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East Jerusalem: military checkpoints prevent Palestinians from entering the Old City and Al-Aqsa

9 October 2009

During the week leading up to 9 October, the Old City of Jerusalem and particularly the Muslim Quarter, were practically under siege and strict control of the Israeli armed forces. For the whole week there was a checkpoint at Damascus Gate which prevented Palestinian men from entering the Old City.

Damascus Gate is the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, to the Muslim Quarter and the souq (market) where many Palestinians live and do business daily. Entering the Old City from Damascus Gate also leads directly to the Al-Aqsa Mosque the third holiest place in Islam. Throughout the week the Israeli border police also guarded the Muslim Quarter from atop its ancient walls and, in addition, it was not permitted to Palestinians and tourists to enter into the Haram al-Sharif where the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosques are. ‘The situation is very tense in there’ I am told by an Israeli policeman ‘not good for tourists’. On Friday morning the atmosphere became truly tense.

The army’s helicopters had been circling overhead from around 7 am. Multiple checkpoints had been set up outside the Old City, including one in the middle of Nablus Road, a major artery leading to the bus station to and from the West Bank. At this checkpoint the Israeli police stopped any non-white man (including children and the elderly), but let women and white men go through without a second glance. Racial profiling continues and becomes stricter as we near the heart of the Old City. At Damascus Gate the Israeli regular police and the border police, fully armed, guarded the barricades and prevented any non-white male under the age of 45 from entering. The rules are unclear, however: in some cases it is under the age of 45 in some other cases under the age of 50. Again, women, white males and Israeli citizens go through with minor or no questioning.

Inside the Old City entrance to the Haram al-Sharif was forbidden to both tourist and non-white young males for Friday and Saturday, we are told this by an Israeli policeman. There are flying checkpoints scattered around the Old City, including one in front of the popular hotel, the Austrian Hospice. All access points to the Al-Aqsa had a heavily guarded checkpoint, manned by the regular police, border police and the army. People of the Jewish faith and with an Israeli citizenship can go into the mosque, however. Many of them are dressed in very traditional clothing and have been patrolling the Old City for several days. Armed men stand at the top of staircases and of the numerous steep alleyways of the Old City, they also stand on roofs and on the walls’ barbican.

The forces patrolling the Old City seem of four kinds: the regular police, the army, the border police and a group dressed in a fully black uniform. All ‘security’ forces in the streets and at the checkpoints carry machine guns, many policemen also carry tear gas. When it was coming up to mid-day prayer some shops opened around the souq simply to play the call to prayer as loud as possible. The call to prayer also came from the Al-Aqsa in a voice broken by despair.

Across the street from Damascus Gate the crowds of banished men gather, there are hundreds of them and they sit or kneel on the ground to pray, many of them use flattened cardboard boxes in place of the prayer rug. The spectacle is devastating. The men pour in the street and they move just slightly, without interrupting their prayer, when garbage trucks and buses drive by. Ten feet away, surrounding the crowd, stand the border police, heavily armed, many are wearing helmets and point their gun at the crowd under the disbelieving eyes of many internationals. Further along the outside walls of the Old City, smaller crowds of men gather outside Herod’s Gate and they pray facing the direction of their shrine.

It is difficult for us to get into Herod’s Gate as the Israeli police cannot understand why internationals would want to go into the Muslim Quarter, but we manage to pass through. In front of one of the checkpoints outside the Mosque, men pray in silence listening to the distant voice of the Imam. Soldiers stand in front of them with their guns, the men do not seem to notice them and bow three times at the end of their prayer in the direction of the Mosque. The prayer is over, soldiers appear from every corner and march towards the checkpoints, rushing the men away in order to prevent loitering. The atmosphere in the souq is demoralised, the men walk in silence away from their shrine with their prayer rugs over their shoulders.

This whole operation seems to have been done to provoke a violent reaction from the Palestinians and to justify the occupation in the eyes of the international community while peace negotiations are going on. But Friday 9 October passed peacefully in Jerusalem, with Palestinians praying in the streets at the prescribed times as many internationals watched in disbelief.