Jerusalem’s ancient Damascus Gate is at the heart of a modern wave of violence – William Booth, Ruth Eglash/The Washington Post
Damascus Gate circa 1900
JERUSALEM —For centuries, the Damascus Gate has stood as the portal to the Old City of Jerusalem, opening onto a packed bazaar of souvenir shops, teahouses and falafel joints — and the holiest places for Jews, Christians and Muslims.
On Tuesday, a watchful Israeli sniper was perched in one of the gate’s stone turrets, swiveling his scoped rifle, as Israeli border police milled about the entrance, warily eyeing the passersby, a mix of Palestinian hipsters in the latest jeans, doing some shopping for their moms, and elderly Jewish rabbis with long gray side curls who were escorted through the gate by private security guards in flak jackets.
The tourists and pilgrims still come, but for locals, the Damascus Gate is now a hot zone to be avoided, with squads of Israeli soldiers waiting in nearby buses and Palestinian teens frequently stopped, searched and sometimes led away.
For the past five months, a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis has marked a deadly escalation in the two sides’ long-running conflict. According to a count by The Washington Post, more than 27 Israelis have been killed in knife, gun and vehicular attacks; more than 160 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli forces, 110 while carrying out attacks and 50 during clashes.
The Damascus Gate has served as the backdrop — and the beacon — for at least 15 of those attacks.
Damascus Gate circa 2016
In the last week alone, Palestinians have twice attacked Israeli police at the Damascus Gate, which sits in the heart of Palestinian East Jerusalem, just a block from bus stations and tram stops and close to Palestinian high schools. On Sunday, a pair of Palestinian 20-year-olds wielding automatic weapons were shot dead in a brief gun battle at the gate. One of the assailants was a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces. On Friday, a 20-year-old wielding a knife rushed at Border Police officers, stabbing one in the head. That assailant, too, was shot dead at the scene. In addition, police foiled two possible knife attacks on Monday and Tuesday.
The gate seen today was built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in 1537 on top of an earlier entry into the walled city that the Romans erected in the emperor Hadrian’s time. The Jews call it Sha’ar Schechem, or Nablus Gate. Arabs call it Bab al-Amud, Gate of the Column, for the obelisk left by the Romans.
Its English name reflects the fact that it faces north, toward Damascus. It may seem hard to believe amid today’s wars and divisions, but it was once possible to hop into a taxi in Jerusalem and get driven to the Syrian capital.
“It is the most beautiful gate of all,” said Ahmed Dandes, 48, who owns a small shop selling gentlemen’s trousers inside the gate. “It is the path of three religions,” a reference to the Jews’ Western Wall, the Christians’ Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Muslims’ al-Aqsa Mosque.
“It goes by many names,” Dandes said. “Today we could call it ‘Gate of the Martyrs.’ Ten Palestinians have died.” He pointed. “Just out there.”
Rabbi Menachem Ben Yaakov, who works at the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, in the Muslim quarter of the Old City not far from the Damascus Gate, passes through daily. Over the past few months, he has been accompanied by private guards hired to protect the rabbis and students at the yeshiva.
He said that he thinks the violence will eventually dissipate and that with the large contingent of police and soldiers, the area felt perfectly safe to him.
“I don’t feel threatened,” he said. “Jews should not be scared of going any place in Jerusalem. They have the security of the Great One — and Israeli security.”
The Palestinians at the gate eye the Jews, and the Jews eye the Palestinians, who say they are careful not to make any sudden moves. These days, Palestinian youths are ordered not to congregate on the stone steps leading to the gate.
“Every day, we come here after school. It refreshes our souls,” said Mutasem Afaneh, 15, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud.
Asked why Palestinians chose the Damascus Gate as a site for attacks, the teen said, “Because this is where the police harass and humiliate the girls and the boys.”
That is reason to grab a knife?
“For some,” Afaneh said.
The first incident in the immediate area happened on
Oct. 4, when Palestinian teen Fadi Alloun was accused by nearby Israelis of attempting to attack them. The crowd chased Alloun into the central square, where he was shot by Israeli police officers who had responded to a call. Palestinians say Alloun was lynched. Israeli police said he had a knife. Since then, at least 11 Palestinians have been killed at the gate or at the nearby tram stop.
As the violence continues, the Damascus Gate has become a popular backdrop for journalists to film a visual seam in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the gate is “the most tense spot in the city.”
The high level of security extended even to journalists. On Tuesday, while conducting interviews at the Damascus Gate, Washington Post bureau chief William Booth and correspondent Sufian Taha were briefly detained by police on suspicion of causing incitement. The police later issued an apology, saying the suspicions were “without foundation.”
Shai Glick, nephew of the Jewish activist Yehuda Glick, who was shot and wounded last year after advocating that Jews be allowed to pray at a contested religious site in the Old City, blamed the recent wave of violence on one incident, a stabbing that took place near the gate on Oct. 2.
“The Muslims and Jews that come to this place are against the violence, and until four months ago it was all calm here, the market was full and the people were doing real business,” he said. “Then four months ago, a Palestinian teenager, not even from here, came and stabbed two people, killing them. After that, business has gone down by 90 percent and everyone is suffering.”
Anna Mazur and Yvgeny Fesenko, tourists from Kiev, Ukraine, said they had arrived in Jerusalem two days earlier and were planning to spend 10 more days touring the country.
“The situation here does not bother us at all. We have a similar situation in Ukraine,” Mazur said. “We don’t have Jews or Palestinians, but we have people fighting each other.”
William Ek-Uvelius, a human rights advocate from Sweden, said, “When I was here in March there was no sniper up there.”
His colleague Elin Jansson Holmberg, a human rights lawyer, said the two were in the country as observers for a peace program.
“We are trying to feel what the people here feel,” she said. “We understand that both sides are scared of each other.”
Myong Su, a religious tourist from South Korea, said she was not afraid to come to the Damascus Gate.
“There is nothing to be scared of here,” she said. “It is all in God’s hands. It is all written down when we will die.”
Hatem Ganam, 57, sells duffel bags and backpacks at a shop just inside the Damascus Gate. “All the tension, all the pressure, is concentrated right here. All the insults, humiliations, searches. All here. It is a terrifying atmosphere, I promise you.”
“Damascus Gate is our gate,” the Palestinian merchant said. “The more the Israelis pull, the tighter we hold on.”