JERUSALEM—As the alleyways of Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter began to empty on Sunday afternoon, a policeman in grey fatigues approached Ahmad Arafa and asked him to shutter his shoe shop.
“Can I smoke a cigarette first?” The 23-year-old vendor asked the officer.
“If you want them to turn over your stall, be my guest,” the policeman replied.
Soon, thousands of Orthodox nationalist teenage boys carrying large Israeli flags would flock through Nablus Gate, singing “Am Yisrael Hai” and “May our Temple be rebuilt.” Following Orthodox norms of gender segregation, the women would enter the Old City through Jaffa Gate, to the southwest.
Jerusalem Day, first celebrated the year after the conquest of the Old City by Israeli paratroopers during the 1967 Six Day War, was established as an official state holiday by law in 1998. But in recent years, the day has become a flashpoint of verbal and physical violence between Jews and Arabs struggling over the most cherished sites of their respective religions.
This year, moreover, the volatile holiday coincided with the start of the holiest month in the Muslim calendar, Ramadan, observed by Muslims worldwide through fasting during daylight hours each day to commemorate the first revelation of the Koran to the Muslim prophet Muhammad according to Islamic belief.
On Sunday morning, hours before the start of the march, the Supreme Court in Jerusalem heard the petition of a dovish Israeli organization, Ir Amim, to divert its route out of the Muslim Quarter. Ramadan, the petitioners noted, was to commence on Sunday night. (The final date is determined in Saudi Arabia at the last minute.) The meeting of an estimated 20,000 Jewish celebrators and thousands of Muslim worshipers who would be heading for the mosques could lead to violence, the organization warned.
Cognizant of the danger, the Court ordered police to allow “minimum friction with the Muslim residents” and show “zero tolerance for verbal and physical violence.” Marchers would be required to leave the Muslim Quarter by 7.30 p.m., Justice Elyakim Rubinstein ruled, and their wooden flagpoles would be limited in length to prevent possible vandalism, a lesson learned from previous years.
But Yahya Shabaneh, who’s been selling newspapers near Damascus Gate for the past 58 years, wasn’t going to take a chance. He was busy closing his tiny shop even before the police arrived to tell him to do so.
“I don’t want to see these people,” said the 73-year-old. “This demonstration is a provocation against Palestinians by the [Israeli] government and settlers. Better to go home and rest.”
Around Shabaneh’s shop, vendors were beginning to collect clothing items laid out on display. Some covered the locks on their sealed shop doors with masking tape, saying that Israeli marchers would sometimes stick toothpicks in the locks to put them out of use.
In previous years, the police would arrive days in advance and distribute pamphlets in Arabic requesting shop owners to shutter their doors from five o’clock “to prevent excessive friction on this day.” But this year, no such pamphlets were seen.
“Due to the proximity of Ramadan and Jerusalem Day, no one knows what to do,” speculated Arafa, the shoe vendor.
Near Jaffa Gate, 26-year-old Miri Fenton was returning from a demonstration opposing the provocative flag march. Along with some 200 protesters, she shouted “stop the occupation” and “Jewish and Arab women refuse to become enemies.”
“If Jerusalem Day did what is said on the can, to celebrate 3,000 years of history and the diversity of its population, I’d be all for it,” said the PhD student in mediaeval history who immigrated from London last summer. “As it turns out, the parade has become an explosion of racism and violence against a section of the city’s population, and that’s very sad.”
Fenton said it was important for her to show that “not all the Jewish residents of Jerusalem want to exert their unanimous control over all the [other] residents.”
Meanwhile, Yadidya Kahana seemed to take little issue with unanimous Israeli control. Watching the circle of teenage dancers outside Damascus Gate, the 42-year-old yeshiva high school teacher from Modi’in said the city’s Arab residents still had it better than anywhere else in the Arab world.
He argued that shutting Arab shops was a reasonable precaution for possible stabbing attacks against Israelis.
“This is the Land of Israel,” Kahana added. “We open its doors to everyone, unlike Arab countries where no Jews exist. Non-Jews are welcome to live here, but they need to know that this is our home.”
Elhanan Miller is a Jerusalem-based journalist specializing in the Arab world. Trained in Arabic and Middle East politics in the IDF and Hebrew University, Miller regularly comments on regional affairs in Arabic and English-language media.