Among the several hundred people gathered outside the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem at midday Friday, nearly everyone knew their role – they had all done this before.
Friday was Land Day, marking the killing of six Arab citizens of Israel by soldiers and policemen during protests against government land seizures in 1976. There were reports of mass demonstrations planned this year on Israel’s borders to the north, east and south and in Jerusalem, and police were deployed in force around the Old City.
But outside Damascus Gate there was only a modest turnout. The protesters, perhaps 200 strong, were matched or outnumbered by policemen and journalists. This is normal. Few of the protesters seemed particularly enthusiastic, and none of the Israeli officers seemed particularly nervous. The dozens of reporters and TV crewmen looked bored; they cover almost identical protests all the time.
“We are here to protest for our rights and against the occupation,” Amar Zorba, a 29-year-old from East Jerusalem, told a reporter. It seemed to be a line he had used before.
The Palestinians, most of them men, waved Palestinian flags that someone had distributed. They listened to a speech. Then they kneeled in prayer, facing in the direction of the Al-Aqsa mosque, having been kept from entering the Old City by Israeli police restrictions. Policemen stood opposite them in a row, some in green, some in black, all equipped with riot gear. Near a bulky white vehicle with a nozzle on top – a water cannon for crowd control – a few mounted policemen sat atop horses impassively twitching their tails.
When the men finished praying, they began to march down the street waving flags and chanting. Someone threw a bottle that shattered on the street next to a few policemen and reporters.
The protest had advanced perhaps 50 yards when the police decided they had had enough, and what everyone knew would happen next happened next. The mounted officers, in their plastic armor, spurred their horses toward the crowd — against the Ottoman walls of Jerusalem, it was an oddly medieval sight — the hooves clacking on the asphalt as the crowd scattered. A few dozen riot police on foot followed the horses, and they were followed in turn by the lumbering water cannon. Officers pursued a group of youths around the corner, and tear gas wafted back out in the other direction. This went on for perhaps 15 minutes.
On Jerusalem’s northern outskirts, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, the same script was unfolding. “It’s a kind of play,” Israel’s public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, who was overseeing the skirmishes there, told a reporter for the Israeli news site NRG. “They throw things, and we respond.”
At the Damascus Gate, a Palestinian man was loaded onto a stretcher and taken away by a Red Crescent crew. An Israeli officer in a powder-blue shirt had his head bandaged, blood dripping down his cheek. Other policemen made a few arrests. Throughout all of this, a young Arab man in a baseball hat sold kebabs from a cart, paying no attention to the horses galloping to and fro a few steps away.
The potential for mass Palestinian unrest has not disappeared, but it was not in evidence Friday in Jerusalem. If the Damascus Gate protest can be said to have any significance at all, it is as a telling snapshot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, circa 2012: A dispiriting routine with few surprises, few colossal tragedies, and no hope at all that anything will change.