Closures around Old City aim to ease tensions

Long history of terror in city has led to learning curve and strategy which security forces hope ensure that violence and terror will not increase.

Israeli border policemen secure the entrance to the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Israeli border policemen secure the entrance to the compound known to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 14, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
On Friday morning three armed men attacked security personnel near the Lions’ Gate entrance to the capital’s Old City, killing two Border Police officers and wounding a third.
The attackers penetrated the highly sensitive and holy Temple Mount compound and were eventually killed not far from the Dome of the Rock.
This is the kind of terrorist incident Israel and especially the Jerusalem area always fears will be the spark that ignites mass riots and a cycle of violence that leads to more conflict.
The brief but brutal Western Wall tunnel riots and conflict of 1996 led to the deaths of two dozen soldiers and a hundred Palestinians. The Second Intifada (2000-2005), although planned in advance, was closely connected to tensions in Jerusalem. The wave of stabbing attacks that began in October 2015 started in the Old City with the murders of Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett on a road leading to the Temple Mount.
Since then the police have tuned their reactions to these kinds of attacks. For instance after the October 2015 stabbing many restrictions were briefly put on who could enter the Old City and the Aksa Mosque area.
Israeli police man a barricade on Salah a Din street after a deadly terror attack in Jerusalem, July 14, 2017. (Seth J. Frantzman)Israeli police man a barricade on Salah a Din street after a deadly terror attack in Jerusalem, July 14, 2017. (Seth J. Frantzman)
Only Muslim men over 50 and women were permitted to come for prayers. The restrictions continued for several days and thousands of police, including Yasam riot police and border police, were deployed. Since then the Old City has been a frequent target, with at least 32 attacks in two years, two dozen of which took place at or near Damascus Gate according to data from the Foreign Ministry website.
The Lions’ Gate has also provided a venue for terrorism. A March 2017 attack began there when a Palestinian attacked two police officers with a knife.
The May 2017 attack by a Jordanian citizen also occurred on a road leading to the Temple Mount that intersects with a road to Lions’ Gate.
After Friday’s attack the police were quick to cordon off the entire Old City with checkpoints that prevented access to worshipers and tourists alike. At Damascus Gate they extended the cordon to the nearby streets so that by noon the Muslims who came to pray ended up doing so in streets several hundred meters from the Old City.
Members of the Wakf Islamic trust came and protested the closures at midday, along with Muslim clerics associated with the grand mufti of Jerusalem.
According to reports police briefly detained the mufti for questioning.
Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on afternoon Friday that some of closures in the Old City would continue. “In general security measures continue over the weekend after this morning’s terror attacks.”
He said the Temple Mount would remain closed throughout the day “for security measures to prevent further attacks.
Security assessments will be made throughout the day and they will be made over the weekend and on Sunday.”
Dramatic new footage emerges of Temple Mount terror attack, July 14, 2017. (Israel Police)
This closure however would be relaxed around the Western Wall where Jewish worshipers abound on Fridays. It appears that Arabs in the Old City and around it will face less of a police cordon but that access to the Aksa compound may continue to be restricted.
Watching the police on Friday try to reduce friction with the Arab public in east Jerusalem, one can see the results of the lessons gained by years of dealing with similar situations.
Muslim Friday prayers are often a time of tension and in parts of east Jerusalem and the West Bank they have been when protests and riots are more likely to break out. This is especially true after a terrorist attack when social media circulates images, as they did this Friday, of men fighting with police and being shot.
One Twitter user named @ esranour wrote: “today 3 martyrs, tomorrow 13, next 23 until they will destroy our holy mosque.” This was under the hashtage “al-Aksa Mosque” in Arabic. The @palinfoen Twitter handle of the Palestine Information Center claimed that “Israeli occupation forces invading of al-Aksa Mosque shot and killed three Palestinians.”
These kinds of “explanations” of the terrorist attack on Friday lead to tensions and incitement. The Friday prayers at the police barricades on Salah a-Din Street near Damascus Gate had all the ingredients for an event that can turn violent.
But police had put in place a layer of barricades so that there was less contact with the praying public and less chance of an altercation. It was clear the police were worried clashes would breakout. They extended the areas of closures on Friday so that the Arab public was restricted to side streets leading to the Old City; the smaller areas meant less space for confrontations to happen. These are tactics gleaned from past protests that got out of hand near Damascus Gate and have led to riot police dispersing people.
The restriction on the age of male worshipers coming into the Old City is also designed to prevent clashes after prayers.
From the police point of view this works and results in less chance for an escalation.
The “save al-Aksa” hashtag is always floating around on Twitter, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on yet as a major trend.
One Palestinian shop owner on Salah a-Din, one of the few who kept his store open on Friday after most businessmen shut theirs in solidarity and concerns over violence, said that the day’s incident was like all the others he could recall. He said he urged his young sons to stay home on Friday because of the frequent tensions and clashes. In a sense the Israeli police reaction and the Arab protests are a rehearsal or cycle that follows its norms year after year, with both sides waiting for the event or misstep that leads to greater violent and terrorism.