Jerusalem Day in the Old City: The Conflict Marches On

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Yin Dongxun/Xinhua/

Israeli youth covered by national flags march marking Jerusalem Day in front of Damascus Gate outside Jerusalem's Old City on May 20, 2012

Sunday was Jerusalem Day in Israel, a holiday once again observed by thousands of young Jews who chanted as they marched through Arab neighborhoods conquered in the 1967 Six Day War. The tension is always highest in the narrow passages of the largely Palestinian Old City. So much so that the city’s police this year tried to route the column of youths — most singing patriotic and religious songs, a few chanting “Death to the Arabs” — away from the Arab Quarter. But in the end, the police proved powerless against tradition, and the original route was restored. On Jerusalem Day, marching through the Arab Quarter is the whole point.

“The message is today we feel we can walk here without fear, while other days we do fear,” says Adi Falah, standing just inside Damascus Gate.  He had traveled from a small town in the Negev Desert, more than an hour away, to stand inside the entrance to the Arab Quarter, the largest section of the walled city that forms the core of a sprawling modern city of 800,000 — a core most Israeli Jews avoid walking through. The Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism — TIME photographer David Rubinger’s iconic 1967 photo captured awestruck Israeli paratroopers catching their first sight of it —  stands just inside an entrance on the walled city’s south side. It’s easily accessed, in other words, without a march that Palestinians regard as baldly provocative. 

“The one who can’t remember his past can’t have a future,” says Falah’s wife, Dganit. Like most of those around them, he wore a colorful knit skullcap, she a knotted headscarf, the headgear of Israel’s religious nationalists — the part of Israeli society that drives the movement to settle the West Bank, which they call by its Biblical names, Samaria and Judea. Nearby a pair of teenagers, one from the West Bank outpost of Migron, the other from the hardcore settlement in Hebron, hawked orange T-shirts for 20 shekels each. The Hebrew lettering read, “Jews, Let’s Win.” Against whom? “All the gentiles,” one of them says. “All the enemies.”

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The shops lining both sides of the stone street stood closed, literally shuttered by galvanized metal shades that Jewish youths beat their fists against in time to their chants: “The Israeli nation is still alive!” “The third Temple will be built soon!” Some youngsters gave the shutters a quick, angry kick as they rushed by.

“They dance. They destroy. They do everything they want, you know. This is every year,” Eyad Hidmi was saying an hour earlier, as an employee hosed down the cement floor of the shop that Hidmi’s family has owned for generations. It was one of the last still open as Arab business owners hurried out of the Old City before the Jerusalem Day celebrants arrived. (Police had distributed a flier asking everyone to be out of the way by 5 p.m.)  They would have left on their own, of course. Jewish Israelis are not the only ones who feel ill at ease in the Old City; the Arab Quarter also has settlers — waving flags from the rooftops of nearby buildings bought by Jewish groups that want to reclaim the entire Old City and are protected by Israel’s security apparatus. The 18 police officers visible from Hidmi’s storefront were not the reason that Arabs hadn’t thrown a stone at the column in years, he explains.

“You have cameras everywhere,” he says, pointing over his left shoulder. A closed circuit lens labeled “223” was perched above the ceramic sign announcing Khan Az-zait Street. Another gazed from the alleyway over his right shoulder. A third was straight ahead. “Nobody throws a stone now,” he says. “Anyone moves, eight years in the prison.”

Born in 1962, Hidmi was 5 years old when Israeli troops entered the walled city, which had been under the control of Jordan since 1948. The date was June 7, 1967, but in Israel the holiday is observed by its anniversary on the Jewish calendar, context being everything here. “I was crying,” Hidmi says. “I asked, ‘What happened?’ to my father and my mother.”

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