Double Take / Celebration or Provocation? A Stroll Through the Old City on Jerusalem Day

As crowds of flag-waving young Israelis wound their way through the Muslim Quarter, Arab residents hunkered down in their shuttered shops

JERUSALEM – To get a feel for Jerusalem Day, Sunday’s celebration of the capture 45 years ago of the eastern part of the city, a stroll by the Old City proved instructive. 

 At dusk, the normally bustling market area at Damascus Gate was empty of Arabs, swamped with crowds of flag-waving young Israelis: yeshiva students and participants in pre-army programs, many of them from Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

 Police had ordered Palestinian shopkeepers to close down to “prevent friction,” so when the thousands of marchers surged through the gate with a triumphant roar, they had the place to themselves. As the throng wound its way through the Muslim Quarter toward the Western Wall, flanked by ranks of border police, Arab residents hunkered down in their shuttered shops and homes, waiting out the storm.  

 Marchers pounded and kicked the shutters as they moved down the street, singing the post-1967 victory anthem “Jerusalem of Gold,” and a song of anti-Arab revenge, punctuated with the chants, “Muhammad is Dead,” and “Death to Arabs.” Several shop signs were damaged or knocked down, a light was shattered, water pipe valves were closed, cutting off supply to homes, and graffiti left on the shops depicted the clenched fist of the anti-Arab movement, Kach.

 Border police stood at barriers closing off neighboring alleys, where small groups of residents watched sullenly as the marchers passed and taunted them with raucous chants.    

 A few hours earlier, police broke up a small Palestinian counter-demonstration outside the Old City walls, charging the protestors on foot and on horseback and shoving them away after they raised Palestinian flags and chanted slogans, including “Zionist out! Jerusalem, Arab and free.”

 The scenes were a window into the corrosive effects of more than four decades of Israeli control of East Jerusalem, without any significant movement toward resolving the future status of the city.

 At a gathering across town sponsored by Ir Amim, the Israeli NGO that seeks to promote equitable policies for both Jews and Arabs in the city, Talia Sasson, an attorney and former Justice Ministry official known for her damning report on unauthorized settlement outposts, argued that the state of affairs in Jerusalem was seriously damaging Israeli democracy.

 In a position paper presented at the meeting, Sasson asserted that while Israel had applied its laws to the area of East Jerusalem, effectively making it part of sovereign Israeli territory, it has denied the 300,000 Palestinian there civil rights, primarily the right to vote in national elections and a chance to influence Israeli policies in the city, which are set at the government level.

The result is widespread neglect of Arab neighborhoods in housing, education and basic services, and an international perception that Israel distinguishes on an ethnic basis between populations living in an area it considers part and parcel of its territory, Sasson argued. “This lowers the democratic profile of the state,” she said.

For those who joined the Jerusalem Day march, it was a celebration of Israeli rule over a place that had been the object of Jewish yearning for thousands of years. “Jerusalem belongs to us, and not to them,” said Guy Ohana, whose group from the pre-army program at the settlement of Beit Yatir engaged in a loud face-off with Palestinian demonstrators.

For Palestinians looking on, the flag-waving parade was a provocation under police protection, rubbing salt in the wounds of 1967. Emerging from his shuttered falafel stand after the procession had passed, Wadia Halawani scoffed at the notion that Jerusalem had been reunited. “Emptying this area of Arabs so the Jews can come and go as they please is a provocative, racist act,” he said. “Unification is security for everybody, and there can be no security without peace.”