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 stun 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 stun 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 stun 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 stun 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.
A number of young Palestinians at his side — all of them, they told this reporter, from Jerusalem’s Shuafat refugee camp — admonished him to contain himself.
One of them, Adham, told The Times of Israel that he had decided to come to the protest because of the extreme-right settler presence. Most Palestinians who spoke to this reporter declined to be identified by their last name for fear of police retribution.
“I came because they did. They provoked us,” Adham said, as stun grenades popped behind him. “And to defend the honor of Al-Aqsa [mosque], of course.”
Palestinians were remarkably unfazed by the stun grenades, water cannons and the dozens of police chasing them through the side streets around Damascus Gate.
“This is how we grow up. This is how they treat us. I’ve had five stun grenades strike my leg since I was a kid. If you lived what we did, you’d do the same thing. We go to clash the way you might go to work,” said Fathi, 17, also a resident of Shuafat refugee camp.
As he spoke to The Times of Israel, the black flags of the far-right Lehava protesters could be spotted descending a hill toward Damascus Gate.
A wall of armed, mounted police and barriers separated the extremist Jews’ rally from the Palestinians. The clash — which so many of them seemed to crave — was not going to arrive. The two sides were left to lob insults and chant at one another from behind ranks of police.
“Death to Arabs! Death to Arabs! All the people want revenge!” the Jewish extremists chanted.
The crowd of Jewish extremists — perhaps 500 strong — was young; the majority seemed in their teens and twenties. Black and yellow Lehava T-shirts filled the crowd, along with stickers declaring support for Meir Kahane, a notorious Jewish supremacist and one of Gopshtein’s mentors. A few off-duty soldiers strolled through the crowd, brandishing their weapons.
“The police are waiting for us to cry ‘death to Arabs’ to put an end to us. Well, we won’t let them. Whoever hits us will get what he deserves,” Gopshtein told the crowd in a speech.
Murmurs shivered throughout the crowd. “Let’s find some leftists! Let’s catch some leftists! Death to leftists!” A smattering of left-wing activists, were, in fact, in the crowd, recording the proceedings. Lehava members who spotted one of them began to grapple with one of them.
One right-wing activist approached another woman taking a video of the protest on her smartphone. He spat at her feet and began to scream at her, shoving his two middle fingers in her face.
“You’re killing our soldiers! You’re killing our soldiers!” he yelled.
Two religious teenage girls attending the protest looked on. One frowned at the right-wing activist before turning to her friend: “I mean, I agree with him, but it bums me out when he’s so rude. Even she is part of the people of Israel.”
Not everyone at the protest joined in on the cries of ‘Death to Arabs.’ Some stood silently, watching from the side or chatting amicably with friends.
“We’re just here to ask for Jewish sovereignty here, and to show Palestinians that they don’t have an excuse to blow up just because of Ramadan,” said Ephraim, who lives in Jerusalem, seeking to distance himself from the chants around him.
An Israeli eyewitness on the scene said that a middle-aged Muslim woman wearing a hijab had made the mistake of wandering past the Old City’s New Gate towards Damascus Gate, apparently unaware of the Jewish nationalist gathering.
The eyewitness said that right-wing activists pepper-sprayed her before police intervened and took the woman to safety.
Back by Damascus Gate, clashes between Palestinians and police intensified. Palestinians hurled stones towards police on the other side of the gate by Salah al-Din Street. Police responded with shock grenades. Water cannons swept up and down the area by Damascus Gate, firing gag-inducing skunk water along the streets.
The stun of shock grenades became nearly constant, thundering out over the city. A number of Palestinian demonstrators tipped over a massive garbage bin before setting it ablaze in the middle of the street.
“All we wanted to do was sit in the area of Damascus Gate and celebrate Ramadan, but even that we couldn’t do,” said Ahmad, a resident of the Old City, by way of explaining the clashes.
As this reporter ran to avoid stun grenades by Damascus Gate, Israel Police began to disperse Lehava’s rally some 100 meters away. It was unclear what prompted police to disperse the crowd, but they fired shock grenades into the crowd, sending them fleeing up the hill towards the Jerusalem Municipality.
As the Lehava activists left the scene, the water cannon began firing at them again — this time at scattered rally participants as they sought to exit the rally.
In any case, the Jewish supremacists did not remain dispersed for very long. Hundreds gathered in Tzahal Square, a five-minute walk from Damascus Gate, to make their stand against the police.
The atmosphere was festive: crowds of young men danced with one another in the streets, calling for revenge against Arabs. Clusters of yeshiva students standing on staircases, observing the fray, hurled plastic soda bottles at police.
“The people demand that the Arabs burn!” the Lehava activists cheered as they spun in circles.
A small cluster of counter-protesters had been standing in the square for hours. One counter-demonstrator, later identified as Nir Yanovsky, held up a sign saying “Jerusalem says no to violence.” A young woman wearing a Lehava t-shirt walked up and spat at his feet.
“That’s for traitors,” she told him, before calling to tell her friends that she’d found a leftist. Police attempted to intervene — closing ranks between Yanovsky and the Jewish extremists — but were unable to prevent a group of right-wing Jews from tearing his sign apart.
A water cannon sporadically fired shots over the heads of the right-wing Jewish demonstrators. But for about 25 minutes, the police waited to disperse the crowd as it lingered in the thoroughfare; officers occasionally lept into the gathering to drag out a suspect, kicking and screaming, into a white police van.
Finally, the police moved in to disperse the incident with water cannons and stun grenades. The Lehava demonstrators continued marching down Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street, calling for death to Arabs, hundreds milling about on the light rail tracks.
Slowly, the crowd trickled away, although the violence continued across Jerusalem late into the night. But the rage and hate lingered in the air, mixed with the smell of the skunk-water fired by police cannons, seemingly far harder to disperse.