March of the Zealots

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Which Side Are You On?

By David Kattenburg

Ecstatic Zionists celebrating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s conquest of East Jerusalem, this past Wednesday, were greeted by equally passionate Jewish-American and Israeli protesters intent on blocking the zealots’ march through the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s old city, into the heart of the Arab quarter.

The annual March of the Flags — commemorating the unification of east and west Jerusalem in the wake of the June 1967 war — is customarily accompanied by tribal chanting and acts of hooliganism, as young Israelis parade through the old city’s narrow alleyways chanting rousing slogans such as “Death to Arabs.” Israeli police ensure in advance that Palestinian shops are shuttered tight — a process referred to as ‘sterilization’. Hard to imagine a sensible shopkeeper doing otherwise.

Israeli police prepare for sterilization.

In response to this year’s display of Zionist supremacy, members of the groups If Not Now, Free Jerusalem, All That’s Left and J Street U locked arms at the threshold of the gate, singing songs and holding their ground. It took an hour for police to violently clear them out, dragging or carrying them as they yelled and screamed. One protester suffered a broken arm. 

I had arrived on the scene hours earlier, in a Palestinian bus from Beit Jala. At the Jaffa Gate, beyond a large tour bus marked ‘Birthright Israel’, a large crowd of Zionist youth waved flags and cheered as they made their way toward a set of stairs leading to the ramparts of the holy, walled city. Throughout the Jewish quarter, a sense of festivity wafted through the warm spring air. Many wore Israeli flag T-shirts.

Well protected Israeli youth tour old Jerusalem

Groups of young Jews strolled down the narrow alleys leading toward the Arab quarter, accompanied by armed police and security. I came across a group of women joyously singing verses from the Torah. Click on the audio link below.

I walked down the Suq Khan Ez-Zeit towards the Damascus Gate. Normally, the suq is packed with tourists and shoppers. Today was quiet. Outside a popular grill beyond the gate, I came across the Jewish-American protesters, gearing up to do some shopping, in support of the local economy.

Young women sing ecstatically.

As the critical hour approached, I came across them again, just inside the Damascus Gate, filling the seats of a juice shop. Tensions were rising. Nearby, an African-Palestinian by the name of Ali Jiddah explained to a Japanese film crew the ugly way Jerusalem Day typically unfolds. Ali, an independent tour guide, is well known here. The “Mayor of Jerusalem,” he’s called. Ali spent almost two decades in Israeli jails. Concerns over the Palestinian prisoners’ Freedom and Dignity strike show on his face.

Palestinian man rescues his wife

I decided to check out Damascus Gate plaza, where film crews and photographers had begun to gather. A scuffle broke out on the upper steps, and everyone rushed over to catch a glimpse. Hard to tell what had transpired. A middle-aged man was shielding his wife from the aggressive advances of a burly policeman.

Suddenly, in the center of the plaza, a mob of young Jews began prancing in a big circle, chanting loudly. The time of reckoning had arrived. Click on the audio button below.

Proud Zionists dance and chant.

I turned around and saw that the American and Israeli protesters had taken up position, arms locked, a banner reading ‘End the Occupation’ in English and Hebrew clutched to their chests.

The Zionists marched towards them, snatching away their flag. Some shoved their way around the protesters. Others pulled back and watched, as Israeli border police arrived in numbers. Click on the audio button below.

American Jewish activists blocking Damascus Gate.

If this had been a group of Palestinian protesters, truncheons and tear gas would already have begun to fly. Instead, police stood around for a while, seemingly perplexed about what to do next.  A couple of protesters were dragged away, screaming, but others held tight. Click on the audio buttons below.

Israeli border police unsure how to proceed.

Taken aback by their obdurate fellow Jews, police turned their attention to forcefully clearing the plaza of onlookers and journalists — local and independent types, all of them. None of the mainstream media were present.

With the plaza cleared, police returned to the dozen protesters who stubbornly remained, beyond the view of journalists and onlookers now gathering on the other side of Sultan Suleiman road from the Damascus Gate, blocked off by metal barriers and a phalanx of heavily armed police, several of them on magnificent horses.

A large crowd of Palestinians had gathered, chanting and waving flags. A pair of police cameramen slowly swept the crowd, gathering useful evidence for the sort of home invasions that take place each night in Palestinian neighborhoods throughout East Jerusalem.

Israeli activist Guy Hircefeld gets in a policeman’s face.

Many Palestinians are stoic

By early evening, as protesters continued to clap and chant, large throngs of patriotic Jerusalemites began streaming down from the western part of the city, pushing strollers, kids in tow. A clearly joyous occasion for many Israelis. For those with more prosaic issues on their mind, however — getting out of town, for example — the mood was less celebratory. Mass transit shuts down on Jerusalem Day, and taxis are as rare as kosher hen’s teeth.

A gentleman with a car kindly offered to drive me to the Bethlehem check point for 150 shekels. There I grabbed an ordinary taxi to the lovely Palestinian town of Beit Sahour. What a relief to return to the peace and quiet that prevails beyond Israel’s Separation Wall — a mere dozen kilometers south of the Jewish State’s ‘undivided’ and ‘eternal’ capital!

All images by David Kattenburg

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