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As Jerusalem simmers, bus driver recalls harrowing trip through deluge of stones

Tensions remain around Old City’s flashpoint Damascus Gate, day after violent flare-up during which rioters attacked buses: ‘People saw death coming’

Police arrest a Palestinian youth outside Damascus Gate near Jerusalem's Old City, on October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police arrest a Palestinian youth outside Damascus Gate near Jerusalem's Old City, on October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tensions around Jerusalem’s Old City remained taut Wednesday, a day after simmering anger exploded into some of the worst fighting seen in months near the Damascus Gate, in what one bus driver caught in the violence called a “war zone.”

In a break from intense clashes seen in previous days, Wednesday saw only sporadic reports of fresh violence at the flashpoint site near the seam between East and West Jerusalem.

Videos widely shared on social media showed officers manhandling and shoving a young boy as he argues with police.

There was a heavy police presence around the gate and a heavily trafficked plaza adjacent to it, as officials sought to crack down on days of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis, and between Palestinians and the police, which had culminated in Tuesday’s clashes.

Police were also deployed to protect a group of lawmakers from the far-right  Religious Zionism party who visited the area in a provocative display Wednesday.

“Jerusalem is ours, of the people of Israel forever and ever, the rioters cannot harm our eternal capital,” party head Bezalel Smotrich declared.

On Tuesday, 22 people were arrested and 17 injured in rioting at Damascus Gate during which Arab residents of East Jerusalem hurled stones at police and passing city buses.

Three buses were damaged in the attacks.

Bus driver Yehezkel Shmueli said he shouted at passengers to lie on the floor as the vehicle passed the Damascus Gate and came under a hail of stones.

“There were shouts, crying, trauma,” he told Channel 12 News.

“People saw death coming,” Shmueli said. “It was a war zone.”

Screen capture from video of Egged bus driver Yehezkel Shmueli. (Channel 13 News)

He told Channel 13 News that he was hit with glass in his face as a stone shattered a window, leading him to hit the gas “to escape that inferno.”

The driver said he had been aware that there had been stone-throwing incidents in the area of Damascus Gate earlier in the day, but was told that police had arrived on the scene and would secure the bus.

“They sent a person into a minefield and said to him ‘pray that you don’t step on a mine’,” said Shmueli who was hit in the stomach and leg with stones.

A passenger was also lightly injured.

The Egged bus company, which runs Jerusalem’s city buses, said in response that it “trusts that Israel Police will do everything in its ability to calm spirits and restore quiet at Damascus Gate.”

Screen capture from video of an Israeli bus damaged in rioting by Palestinians at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, October 19, 2021. (Channel 13 News)

In another incident, undercover cops moved in to arrest one of those throwing rocks but then they themselves were pelted.

One of the officers, fearing the situation had become life-threatening, pulled out his pistol and fired shots into the air. Video of the gunfire was shared on social media.

Tensions in Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israeli security forces have been rising since early October. The two sides have repeatedly clashed near Damascus Gate, leading to “dozens of arrests” over the past few weeks, according to Israel Police.

According to a spokesperson for the Egged bus service, “dozens of buses” have been damaged over the past few weeks due to Palestinian stone-throwing in the area.

The cause of the violence is not clear, but on Tuesday Palestinians said the clashes were set off after police blocked an annual gathering in and around Damascus Gate to mark the birthday of the prophet Muhammad.

Channel 12, however, reported that police believe bored youths looking for excitement with schools in East Jerusalem closed for the holiday fired each other up over social media and then headed out to clash with security forces.

Of the 22 people arrested during the rioting were minors, the station reported.

Leader of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich, center, flanked by other lawmakers from fright-wing parties, visits the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police used tear gas and flashbangs against the demonstrators. Police cannons also repeatedly sprayed foul-smelling skunk water over the streets and plaza near the archway in an effort to disperse the Palestinian protesters.

The clashes were some of the worst in the Old City since May, when violence in the tense area helped ignite an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.

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