Hundreds of Palestinians celebrated at the Damascus Gate entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City on Sunday evening after police halted a controversial policy that barred Muslim worshipers from congregating in the area during the holy month of Ramadan.
Thousands of Palestinians had descended on the flashpoint area each night since Ramadan began on April 13 to protest the policy, which had seen the basin outside Damascus Gate filled with dozens of police divider fences, along with armed officers ordered to prevent anyone from sitting on the steps.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai told reporters Saturday that it was a longstanding policy implemented annually by officers in order to prevent crowding and allow for the free flow of visitors in and out of the Old City on Ramadan.
However, photos of Damascus Gate from previous years that were posted on social media showed the site packed with visitors and no police fences and roadblocks around the basin outside the gate, as there have been this month.
המפכ"ל שיקר היום מול המצלמות במצח נחושה כשאמר "הצעדים שנקטנו בשער שכם, נקטנו אותם גם בעבר".
זה שער שכם מרמדאן 2019
צילום של עיר עמים. pic.twitter.com/vp9DMX9dEg
— Yoel. H (@YoelH5) April 24, 2021
There have been times in recent years when the fences were installed, but that was done for a short amount of time, rather than for weeks on end.
Asked on Sunday to explain the discrepancy between photos of a packed Damascus Gate from previous years and the comments by Shabtai that longstanding policy has prevented crowding at the Old City entrance on Ramadan, police declined to do so.
Channel 12 spoke with a series of former senior officials in the Israel Police, including ex-commissioners, who called on Shabtai to scrap the policy as a demonstration of good faith to Palestinians during the particularly sensitive time of year.
Shortly after the network’s report aired, Shabtai ordered the scrapping of the policy.
The decision came “following consultations with local leadership, religious leadership, situation assessments, while taking into consideration the shop owners who need to make a living, and in order to lower the level of violence,” a police spokesman told AFP.
“Our forces are still deployed on the ground, and we won’t let violence resurge,” the spokesman said.
Hundreds of Palestinians, including male youths who tossed the barricades to the side, held celebratory rallies in the plaza, watched over by police.
Minor scuffles erupted after some of the revelers began waving Palestinian flags, moves which prompted police to briefly move into the plaza.
AFP reporters saw several young Palestinians being detained by police. Police said Monday morning that 12 people were arrested overnight for throwing rocks and glass bottles at cops or for assaulting passersby.
But the plaza remained open, with police maintaining a heavy presence in the area into Monday’s early hours.
Footage from Damascus Gate showed the area packed with visitors, as it had been in previous years, cheering and whistling in victory.
בהוראת המפכ"ל הורדו הגדרות שפיצלו את שער שכם למתחמים מה שהוביל להסלמה לטענת תושבי מזרח העיר.
כרגע מאות בכיכר שמחים וצועקים בערבית "בדם ואש נפדה את פלסטין". המחסומים הוסרו לחלוטין. הרגשת ניצחון אצל הצעירים pic.twitter.com/pFZVx4ld8L
— Haim Goldich | חיים גולדיטש (@HGoldich) April 25, 2021
The atmosphere contrasted starkly from that of previous nights, which have featured violent clashes.
More than 105 Palestinians were wounded late Thursday in clashes with police who found themselves in the middle of the Arab demonstrators and a mob of hundreds of Jewish extremists marching toward Damascus Gate, chanting “Death to Arabs,” “May your village burn,” and other hateful slogans.
Police used riot dispersal measures against both crowds, but reserved more severe means, including rubber bullets, for the Palestinian mob.
The Hamas terror group in Gaza, which has been firing rockets into Israel for the last three nights, allegedly in response to the clashes in Jerusalem, hailed the decision to remove the barriers as a victory for the “Palestinian youths against the occupation.”
Jerusalem has also seen a series of viral videos on the social network TikTok, which appear to show Palestinians attacking ultra-Orthodox Jews without any provocation. The clips have fueled Jewish anger.
The racist Lehava group, which led the Jewish protests, said in a statement that it would not be reconvening outside Damascus Gate on Sunday night, and instead would be offering Krav Maga classes for its activists. However, the group said that it would be prepared to take to the streets “to protect Jews, if police failed to do their job.”
Earlier Sunday evening, three Arab sanitation workers were attacked by a group of Jewish youths on Ben Sira Street in downtown Jerusalem.
One of the suspects was arrested, police said, adding that they found a knife on him. Officers were engaging in a manhunt for the remaining assailants.
Hours earlier, a Jewish Israeli distributing religious booklets at a junction outside the mixed town of Ramle was assaulted by an Arab teen. The 19-year-old suspect was apprehended shortly thereafter by police.
The victim received treatment for minor injuries at nearby Assaf Harofeh Medical Center.