It has been a troubled week in East Jerusalem, with clashes breaking out across several areas of the city in response to rising tensions between Jewish and Muslim residents and also Muslims and the police.
The holy month of Ramadan is underway, and it is usual for this to create some unrest in Jerusalem. During Ramadan, it is customary for Muslims to travel to Jerusalem in large numbers to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque and to celebrate in the city in ways that the police try to control. Palestinians are well used to having many aspects of their lives controlled and restricted, but these everyday injustices become more poignant during Ramadan when they seek to limit and restrict expression of religious faith.
Damascus Gate has always been a natural focal point for crowds to gather after the fast is broken in the evening, but this year the area has been fenced off to prevent people from sitting there. The police claim this is normal during Ramadan but residents and news reporting alike contests this. Last night the police allowed the barriers to be removed and this was celebrated as a victory by Palestinians. Whether they will remain down depends on how much the police want to calm the situation, versus their anxieties about large crowds starting a riot.
Perhaps more inflammatory, are the clashes that took place over Thursday and Friday night between groups of far-right Jewish extremists and Palestinians. These were sparked by several videos on social media of Jews being assaulted by Palestinians and caused a violent backlash.
Thursday night represented the worse trouble we have witnessed in the city over the past two years, with the police firing rubber bullets, tear gas and skunk spray in response to clashes and over 100 people needing medical attention.
On Friday morning huge rocks lay strewn across the roads, several skips were still smoking, and the smell of the uniquely Israeli skunk spray hung in the air. I was fascinated (and a little horrified) to learn that this secret mix, supposedly organic, can linger for months and has been used by Israel as a punishment as well as a crowd dispersal technique. In this BBC article from 2015, you can see it being used to make people’s homes uninhabitable.
Face masks no longer need to be worn outside in Israel, but those who didn’t have a facemask with them covered their mouths as they walked near Damascus Gate on Friday, with the smell lingering strongly in the air. Crowds of people, mainly men, streamed in through Damascus Gate with prayer mats under their arms, as they headed to the Friday lunchtime prayers. Small pockets of police were present on every corner and from every vantage point. On one street near the dividing line between East and West, wreckage from the night before included a burnt-out car and a badly fire damaged tree. Broken glass was spread across the street and several other cars had been smashed in.
Unrest in Gaza over the weekend with rocket fire into Israel, has caused concern that these clashes represent something much bigger and more widespread. Israel seems to want to de-escalate the situation before violence spreads across the West Bank, but ‘normal’ does not mean peaceful in these parts. The last week has shown once again, not only the injustices and inequality that have led to such anger and frustration on the Palestinian side, but also the deep divisions and hate, amongst some factions, that have been allowed to prosper in society. I fear that navigating through this, without escalation into war, would take careful and sensitive leadership, of the sort that is sorely lacking at all levels. I hope I am wrong about this…