Jerusalem unrest: An inside view of tensions boiling outside Damascus Gate

The barricades, like the protests in nearby Sheikh Jarrah, seem to have been more an excuse, a kind of symbol that crowds could set their anger against, rather than the real problem.

YOUTHS WAVE Israeli flags during the Jerusalem Day march around the Old City walls on Monday.  (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
YOUTHS WAVE Israeli flags during the Jerusalem Day march around the Old City walls on Monday.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
 The area around the Old City’s Damascus Gate has become an amphitheater of violence in the last weeks of Ramadan as young Arab men have clashed with Israeli police. This gate has always been a flash point because of how it funnels crowds of worshipers who pass through on their way to al-Aqsa Mosque. 
This makes it a unique place, set just a few hundred meters from west Jerusalem, but functioning as a beating heart of east Jerusalem. This situation on the dividing line makes it perfect for skirmishes between police and crowds. 
This year’s month of Ramadan has brought the usual tensions. What began in April with attacks on Orthodox Jewish men, often filmed and put on TikTok, became an increasing cycle of violence. On April 25, Israeli police removed barricades they had set up at the Damascus Gate. It was never entirely clear how this policy was enacted or why it was changed. What the police in effect meant was that the metal fences controlling access to the Damascus Gate had resulted in clashes on streets leading to the area.  
The barricades, like the protests in nearby Sheikh Jarrah, seem to have been more an excuse, a kind of symbol that crowds could set their anger against, rather than the real problem. The real problem, and it was never clear from speaking to people or watching the violence unfold, was that large groups of young men gathered after prayers and religious events to cheer and sometimes fight with police. For the most part, this involved a series of clashes over several weeks with few injuries. That changed on May 7 when Friday prayers and clashes grew on the Temple Mount.  
Now hundreds have been injured, many of them in battles around al-Aqsa, where young men stockpiled stones and even set up their own barricades. Witnesses said they saw Israeli security forces bring specially designated snipers in case the riots grew out of control. Responding to rock-throwing, police entered the mosque on at least two occasions, further enraging the crowds. 
The images of men fighting in the mosque against the police have been broadcast throughout the region, raising the ire of Israel’s new peace partners in the Gulf. Jordan is angry. Al-Aqsa is a red line. Hamas vowed to retaliate. 
A Palestinian man reacts as he is detained by undercover Israeli security force members amid Israeli-Palestinian tension as Israel marks Jerusalem Day, near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem's Old City. (Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)A Palestinian man reacts as he is detained by undercover Israeli security force members amid Israeli-Palestinian tension as Israel marks Jerusalem Day, near Damascus Gate just outside Jerusalem's Old City. (Photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
ON MONDAY, May 10, there were expectations that violence would get worse. The annual Jerusalem Day march, with masses of Israeli flags, was supposed to pass through the Damascus Gate. How would that be possible when the police had cordoned off the Old City on April 21 to prevent a right-wing protest that aimed to reach the gate? Police had erected a row of fences running parallel to Route 1 so that people wanting to go from west Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street to the Old City would be split, either walking near Notre Dame and thus away from the Old City walls, or near the New Gate and end up in a cul-de-sac away from the Damascus Gate.  
This intelligently designed obstacle meant that the city was physically divided again, much as it had been from 1948 to 1967. It is no surprise that Jordanian snipers once took aim looking down on west Jerusalem from these walls of the Old City. From the walls of Notre Dame, one of the largest buildings in the Holy Land when it was constructed in the late 19th century, battles had once occurred between the nascent Israeli Defense Forces and the Jordanians and Arabs. So now, once again, the question was whether pro-Israel demonstrators could breach the area to get to the Damascus Gate. 
We waited in anticipation of this on Monday. We came by the dozens, journalists streaming in like salarymen on their way to the suffering day. Journalists don’t usually film their colleagues in such situations because we want to be the only one covering the event, or at least have readers think we are. After all, it’s not a unique story if 55 other journalists photograph the same scene. But May 10 was an exception, with dozens of journalists carrying numerous cameras as if they were covering a sporting event. And it is fitting this is an amphitheater because the main event would take place soon. 
Unfortunately for the spectators, most of the Arab youths who came also came to observe the fray. They shouted and cheered and chanted “God is great” as a few men prayed. A well-known activist from Isawiya came and gave a short talk to the journalists. Some young women had come from the Sheikh Jarrah protests wearing black shirts with Arabic slogans printed on them. Israeli security forces were arranged in several covered, gated little forts they had constructed around the Damascus Gate. These were put in place after riots in 2014 and 2015 and the “stabbing intifada” that involved not only attacks on civilians throughout the city but police here as well. 
NOW THAT they had these little areas, they could peer down on the crowds and await the order to advance. They had ample resources at their disposal, including a dozen officers on horseback, two “stink tanks” and dozens of other anti-riot police carrying masses of “flash bang” grenades. These grenades make a loud bang and spread smoke, but are generally harmless. However, they cause crowds to run from the noise. 
The police used the grenades to disperse the crowd a little after 4 p.m. They chased the young men a hundred meters or so and then came back. Some plainclothes officers, guns easily visible stashed in their jeans below their back, like sausages, walked back and forth. It wasn’t entirely clear what they were supposed to do. Maybe wade in and snatch some of the protesters.
The real moments of tense standoff came when we began to hear sirens blaring because of incoming rockets. Hamas had vowed to fire deep into Israel at six in the afternoon. The terrorist organization said it would defend al-Aqsa. Israeli police had to leave by six or suffer their wrath. We waited. The young men, most born after the Second Intifada and with no memories of days when Jerusalem was targeted by mass bombings, heard the sirens first. It was a low, dull groaning in the distance. They began to clap and cheer and shout Allahu akbar, “God is great.” No one headed for cover the way you are supposed to when rockets are coming in. Instead, they got up and looked skyward. I also looked up. Where were the Iron Dome interceptions? The sirens were far away because they were not warning us of an impact here. Instead the danger was in west Jerusalem somewhere. Then came the interceptions. Boom, boom, boom, boom, as birds jumped in startled unison from trees and flew away. 
The momentary cheering, the apparent victory that Hamas had just achieved by terrorizing Jerusalem, was interrupted as it became clear the police would remove the men again. A line of horses was formed, two stink tanks with their little turrets that shoot foul-smelling water, were formed up near the Damascus Gate on a road that runs parallel to the Old City’s walls. Then, with scripted movements, the police ran toward the demonstrators, horses advanced in a slow cavalry charge and the tanks moved in. This combined arms assault worked, and the young men all ran away. Shopkeepers cursed the tanks, angry as the stink cannons sprayed their shops, interrupting their plans to remain open at the end of Ramadan for people to break the fast. When the tanks retreated, the shopkeepers came out with hoses and hosed down their areas.