Though it typically makes the news due to tragedy, on Tuesday Damascus Gate made headlines for the absurd.
Washington Post Jerusalem Bureau Chief William Booth was briefly detained along with a colleague after police said a passerby told them that they heard the reporters or other parties at the gate were looking to stage a disturbance. The incident was later chalked up to a misunderstanding in the official apology issued by police, who were busy patrolling what has become one of the most dangerous sites in Israel during the “Stabbing Intifada”.
The first deadly stabbing of the current wave of violence was on the night of October 3, when Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett were knifed by a Palestinian teen on Hagai Street close one of the main thoroughfares of the Old City, just steps away from Damascus Gate. Since that night there have been at least a dozen attacks at or near the gate, as well as an untold number of Palestinians caught carrying knives or other weapons there.
Like the Gush Etzion junction and area around the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Damascus Gate has become a byword for violence, a place where attacks are expected to happen.
Today an MK for the Yesh Atid party, Mickey Levy was formerly the commander of the Jerusalem Police, in 2000- 2003, during some of the darkest, most dangerous days the city has ever known. It was the height of the Second Intifada and Jerusalem was the site of repeated suicide bombings and shooting attacks, a level of violence and despair that makes the Stabbing Intifada pale by comparison.
Even at the height of the violence at that time, Levy says, Damascus Gate stuck out as a flashpoint, a place where conflict was almost ensured.
“It’s a crossroads where Jews and Arabs meet and a very difficult place to secure that doesn’t really compare to anywhere else,” Levy said Tuesday.
It’s a route for Jews heading to the Western Wall by way of Hagai Street and for Palestinians visiting Muslim holysites on the Temple Mount.
For West Bank Palestinians, it is very often the first place they disembark in the city. It is also a bustling location full of vendors and tourists as well as commuters heading to or from the light rail or the two major streets that border it – Sultan Suleiman and Haneve’im.
“It’s very easy to get there and a very easy place to carry out an attack and then retreat,” Levy said.
On any given day the Jerusalem Police deploy dozens of officers in and around the gate, as well as many more up Hagai and throughout the Old City. There are currently around 4,000 police patrolling Jerusalem – including around 2,000 Border Policeman – as well as around 600 police from around the country sent in as reinforcements.
The police deployments at Damascus Gate came under scrutiny earlier this month, when a 19-year-old Border Police officer named Hadar Cohen was shot and killed while responding to an attack at the site carried out by three Palestinian men armed with guns, knives, and pipe bombs.
Cohen had not yet finished her basic training, and the decision to send her to arguably the most dangerous site in Israel as part of her on-the-job training was met with confusion and some public anger.
Since then, Cohen’s platoon has been rotated away from Damascus Gate, but no wider operational changes are expected.
Border Police officers deployed in Jerusalem include both seasoned reservists and youths as young as Cohen performing their national service.
These “fighters”, many as young as 18 or 19 will continue to be deployed to Damascus Gate as well as the Gush Etzion junction, Hebron, and countless other hot spots.
Police officials are clearly hesitant to see the decision to deploy Cohen at the site as a mistake; rather they believe that her conduct under fire proved she had been ready to handle that assignment.
Also, for police, as much as they recognize that Damascus Gate has become an undisputed hot spot, the current wave of violence doesn’t follow set rules and any site can ultimately find itself on the front lines. A teenage fighter like Cohen may have also potentially faced armed attackers in a more tranquil corner of west Jerusalem, or in the Beersheba bus station or at a pub on Dizengoff Street in central Tel Aviv.
Still, even the most casual observer can see that Damascus Gate is one of the focal points of recent violence and a place of great friction between Jews and Arabs that should arguably be avoided to some extent.
Police commonly say that you can’t put an officer on every single street corner. But with no diplomatic or political solution on the horizon, and with incitement in Palestinian media and on social networks continuing unabated, the only answer is to deploy many forces in the hopes of confining the focal point of violence to hot spots like Damascus Gate.