“We are deeply concerned about the incidents of violence in Jerusalem over the last several days,” read a statement released Friday by the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. “We hope all responsible voices will promote an end to incitement, a return to calm, and respect for the safety and dignity of everyone in Jerusalem.”
Since the start of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting and prayer, earlier this month, Palestinians and Israeli security forces have engaged in nightly clashes around Damascus Gate, which leads into the walled Old City and is a frequent flash point.
Palestinians typically fill the amphitheater-like plaza in the evenings after breaking the Ramadan fast. This year, Israeli police have tried to prevent them from gathering in the popular public square, enacting barriers and firing stun grenades and foul-smelling skunk water at those who defy orders to disperse.
Israeli police have said the restrictions are intended to ensure safe access for Muslim worshipers to the Al Aqsa Mosque inside the city walls.
But Israeli police said they would not prevent a march Thursday night in Jerusalem led by Lehava, an anti-Arab Jewish supremacist group. Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Jerusalem and on to Damascus Gate, chanting “Arabs get out” and “death to Arabs.” Police set up barricades a few hundred yards from Damascus Gate to separate the two sides.
Participants in the march said they were in part spurred by a series of recent videos on TikTok allegedly showing Palestinians assaulting religious Jews. In an apparent rebuttal, other videos have circulated showing Jews attacking Arabs, the Associated Press reported.
In the chaos that ensued, Israeli police clashed with both Palestinians and the Lehava-led crowd with water cannons, stun grenades and officers mounted on horses. Police also fired rubber-tipped bullets at Palestinian crowds, according to Israeli media. Israeli police said they arrested 44 people and another 20 officers were wounded. The Palestinian Red Crescent said it treated more than 100 people.
Incidents of violence took place throughout the night in nearby neighborhoods. One video circulating appeared to show Palestinians assaulting an ultra-Orthodox Jew. In another video, Jewish youth are seen allegedly attacking a Palestinian home in the Old City.
In the backdrop of Thursday’s clashes, loom election impasses drawing on the potent symbolism of Jerusalem for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it, a move that much of the international community has not officially recognized. Since the 1990s, peace plans have slated the east side of the city as the capital of a future Palestinian state made up of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the meantime, the semiautonomous Palestinian government is set to hold its first election in 15 years in late May. But in recent days the embattled Palestinian leadership, based in the West Bank, has said that the election will likely be delayed unless Israel permits Palestinian residents of east Jerusalem to cast their votes.
Under previous agreements, Israel agreed to let Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, who are not Israeli citizens, vote in designated post offices around the city. Israel, which otherwise bans the Palestinian Authority from operating in Jerusalem, has not yet said whether it will do so again this time around. Critics have accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of using the Jerusalem issue as a pretext for postponing the election.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to hold on to power following four inconclusive elections in two years. In an effort to sure up his voter base, Netanyahu aligned with Itamar Ben Gvir, the head of the extremist Jewish Power party, whose members include Bentzi Gopstein, the founder of the Lehava movement. Israel’s high court banned Gopstein from running for parliament in 2019 because of his extremist views.
Gopstein was present for Thursday’s march, which he had called a rally to “restore Jewish control” of Damascus Gate.