Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"No happiness, no hope" at Jerusalem‘s Damascus Gate

Juicebox Gallery

By Marta Feirra - March 08, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Damascus Gate] [Jerusalem]

Photos by Bao Yen.
It is a typical Thursday afternoon and an Israeli sniper stands on the rooftop of a building in front of the Damascus gate, which connects East Jerusalem with the Old City’s Muslim quarter.

More than twenty Israeli border police officers are spread around the gate observing passers-by, and the gate’s side stairways are closed by police barriers.

The sniper’s scoped rifle is pointed at the gate, one of the busiest and most central areas in East Jerusalem, but the people framed by his scope continue with their daily activities.

Old women wearing traditional Palestinian embroidery dresses sit on benches and continue chatting, street vendors sell fruits and vegetables, and a few tourists enter the Damascus gate to visit the Old city of Jerusalem.

Israeli security forces “have been on the rooftop for three months,” says Hussein, who owns a restaurant in the building where the watchful sniper stands, and prefers not to reveal his full name. “They closed the access to the roof and nobody can go there. They don’t even talk to us, they do whatever they want,” he tells the Palestine Monitor.

Following the recent wave of violence in the region, a reinforcement of security around the Damascus gate and new restrictions on movement have been imposed on locals. Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld published a statement on Twitter saying that the police was taking the “necessary” measures “to prevent and respond to recent attacks.”

Some of Hussein’s clients tell him they don’t know how he can continue living surrounded by dozens of heavily armed security officers, police dogs and a sniper on his rooftop. But what worries him the most is his empty restaurant.

“Tourists are afraid to come here. We used to have groups coming, and the restaurant would be full. Now nobody comes,” he laments. “We had three people working here but I had to send them home, now it’s just me and my son,” he continues. “There is no work, no money, no future.”

Shaped like a Roman theatre, the Damascus gate has been the main stage of violence in the last five months. An escalation of the long-running conflict started in the beginning of October, when two ultra-orthodox Israeli men were stabbed and killed steps away from the gate by a 19-year-old Palestinian, who was shot at the scene.

Since October, nearly 30 Israelis died in attacks carried out by young Palestinians, and at least 180 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, some while carrying out attacks and others during clashes with the Israeli army.

At least 15 of the attacks happened around the Damascus gate, which is the main entrance to the Al-Aqsa mosque, as well as a route for Jews heading to the Western Wall to pray. It has also traditionally served as one of the main meeting points and centres of East Jerusalem.

Karim Salim works in a hostel in front of the Damascus gate, and lives close to the Old City. While working just a few meters from the gate’s entrance, Karim heard gun shots several times in the last months. “Once it happened behind my back. There is no happiness here, no hope,” he tells the Palestine Monitor.

“The attacks backfire on Palestinians,” says Karim. Since the escalation of violence started “business dropped sharply and people are scared to come to the Old City,” he says, adding that his hostel has been much emptier in the last months.  

Star Bryans, a Canadian tourist travelling with her family, says she had a “travelling warning” but decided to come anyway.  Despite feeling safe, she admits that the presence of “guns everywhere can be intimidating.”

According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, around three million people visited the country in 2014, with Jerusalem receiving by far the largest number of tourists. Income from tourism constitutes a large part of the city’s economy. With added restriction on movement and security measures, merchants in the Muslim quarter estimate their business went down at least by half in the past months.

“Jerusalem is the best city in the world,” says Tarfiq, a shopkeeper who prefers to be identified only by his first name. “Tourists from all over the world used to come here, but lately it has been different, people are afraid to come,” he says.

From his shop, just a few meters away from the Damascus gate, he witnessed the last stabbing attack, carried out by a 20-year-old Palestinian, who was repeatedly shot by Israeli forces after wounding two border police officers. “I saw how the boy was shot 50 times. Why 50 times?” he questions. “The attackers are children,” he points out.

The young profile of most attackers, whose deaths have been criticised by human rights groups as “unlawful executions” and “unjustified use of lethal force,” have imposed harsher restrictions for Palestinian teens, who are frequently stopped, searched and sometimes barred from entering the Old City.

“My mother told me not to open my shop, she is afraid for me,” says Waal Nagy, another shopkeeper working right next to the gate’s entrance. “You can’t have your life here, everyone is afraid. I fear for my 13-year-old son. He wants to help me in the shop but I tell him not to come. I am always afraid for him,” he says.

A few meters away from Waal’s shop, border police officers stand next to a restaurant in the Via Dolorosa street, a celebrated place of Christian pilgrimage. “Sometimes many IDF soldiers stand in front of the restaurant, covering the entrance,” says Anwar Basti. The restaurant has been in his family since 1927. According to Anwar, in the last three months business went down by 80 percent.

“I don’t want to see blood on any side,” says Anwar. “When I see blood I feel very sad. The violence affects all Jerusalem”, he adds. “If the Old City is empty we all suffer.”



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