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Damascus Gate: East Jerusalem’s Flashpoint

By Robert Swift | The Media Line

February 17, 2016

The Damascus Gate (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)
The Damascus Gate (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

Entrance to Muslim Quarter repeatedly the scene of violence

[Jerusalem] – Since stabbings, vehicular homicides and shootings became virtually daily events last October, certain locations have repeatedly been the scene of Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate is one such place that has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed during the last four months.

Security at the site is conspicuously high because of the repeated assaults there, so why do attackers choose the same location time and time again, knowing that the police stationed there are on their guard? And what price do Palestinians passing through the gate pay as a consequence?

The approach to Damascus Gate is shaped like a Roman theater, with a semi-circular set of stairs leading down from the adjacent street to the base of the Ottoman-era walls and gatehouse. The gate, which connects east Jerusalem with the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and Al-Aqsa Mosque, has traditionally served as a meeting place for traders, shoppers, tourists and locals alike.

Not so much these days.

Spread out around the approach to the gate, twenty police officers stand guard, mostly members of Israel’s paramilitary Border Police, bearing assault rifles and wearing body armor. Several of the side stairways to the gate are closed-off by police barriers, ostensibly to allow security personnel to better observe those approaching, creating a funnel effect.

Up above Damascus Gate itself, two police officers observe the scene from atop the city walls, lending them the impression of medieval archers manning the battlements.


Police overlooking Damascus Gate from the Old City’s walls (Photo: Robert Swift/The Media Line)

A number of Palestinian women are sitting outside the gate talking with each other in small groups. The absence of young men doing the same thing is marked. Only a year ago the presence of men far exceeded that of women. On the day that The Media Line correspondent was present, the only male who attempted to tarry was quickly told to move on by officers.

Others passing through the gatehouse are stopped, taken to one side and searched.

Frisks are conducted by three officers at a time, one patting down the individual, questioning him, or relaying information over the radio, while the two other officers observe both the young Palestinian and the scene around them. The police have learned the hard way that approaching a youth for questioning is often the time when they are most vulnerable to stabbings. As a result the young men are ordered to stand with their hands lifted high against a wall, their backs to the officers.

A Palestinian being searched by Israeli Border Police (Photo: Robert Swift/The Media Line)

A Palestinian being searched by Israeli Border Police (Photo: Robert Swift/The Media Line)

Each search takes between ten and twenty minutes and is conducted in a firm but not aggressive manner. It still irks some though.

Mohammad Nuri, 19, was stopped and ordered to remove his hooded top. Working in the Old City, he comes into contact with the police a lot. “Every day it’s like this. They’re crazy, they’re like a mafia,” he told The Media Line, after police spent ten minutes questioning him.

But some would argue that the police are understandably cautious. One of their colleagues, 19 year-old Hader Cohen, a rookie-cop, was shot dead outside Damascus Gate at the start of February by three attackers from the West Bank who were subsequently killed. Since then two further attacks have occurred at the same location – a second shooting attack involving two Palestinians, also from the West Bank (and also shot dead), and an incident less than twenty-four hours later involving a 15-year-old Palestinian teenager armed with a knife. And those are just incidents that have occurred this month.

According to statistics on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s website, there have been a further eight attacks at the same location since 10th October 2015.

As to why attackers choose to target the same spot, despite limited chances of survival and even lower chances of actually killing an Israeli – Hadar Cohen is the only person to have been killed by a Palestinian at Damascus Gate – that question remains open.

One possible explanation is the gate’s symbolism for Muslim worshippers as the entranceway to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Damascus Gate is “historically the center of east Jerusalem, or Arab Jerusalem,” Amnon Ramon, a researcher with the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, told The Media Line.

Copycat tactics could also go some way to explain the phenomenon. But Ramon has a further explanation. “I guess that their aim first of all is to attack police officers, and second of all settlers.” Generally speaking attacks by Palestinians have not been directed at civilians living inside the Green Line, but at security forces and “settlers,” the researcher said.

As long as this continues, it is not only the police who pay the price. The feeling of suspicion encountered by Palestinians as they pass through the gate is not conducive to peace, and causes resentment and frustration, Ramon said.

“I have friends from east Jerusalem and they complain all the time about their treatment by the policemen and guards on the train, searching and humiliating them.” This said, a balance needs to be struck between the need to prevent Israelis from being attacked and Palestinians from being harassed, Ramon concluded.

Many Palestinian however feel that the balance is already skewed against them. Haddi, who preferred not to give his second name, was cynical about the attacks. Some of those shot by the Israelis might have been carrying knives, but many weren’t, the Palestinian who travels frequently to Saudi Arabia where he studies Islamic law at Mecca and Medina, told The Media Line. Police officers sometimes place knives next to the people they shoot, he suggested, acknowledging that the stabbings were against Islamic teaching.

Working in a kebab shop overlooking Damascus Gate five days a week, Haddi said he sees men and women being stopped and searched frequently. Regarding the two shoot-outs which had taken place within several hundred meters of his workplace in recent weeks, Haddi said he wasn’t aware of them.

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