Ramadan in Jerusalem: moments of joy scuppered by violence

Ramadan celebrations have been marred by clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in East Jerusalem

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Although the lifting of coronavirus restrictions may have brought some relief this Ramadan, in occupied East Jerusalem moments of joy can be swiftly ruined by the march of riot police.

At Damascus Gate, a historic entryway to the Old City and Al Aqsa Mosque, Palestinians gather on the stone steps to while away the warm evenings under twinkling lights.

Young men arrive and unpack their shisha pipes and friends take selfies while shoppers peruse shiny pink bags at a blue-roofed stall.

With the day’s fast over, a vendor calls customers over for coffee, tea or lemonade with mint. Across the plaza, people pick up candy floss and popcorn.

But a glance up from the wide steps provides an instant reminder of the mayhem that has hung heavily over Damascus Gate this Ramadan, as police come into view.

Despite most coronavirus measures being lifted weeks ago, last month Israeli police set up metal barriers beside the gate and banned passers-by from taking a seat.

The move was seen as an affront to the Palestinian community and their Ramadan traditions, particularly after last year's celebrations were muted by the pandemic.

Nightly protests at Damascus Gate ensued, with heavily armed police clashing with Palestinian demonstrators. The worst violence accompanied the arrival of Jewish extremists, chanting “Death to Arabs”. More than 100 people were injured that night.

Such scenes prompted Gaza militants to launch dozens of rockets. There were retaliatory strikes from Israel, and journalists in flak jackets were reporting from the steps of Damascus Gate.

The descent into wider chaos was halted only when Israel approved the removal of the barriers, carried away by Palestinians who led chants of “freedom” and danced on the steps.

The moment of triumph was brief, however, as once the Palestinian flag was raised dozens of riot police raced into the square and sent the crowds running.

Skirmishes there have continued and, while there are hopes the worst is over for Damascus Gate, the violence has merely shifted to elsewhere in East Jerusalem.

Mounted police and a "skunk truck" have been used against Old City demonstrators in Sheikh Jarrah, spraying foul-smelling liquid which can cling to skin for days.

As fellow Palestinians gather each night in Damascus Gate, residents of Sheikh Jarrah meet to protest against eviction orders issued by Israeli courts.

Lasting calm this Ramadan remains elusive, with people left coughing for air as a stench hangs over the ancient city.