On Sunday morning, everything looked quiet at the Damascus Gate, with a small group of women in hijabs standing and talking. Above the stairs leading inside the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, shops were open and a few clients hung around. But within a few minutes, the atmosphere changed dramatically, as a group of four teenagers arrived and started to take photos of the policemen standing up above with their smartphones.
The four seemed to encourage each other to get closer and closer to the position of the police located above the stairs of the gate. Amin, the owner of a shop on the other side of Sultan Suleiman Street along the gate, who accompanied me there, told me to gaze carefully at the group of youth. “Look at them, soon they will start to throw stones or get closer to the policemen, to provoke them and try to make them leave the position, and the riot will start again.”
Fortunately, that morning nothing happened, as the four finally left and went back inside the Old City. But for Amin, and those in the neighboring shops, it was just a short break from what has become their daily unpleasant life.
For the past few months, the Damascus Gate has become the arena of a violent ritual – which has, more than once, caused changes in bus routes for fear of passenger safety. Palestinian youth arrive in groups, instantly creating confrontation with the police stationed there. NGOs and reporters present their complaints that in too many cases, the policemen respond with excessive brutality, leading to additional rounds of violence from these youth. There is no organization behind these bursts of violence, as no Palestinian organizations have taken responsibility for them; the Old City merchants think that it is bad for business, but thus far there are no signs of calm being restored.
At the beginning, some four months ago, the riots in Jerusalem were considered a part of riots taking place all over Israel as a result of Palestinian Authority elections, Hamas intervention and the complex political situation. The majority of the riots took place in the area of Damascus Gate as well as on the Temple Mount. But today, it seems that things have gotten out of control and the riots, exclusively carried out and led by very young boys, some of them barely 13- or 14-years old, do not appear to be fading out. The reasons behind these riots are unclear, and do not seem to serve the interests of any parties involved, yet nothing brings them to an end.
In Jerusalem, the first incident took place in the light rail on April 15: the “TikTok” case of an assault against a young haredi boy was soon followed by more of these violent actions, carried out by Arab teenagers armed with their smartphones and connected to many social media platforms. On May 6, after no agreement was reached regarding ownership of the apartments in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of east Jerusalem, and the Supreme Court asked both sides to appear before it again, the atmosphere became more tense. And then came the celebrations of al-Qadr Night (the 27th night of the Month of Ramadan, which gathers hundreds of thousands of Muslims at al-Aqsa Mosque) immediately followed by Jerusalem Day and its controversial flag parade inside the Muslim Quarter.
Following the riots, the court hearing for the Sheikh Jarrah issue was postponed by 30 days, a decision which led to another round of riots – as on May 10, Palestinian protesters set off fireworks and set fire to a tree on the Temple Mount, creating a blaze in parallel with the flag parade on Jerusalem Day. Twenty-two young Palestinians were arrested with much force, while a bus was pelted with stones and bricks; two weeks ago, Egged decided to stop the passage of the line to the Western Wall on Sultan Suleiman Street near the gate. The company said that “in recent weeks, Egged buses have been [affected by] violent stone-throwing attacks in the area. Due to the danger, it was decided to drop off passengers in front of the Western Wall station. We expect the police to help keep passengers safe.” This didn’t stop the violence, and in the following days, until last week, buses were almost regularly stoned each night, as violent clashes went on at the Damascus Gate between these young boys and the policemen.
But what is behind these events is still not really clear. While no one admits to standing behind or leading the violence, the frustration and anger of area shopkeepers grows daily. “We had the coronavirus, we had the military events and we have no tourists yet,” Amin lamented. “We barely survive the situation, and these brats are destroying the last hope we have to return to normal life.”
For Odeh, another shop owner by Damascus Gate, this is simply a matter of the lack of parental and educational authority. “They photograph themselves provoking the policemen, spread the videos on social media and get a sense they are heroes. They are not afraid of the mighty Israeli police. That’s what this is about, for them it is a game, but the damage for us is enormous.”
Asked if these riots could turn into more organized violent activities, Amin said the chances are zero: “Who will organize another intifada these days? We all remember the terrible price we paid last time. Moreover, we all know that we, the Palestinians of Jerusalem, don’t matter to all the Palestinians organizations, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]'s PA doesn’t care about us. Hamas doesn’t care about us. Israel doesn’t care about us – so we have to take care of ourselves.
"We need calm, so we can make a living. It’s hard enough after the pandemic and the lack of tourists, do we also need an intifada on top of this, so that the Israeli right-wing parties will use it as an excuse to violate the few rights we have?”
Asked why parents and educators fail to exert influence over the young, Amin sighs and notes, “The Israeli police are no less violent with them, but frankly, none of these boys would ever dare to provoke a PA policeman, that would be much too dangerous. So here they get arrested, they beat them hard, and the more they are beaten, the more ‘heroic’ they become in the eyes of their friends, but that’s about all that can happen to them.
"They have no idea what the consequences for us, the adults are.”