving Palestinian flags. But the police did not make do with dispersing those they perceived as rioters, instead commencing a methodical collective punishment that hurt thousands of innocent celebrants at the site.

The water cannon truck, known in East Jerusalem by the name “Samira,” stood at Sultan Suleiman Street and flooded the plaza and the food stands around it with stink water. The smell hung over the place for weeks afterward, and was a symbol of the humiliation of the city’s Palestinians. The police also used stun grenades that injured and frightened many, and fielded mounted police with batons. Almost every evening ended with dozens of people injured.

The events at Damascus Gate deteriorated rapidly, with the addition of two more elements that fanned flames – the increasing tension around the evacuation of families from Sheikh Jarrah and the Flag March held toward the end of Ramadan. All of these eventually led to Israel's Operation Guardian of the Walls, the fighting against Hamas and other militant groups in the Gaza Strip.

Celebrations on the first night of Ramadan at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This year, the police decided on another policy. “In the end, we must not treat Ramadan like a war,” the Jerusalem district police chief, Maj. Gen. Doron Turgeman, told reporters before the beginning of holy month.

It seems that the gamble has succeeded. It is, however, fortunate for Jerusalem, as opposed to last year, the courts rejected the anticipated evacuations in Sheikh Jarrah, and Jerusalem Day will fall after the end of Ramadan.

But more importantly, the police have chosen to try to separate most of the public, who come to the gate plaza each evening to celebrate, and the few who use violence. In addition, there are no barriers on the steps this year and the Jerusalem municipality has tried to encourage commerce and activities for children near the gate.

Moreover, the police do not act against shouts or singing, but only if they are attacked, mostly by plastic bottles full of water thrown at their positions. While nearly every evening there have been clashes between the police and young people, and nearly every evening a few arrests are made, for the thousands who come to enjoy time at the plaza, these have not been felt. By means of undercover personnel and detectives, the police have tried to arrest the bottle-throwers without hurting the thousands who come only to celebrate.

Nevertheless, the police were mistaken when they began on Thursday to bring attack dogs, who stand menacingly at the top of the steps. For Palestinians, this may be one humiliation too many. It would be enough for one to decide to commit a terror attack, one police officer to make a mistake, or one incident that deteriorates uncontrollably, to go back to the scenes of last year.

But, meanwhile, we may be encouraged that there are those in the police who have learned the basic lessons of the Serenity Prayer – to have the strength to accept the things they cannot change, (the occupation and the basic humiliation of the Palestinians in Jerusalem) and the courage to change the things they can (their daily conduct toward the Palestinian public) and the wisdom to know the difference.

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