Why is East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate a hotspot for tensions?

Damascus Gate is a centre of Palestinian cultural life, but Israeli forces regularly attack Palestinians in the plaza.

Damascus Gate
Israeli forces have attacked Palestinians gathered at the Damascus Gate during Ramadan [Mahmoud Illean/AP Photo]

Occupied East Jerusalem – The Damascus Gate, or Bab al-Amud – as it is known in Arabic, has re-emerged as a flashpoint between Palestinians and Israeli forces in occupied East Jerusalem.

Since the start of Ramadan on April 2, Israeli forces, including undercover units, have assaulted and arrested Palestinian residents in the Damascus Gate area on an almost daily basis. Hundreds of others were arrested from Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Similar scenes were documented last Ramadan during protests against Israeli attempts to forcibly displace Palestinians in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood and Israel’s 11-day war on Gaza.

The Damascus Gate is an Ottoman-era plaza, which has been in its current form since 1537. It is the largest of the seven open gates to Jerusalem’s Old City, which lies in East Jerusalem.

It opens onto the souq in the Muslim Quarter, the main market for Palestinians in the city – for everything from spices to home appliances.

Walking distance from the gate is the main business and commercial artery of East Jerusalem – Salah al-Din Street – as well as the central Palestinian bus stations.

A social, cultural, and political Palestinian landmark, Damascus Gate is one of the few open spaces available for residents to gather. A favourite pastime for many is grabbing a coffee from the nearby Musrara area and sipping it on the large stone steps of the gate.

During protests, periods of political tension, and on religious occasions such as Ramadan, higher numbers of Palestinians congregate at the Damascus Gate, and the chance of a violent response from Israeli forces increases.

Israel often labels the protesters as “rioters”, a charge rejected by Palestinians.

Israel militarily occupied the Palestinian-majority East Jerusalem during the 1967 war and annexed it in breach of international law. The majority of countries around the world do not recognise Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem, consider it occupied territory..

Israel declares all of Jerusalem its “complete and united” capital, enshrined by law.

Analysts say the Damascus Gate and Al-Aqsa Mosque compound are the places where the “struggle over control and space” between the Israeli occupation and Palestinians in Jerusalem erupts.

“The Damascus Gate has become a national symbol for Jerusalemites and for Palestinians more generally – a symbol that expresses the national identity in the city,” political analyst Nasser al-Hidmi told Al Jazeera.

He noted the “repetition and persistence” of Palestinians to gather in the space. “There is an expression of ownership of it, to claim this space, despite the heavy price that Jerusalemites have paid.”

Translation: “We will remain here. ‘Atmosphere at the Damascus Gate tonight.'” – Youth singing the Palestinian national anthem at the Damascus Gate.

“The fact that the space comes under Palestinian control bothers the occupation. Security-wise, this is a main entrance for settlers … Israel wants to ensure the security of the settlers in entering and exiting, and in such a gathering it is difficult to secure,” said al-Hidmi.

Far-right Jewish groups have also sought to stamp their authority on the Damascus Gate and other areas of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. On Wednesday, hundreds of Israeli nationalists were prevented by Israeli police from carrying out a “flag march” – a procession waving Israeli flags through the Damascus Gate and Palestinian-majority areas of the Old City.

Approximately 200,000 Israeli settlers live in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem.

They live alongside at least 420,000 Palestinians with Israeli “residency status” that is contingent upon continuously providing proof of living in the city in complicated bureaucratic processes which advocates say are designed to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem.

Israel says the measures are necessary for security reasons.

Since 1967, Israel has revoked the status of 14,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, according to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem.

Local NGOs and rights groups have long pointed to a range of Israeli practices and policies, such as settlement expansion, Palestinian home demolitions, and restrictions on urban development, in Jerusalem as evidence of attempts to alter the demographic ratio in favour of Jews, a goal laid out as “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” in the municipality’s 2000 master plan.

Source: Al Jazeera