Protests were some of the most violent in years, with dozens of Palestinians and cops injured, random attacks on Jews and Palestinians across the city, and mayhem in downtown
Thursday night may have been one of the darkest Israel’s divided capital, Jerusalem, has seen in a long time.
Hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police close to Damascus Gate of the Old City over what they deemed unfair restrictions during Ramadan. 21 were rushed to an East Jerusalem hospital for treatment, including one who was shot in the head by a sponge-tipped bullet by Border Police, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Hundreds of far-right Jewish activists, many affiliated with the Jewish supremacist Lehava movement, marched to the Damascus Gate, calling out “Death to Arabs.”
Police responded to both incidents with sound grenades and water cannons, arresting over 50 people. But officers were considerably quicker to act against Palestinians and used far greater force in doing so, including sponge-tipped bullets. They were also more hesitant to forcibly disperse the Jewish extremists, using riot dispersal tools far more gingerly.
While hundreds of sound grenades were deployed around Damascus Gate as roving bands of police sought to disperse every Palestinian gathering, only a few of the devices were used against the Lehava extremists.
Jewish extremists attacked a home in the Old City, seeking to set it on fire. In a video distributed on social media, Arab men can be seen beating a Jewish driver in Jerusalem’s Wadi Joz neighborhood before setting his car ablaze.
The surge in violence began last week, on the first night of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was apparently sparked by a decision by Jerusalem police to prevent Palestinians from sitting on the steps of the Damascus Gate. In an unofficial — but tremendously resonant — Jerusalem tradition, thousands of Palestinians often sit in the area following nighttime prayers during Ramadan.
A spokesperson for Jerusalem Police told The Times of Israel earlier this week that the policy had been intended as a form of riot control.
“There are always riots. Now, they’re just using the barriers as an excuse. So if there weren’t barriers, what would we have then?” Jerusalem Police spokesperson Shimon Cohen said on Monday.
But whatever one thinks of the idea, it appears to have backfired. Every night of Ramadan so far has seen intense clashes between Palestinians and police close to Damascus Gate, with dozens injured.
Jerusalem has also seen a series of viral videos on the social network TikTok, which appeared to show Palestinians attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews without any provocation. It is unclear whether the attacks were related to anger over the Damascus Gate restrictions or not, but the videos fueled a growing atmosphere of anger.
In response, young far-right Jews have “searched for Arabs” by the dozens in downtown Jerusalem over the past few nights, speaking with passersby to try to identify whether or not they were Arab. If any were discovered in their midst, they hurled bottles, yelled insults, and in one video on social media sprayed mace into the eyes of an Arab bystander.
Two journalists from Israel’s Kan public broadcaster were attacked at Jerusalem’s Zion Square by Jewish extremists on Wednesday night, which also saw running street battles and random attacks.
But the scale of Thursday night’s clashes was taken to a new level when Jewish supremacist Bentzi Gopstein, who directs the Lehava organization, called for a rally to “restore Jewish control” of the Damascus Gate area.
“We cannot allow the Arabs to continue their provocations and beatings,” Gopstein told The Times of Israel on Thursday evening.
Asked whether he hoped it would be a quiet night, Gopstein replied cryptically: “I hope the police do their job, so we don’t have to do it for them.”
As soon as Gopstein called for his faction, Palestinians seeking a fight knew where to go.
By the time this reporter arrived at the scene, Gopstein’s disciples had yet to arrive, but the first sound grenades were already arcing over the Palestinian crowd. It was impossible to tell who had started the clashes, although some Palestinians claimed police fired the first shots.
As shock grenades burst among clusters of young men, the demonstrators scattered, breaking into stampedes in every direction. Witnesses at the scene put the crowd in the low hundreds.
Close to 10 p.m., Palestinians began milling about, gathering into clusters around Damascus Gate that were immediately dispersed by police, either by mounted officers or by sound grenades.
A rumor quickly spread through the crowd that the Lehava ultra-nationalists and their supporters had arrived. Dozens of Palestinians sprinted toward police roadblocks, seeking to clash with the Jewish far-right.
“With spirit and blood we’ll redeem you, O Aqsa!” the Palestinians called out as they rushed towards the barriers.
When it became clear that Lehava had not yet arrived, the Palestinian demonstrators returned to their game of cat-and-mouse with police.
“I want to bash in the face of that Haredi,” said Ashraf, a drunk, middle-aged Palestinian man snarled, gesturing at a pale-faced man silently watching from the neighboring light rail tracks. He brandished a makeshift wrench he’d brought along for the fray.