Gate at the heart of a wave of violence

An Israeli police officer stands guard on a wall near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City. For the past five months, the 500-year-old gate has formed the backdrop to at least 15 attacks by Palestinians on Israelis.

JERUSALEM — For centuries, Damascus Gate has stood as the portal to the Old City of Jerusalem, opening onto a packed bazaar of souvenir shops, tea houses and falafel joints — and the holiest places for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

On Tuesday, a watchful Israeli sniper was perched in one of the gate's stone turrets, swiveling his scoped rifle, as Israeli border police milled about the entrance, warily eyeing the passers-by, a mix of Palestinian hipsters in the latest jeans, doing some shopping for their moms, and elderly Jewish rabbis with long gray side curls who were escorted through the gate by private security guards in flak jackets.

The tourists and pilgrims still come, but for locals, Damascus Gate is now a hot zone to be avoided, with squads of Israeli soldiers waiting in nearby buses and Palestinian teens frequently stopped, searched and sometimes led away.

For the past five months, a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis has marked a deadly escalation in the two sides' long-running conflict. According to a count by the Washington Post, more than 27 Israelis have been killed in knife, gun and vehicular attacks; more than 160 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli forces, 111 while carrying out attacks and 50 during clashes.

Damascus Gate has served as the backdrop — and the beacon — for at least 15 of those attacks.

The latest occurred Friday morning when, according to Israeli police, a 20-year-old Palestinian man stabbed two police officers before he was shot and killed. The Palestinian reportedly "walked through Damascus Gate and then turned around with a knife in his hand, ran at the officers and attacked them." One of the officers suffered knife wounds to the head, the other was cut in the hand and struggled with the attacker before shooting him.

In other recent incidents, police arrested a teenage Palestinian girl wielding knives and detained a Palestinian man with a knife up his sleeve.

The gate seen today was built by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1537 on top of an earlier entry into the walled city that the Romans erected in the emperor Hadrian's time. The Jews call it Sha'ar Schechem, or Nablus Gate. Arabs call it Bab al-Amud, Gate of the Column, for the obelisk left by the Romans.

Its English name reflects the fact that it faces north, toward Damascus. It may seem hard to believe amid today's wars and divisions, but it was once possible to hop into a taxi in Jerusalem and get driven to the Syrian capital.

"It is the most beautiful gate of all," said Ahmed Dandes, 48, who owns a small shop selling gentlemen's trousers inside the gate. "It is the path of three religions," a reference to the Jews' Western Wall, Christians' Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Muslims' al-Aqsa Mosque.

"It goes by many names," Dandes said. "Today we could call it 'Gate of the Martyrs.' Ten Palestinians have died." He pointed. "Just out there."

Rabbi Menachem Ben Yaakov, who works at the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, in the Muslim quarter of the Old City not far from Damascus Gate, passes through daily. Over the past few months, he has been accompanied by private guards hired to protect the rabbis and students at the yeshiva.

He said he thought the violence would eventually dissipate and that with the large contingent of police and soldiers, the area felt perfectly safe to him.

"I don't feel threatened," he said. "Jews should not be scared of going any place in Jerusalem. They have the security of the Great One — and Israeli security."

The Palestinians at the gate eye the Jews, and the Jews eye the Palestinians, who say they are careful not to make any sudden moves. These days, Palestinian youths are ordered not to congregate on the stone steps leading to the gate.

"Every day, we come here after school. It refreshes our souls," said Mutasem Afaneh, 15, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud.

Asked why Palestinians chose Damascus Gate as a site for attacks, the teen said, "Because this is where the police harass and humiliate the girls and the boys."

That is reason to grab a knife?

"For some," Afaneh said.

The first incident in the immediate area happened on Oct. 4, when Palestinian teen Fadi Alloun was accused by nearby Israelis of attempting to attack them. The crowd chased Alloun into the central square, where he was shot by Israeli police officers who had responded to a call. Palestinians say Alloun was lynched. Israeli police said he had a knife. Since then, at least 12 Palestinians have been killed at the gate or at the nearby tram stop.

As the violence continues, the Damascus Gate has become a popular backdrop for journalists to film a visual seam in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the gate is "the most tense spot in the city."

The high level of security extended even to journalists. On Tuesday, while conducting interviews at the Damascus Gate, Washington Post bureau chief William Booth and correspondent Sufian Taha were briefly detained by police on suspicion of causing incitement. The police later issued an apology, saying the suspicions were "without foundation."

Shai Glick, nephew of the Jewish activist Yehuda Glick, who was shot and wounded last year after advocating that Jews be allowed to pray at a contested religious site in the Old City, blamed the recent wave of violence on one incident, a stabbing that took place near here on Oct. 2.

"The Muslims and Jews that come to this place are against the violence, and until four months ago it was all calm here, the market was full and the people were doing real business," he said. "Then four months ago, a Palestinian teenager, not even from here, came and stabbed two people, killing them. After that, business has gone down by 90 percent and everyone is suffering."

Anna Mazur and Yvgeny Fesenko, tourists from Kiev, Ukraine, said they arrived in Jerusalem two days ago and were planning 10 more days to tour the country.

"The situation here does not bother us at all. We have a similar situation in Ukraine," Mazur said. "We don't have Jews or Palestinians, but we have people fighting each other."

William Ek-Uvelius, an activist from Sweden, said, "When I was here in March there was no sniper up there."

His colleague Elin Jansson Holmberg, a human rights lawyer, said the two were in the country as observers for a peace program.

"We are trying to feel what the people here feel," she said. "We understand that both sides are scared of each other."

Hatem Ganam, 57, sells duffel bags and backpacks at a shop just inside the Damascus Gate. "All the tension, all the pressure, is concentrated right here. All the insults, humiliations, searches. All here. It is a terrifying atmosphere.

"Damascus Gate is our gate," the Palestinian merchant said. "The more the Israelis pull, the tighter we hold on."

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