Jerusalem, Damascus Gate – 2nd Ramadan Friday

Natanya G. and Anat T., Translation Tal H.

Noontime on the 2nd Ramadan Friday, at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate

It’s a murky Ramadan month, with doubled entry restrictions from the West Bank, the trampling of the ages-old tradition of holiday in the Old City of Jerusalem, racist assaults, unemployment and hopelessness of Palestinian youngsters, multi-directional violence, and a surreal political reality in Israel. Will Jerusalem ever get back to its fragile version of normalization after the holiday this year?

11:00 Unlike the warnings we heard, road 1 along the former ‘green line’ track, was open for traffic from French Hill Junction, and only entering the Old City by car was closed off in all directions. We parked in Ha-Nevi’im Street and crossed over towards the Damascus Gate. The entire area stank of horse manure, and shop owners said it was the result of the ‘Skunk’ crowd dispersal equipment used on the previous riot evening. Everywhere we saw groups of armed policemen and Border Policemen. For some reason, the large parking lot of buses and cars close to the Damascus Gate was closed, and even the buses carrying Palestinians from Jerusalem checkpoints had to park further off.

A police/Border Police pavilion at the western side overlooks the gate area and provides information. The Damascus Gate area looks like a tangled labyrinth of barbed wire. It prevents people from sitting on the steps and the descent is through the gate in two narrow lanes without the ability to stop. The amphitheater-like steps area used to turn every Ramadan evening into a noisy, colorful town-square for the folks of East Jerusalem. Why was it blocked this year? Explanations of security sound lame. What happened was a severe damage to holiday tradition in Jerusalem.

At the rim of the steps sat beggar women, their eyes and heads covered, asking for the traditional Ramadan alms. Until 12 noon traffic was rather thin, so we entered the gate and walked down Ha-Gai Street leading to the Temple Mount area of both Jews and Muslims. Even when pedestrian traffic grew thicker, the absence of women and children as well as festive, joyful family chaos was felt. What one does see is a hurried stream of mainly elderly men, each with a prayer rug stuck under his arm. Excitement and joy is still provided by some kids selling colorful prayer rugs and those who help store keepers. We spoke with some people who explained that whoever is issued a permit for prayers from the West bank is limited by a general quota of 10,000 permits for the entire West bank, and documents proving full vaccination. Such elimination leaves mainly Jerusalemites holding resident IDs or workers who have been vaccinated in order to keep Israeli economy going. Therefore – not many woman and children. Perhaps, too, the evening rows of Palestinian youngsters protesting against the measures taken by the police and army play a role. In addition, last night an abundance of violent Jewish racism produced by Lehava and young ultra-religious Jews kicked in, covered up by quite a few Knesset Members. The Jewish vandals who declared openly that they were seeking not protest but revenge, did not come to the Damascus Gate itself as the security forces stopped them at Safra Square, near the Jerusalem municipality.

Israel flags wave in Jewish settler-colonies inside the Muslim quarter as well as over several central buildings. Dozens of policemen and women are seen at every corner. They make it clear who’s boss. A Border Policewoman escorted by a policeman approaches a team of Red Crescent workers sitting on the steps of a shop with their medical equipment, ready to help any case of fainting or injury. “You are not allowed to sit here”, she ruled. “Why?” they asked. She didn’t bother to answer, just repeated her forbidding mantra. We approached and asked why, is there such an order? That doesn’t make sense. She must have gotten tired arguing with the medics and with us, so she split.

We continued to the Austrian Hospital and from its roof photographed the crowds at the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. At the Viennese café in the Austrian Hostel there is a nice garden and a waltz playing, and Israeli travelers wander with their guide. A couple holds hands in a corner overlooking Ha-Gai Street, and the toilets are exemplary. Will Jerusalem keep its fragile normality even after this holiday?

We began walking back against the increasing stream of people hurrying to prayer, looking more troubled than excited. We are sad, but even so Ramadan in Jerusalem looks exciting. Back at the Gate, we heard contradictory opinions of the situation: the army and police are losing it under pressure and causing ever more extreme violence; Palestinian youngsters are desperate because of the Corona pandemic, the closed schools and unemployment and are thus messing around, and it will be over in a day or two – how long will they last opposite all these armed security forces? Suffice it for them to be threatened with confiscation of their residence papers…; Why did the Israeli authorities barricade Damascus Gate? What do they get from such an action? You have political chaos in Israel, so do we – what’s the difference?

We suggest to continue Ramadan vigils of MachsomWatch at Damascus Gate and the Flowers Gate in the Old City, perhaps even at Lions Gate. These are the gatesinfo-icon where buses arrive bearing West Bank residents from the Jerusalem checkpoints – Bethlehem, Zeitim and Qalandiya. One can enter the city. Apparently, there are no riots before prayers (even the East Jerusalem youngsters are asleep after their nightly confrontations). Natanya suggests arriving around 12:30 and waiting until 14:00, after the prayer that ends around 13:30. Traditionally, people coming out of the prayers and sermons angrier, and the security people get more violent facing any provocation.