Israel must do more to assert Palestinian rights

The country cannot afford to tolerate racist assaults on its Arab residents

Israeli border police block members of "Lahava", a Jewish extremist group on approach to Damascus Gate to protest amid heightened tensions in the city, just outside Jerusalem's Old City, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

When the revered Ottoman architect Sinan designed Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate in the 16th century, he intended for it to be an aperture to the rest of the Muslim world. The doorway, which now serves as an entrance to the Old City, was historically the departure point for a road that linked Jerusalem to Nablus and on to Damascus.

Today, the Damascus Gate is known better as a site of frequent protests by the city’s Palestinian residents to highlight just how isolated they have become under occupation. Last week, demonstrations focused on the closure by Israeli authorities of the public space around the gate, using metal barricades to prevent young Palestinians from gathering there after sunset to socialise during Ramadan. They soon escalated into violent clashes, after a group of Jewish far-right extremists marched towards the gate on Thursday evening and harassed the protesters, chanting “Death to Arabs”.

In all, 50 people were arrested and 100 Palestinians were injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

Israeli policeman uses the Damascus Gate to watch Muslim worshippers leave the Old City of Jerusalem after Friday prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on Friday, April 23, 2021 in Jerusalem.  Israeli police say 44 people were arrested and 20 officers were wounded in a night of chaos in Jerusalem, where security forces separately clashed with Palestinians angry about Ramadan restrictions and Jewish extremists who held an anti-Arab march nearby. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Israel’s Arab neighbours were quick to condemn the extremists’ actions, with the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers both calling on Israel to do a better job of tackling anti-Arab racism within its borders. The UAE also expressed “grave concern”, urging Israeli authorities “to assume responsibility for reducing the escalation and putting an end to all attacks and practices that lead to a continuing state of tensions”.

The escalation, especially during Ramadan, is of concern to Arabs and Muslims globally. The UAE statement stressed the need "to preserve the historical identity of occupied Jerusalem, to restore calm and to exercise maximum restraint to avoid the region drifting to new levels of instability and threatening peace".

These kinds of incidents pose a significant threat to efforts at fostering peace. They have been helped by the cynicism that prevails in some of Israel's party politics, with mainstream politicians often drifting opportunistically to the extreme right of the political spectrum in order to outflank their conservative opponents.

Relatively small bouts of unrest can easily spiral into much larger bursts of violence and instability, and these can render long-term, peaceful solutions to the Palestine-Israel conflict more remote. In response to last week’s events, Hamas, the extremist militant organisation that controls the Palestinian territory of Gaza, has launched a barrage of rocket attacks on Israel. The Israeli military has responded with air strikes, adding to the broader sense of alarm in the region.

In a sign that Israeli law enforcement seem to recognise the need to de-escalate, police looked on calmly in front of the Damascus Gate on Sunday as Palestinians removed the metal barriers, restoring their access to the area. Thousands gathered to cheer them on, with some waving Palestinian flags. The celebrations were dampened, however, when the flags were swiftly confiscated. It was a reminder that even with this small victory, many more barriers lie ahead.