Noon Monday, out of my office, past the YMCA, down the hill toward the Old City. Central Jerusalem is sweltering but couldn’t be quieter. Even the earthmovers that have been digging up the road outside the King David Hotel are on a break.
But a few hundred yards away, atop the Temple Mount, Palestinians have again been battling Israeli security forces. The violence, which has been raging for days, is an affront to the holiest place in Judaism, the site of the third holiest shrine in Islam.
The Mamilla shopping mall, an outdoor walkway with a mix of mass-market and high-end stores, is positively serene, shops sparsely populated, but cafes fairly full. The pedestrians include Israeli tourists, Palestinian kitchen workers, cops and security guards, and young men with kippot, tzitzit under white shirts and T-shirts, heading toward Jaffa Gate.
It’s still a few hours before the annual Jerusalem Day Flag March is due to start, and politicians and police have yet to decide whether the tens of thousands of mainly Orthodox-nationalist young Jews will be allowed to follow the usual route through the Old City, from Damascus Gate, via the Muslim Quarter to the Western Wall. Here at Jaffa Gate, a few dozen young men from a religious Zionist youth movement have gathered early and are singing and dancing in an impromptu circle.
At a police barrier at the top of the alley that leads into the Arab shuk, two officers halfheartedly ask pedestrians where they’re going, but don’t bother to listen for a reply. Perhaps a quarter of the stores are open; there are no buyers. Deeper inside the Old City, I run into other groups of white-shirted young religious Zionist groups: praying in a clearing near the Austrian Hospice, dancing in the vast plaza in front of the Western Wall.
At Lions’ Gate, nearby, an Israeli Jewish driver has just escaped an Arab mob by the skin of his teeth.
Walking toward Damascus Gate, from where the marchers may or may not enter this afternoon, I get the sense of time stopping, of a fateful moment — a balance that can swing either way, in the Old City and beyond:
Muslim Quarter residents are lining the narrow alleys, waiting for the Jews to march through and celebrate a reunification — one that these residents resist — of Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.
Israel has a transitional, riven government that may or may not be days away from the end of its rule, and an inexperienced police chief.
The main Palestinian leadership has just canceled elections, in tacit acknowledgment that it would have lost. Hamas is calibrating rocket fire from Gaza, and encouraging terrorist attacks from the West Bank.
Israel’s own minority Arab population, almost a quarter of the country, is being pulled in two directions: toward the increasingly overt and violent resistance to Israel that has been erupting daily in and around East Jerusalem, as underlined by demonstrations and violence in northern Israel on Sunday, in Arab and mixed Jewish-Arab cities including Haifa; and toward a declared bid for improved coexistence spearheaded, however improbably, by the leader of a conservative Islamist party, Ra’am. Even as Fatah and Hamas are seeking to stir up the Palestinian and Arab Israeli public into a sustained new era of intifada-style opposition to Israel, Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas may be about to become the first Arab political party leader in history to play a crucial role in the establishment of an Israeli government.
Within a very short space of time, this column will be overtaken by events.
The Flag March will have passed off peacefully, or been rerouted, or triggered an eruption of violence. Temple Mount will have calmed, or been desecrated still further. The toll of serious injuries will have given way to a toll of fatalities, heaven forbid, or the row of TV cameras I passed atop the steps leading out of the Damascus Gate a few minutes ago will have been dismantled, the crews off on the chase for action elsewhere.
Israel will have a new and different government, or a government similar to the last one, or no permanent government at all for another few months or more.
But there’s no mistaking that sense of fatefulness on Jerusalem Day 2021 — in a city, and a country, on a knife-edge.
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