|Since the beginning of Ramadan, the Israel police have blocked the steps around the Damascus Gate plaza for no justified cause. The police originally claimed the decision was made to prevent large gatherings of people due to public health considerations, yet these types of restrictions were not imposed during recent Jewish holidays. The explanation was quickly altered, which stated the necessity to allow for better flow of pedestrians into the Old City during Ramadan. Such reasoning was given despite the fact that this has never occurred in years prior, and there is a significant reduction in the number of Muslim worshippers due in part to Israel's restrictions on entry of West Bank Palestinians this year.
On ordinary days, this area is a central gathering place for Palestinians and even more so during the month of Ramadan, particularly in the evenings. Banning Palestinians from sitting and gathering on the steps has sparked widespread anger and frustration among East Jerusalem residents. In previous years, thousands of Palestinians during Ramadan would congregate within and around the Damascus Gate plaza, which plays a central part in their festivities during the nights of this Muslim holy month. For Palestinians, closure of this area constitutes yet another move of the Israeli authorities to assert its control of Palestinian spaces in East Jerusalem and a blatant show of power.
Many of the incidents of friction and confrontation in the area stem from the closure of the Damascus Gate steps and unprovoked police aggression and use of excessive force towards Palestinians, which disrupt the peace and lead to escalation. Over the past week, Palestinian youth have protested the plaza's closure. The Israel police dispersed them with disproportionate use of force. The police claim that there have been incidents of Palestinians throwing stones at police, and indeed Israeli vehicles were damaged amid the confrontations. However, during the last few nights, police forces have assaulted Palestinians in the Damascus Gate area with no prior provocation on their part, including the use of stun grenades and the deployment of mounted police charging into hundreds of Palestinians who were solely visiting the Old City for Ramadan.
According to one of Ir Amim's field researchers who was monitoring the situation two nights ago, there were no signs of protest or unrest until he overhead the Border Police commander instructing his unit to push out and force Palestinians in the area to leave the grounds. Dozens of armed paramilitary forces (Border Police) began to aggressively shove large groups of Palestinians conversing peacefully in the plaza and adjacent to the Damascus Gate itself. The mounted police likewise joined and stormed the crowd. The normal festive and crowded streets around the Damascus Gate turned into a site where thousands of Palestinians were being hounded and assaulted by large police units.
Ir Amim along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) has submitted an urgent appeal to the Israel Police demanding that they remove the barriers and desist from use of excessive force, which only leads to further escalation.
Jewish Extremist Incitement
In tandem, right-wing Jewish extremists and nationalist organizations have been exploiting the friction to further incite and call for retaliation (both on social media and mainstream media) against the Palestinian protests and isolated incidents of Palestinian harassment of Haredi Jews. On Monday, Knesset Members from the extremist rightwing Religious Zionism party went to Damascus Gate in a hostile and provocative call to "show Palestinians who's boss."
In recent days, large groups of nationalistic Israeli youth have rallied in West Jerusalem's city center shouting "death to Arabs," while hunting down and attacking Palestinian pedestrians, which has led to clashes between Jews and Palestinians. In contrast to the police's aggressive operations at the Damascus Gate, serious measures by the police to disperse these groups or protect attacked Palestinians have not been observed. These groups have called to gather tonight in Jerusalem, marching from the City Hall Square to Damascus Gate and the Old City with the intent of clashing with Palestinians "to teach them a lesson."