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Israel arrests Palestinians in Jerusalem after removal of Damascus Gate barricades

Israeli military police detain four Palestinians celebrating return to Old City gate plaza, as protests continued
Palestinian protesters chant national slogans at the Damascus Gate of the Old City in occupied East Jerusalem on 25 April 2021 (AFP)

Israeli military police detained four Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem on Sunday evening for chanting national slogans and waving Palestinian flags in celebration after tossing aside barricades that had blocked them from sitting on the plaza of the Old City's Damascus Gate, a popular gathering spot for Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinians have been protesting since the beginning of Ramadan on 13 April against an Israeli ban limiting their access to the full Damascus Gate plaza after Ramadan's night prayer, known as tarawih, ends.

On Monday, the Islamic Waqf in Jerusalem said that 72 settlers had entered the Al-Aqsa courtyard from the Mughrabi Gate despite days of tension in the Old City, official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa reported.

On 14 April, as Israel marked its national day, Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City and cut the wires of the minaret's loudspeakers. Israel also banned Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, Al-Aqsa's imam, from travelling on 19 April.

Samir Gheith, a 66-year-old Palestinian resident from Jerusalem, told AFP her community was excited for the arrival of Ramadan to visit and gather in the Old City, after long periods of Covid-19 related lockdowns.

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"I think [Israelis] don't want to see us be happy... but then they came to understand that they needed to put a stop to all these tensions," he said. 

In Jerusalem, Ramadan sees heightened tensions at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound
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Israeli police bowed to the pressure on Sunday evening as the occupied West Bank cities of Hebron, Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem, and al-Bireh saw protests. Meanwhile, Israeli forces repressed demonstrations at the military checkpoints of Qalandiya and Bethlehem.

Israeli police have maintained a heavy security presence at the Damascus Gate plaza. Two watchtower checkpoints were established there in 2018 and are used to stop and search Palestinians entering the Old City of Jerusalem, which has been occupied by Israel since the Middle East war of 1967, in contravention of international law.

On Friday, the US Embassy in Jerusalem tweeted a statement saying: "We are deeply concerned about the incidents of violence in Jerusalem over the last several days. 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.”

That same day, Israeli military police had closed one of the Al-Aqsa Mosque's gates, preventing Palestinians who gathered at Bab Hutta gate in the Muslim quarter from performing dawn prayer on the second Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

'Jerusalem is not alone'

The clampdown comes after far-right Israeli settlers took to the streets of Jerusalem on Thursday evening in a march to "restore Jewish dignity", chanting "Death to Arabs” and attacking Palestinians.

The clashes, which lasted from late Thursday evening until Friday morning, left 110 Palestinians and 20 Israeli policemen injured, while 50 Palestinians were arrested, according to Wafa.

On Sunday, for the third night in a row, five rockets were launched into Israel. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the political bureau of the Hamas movement, which governs Gaza, said on Sunday that "there is no calm if the occupation policy continues in Jerusalem".

'The youth of Jerusalem won when they forced the settlers and the occupation police out of the plaza and stairs of Damascus Gate and preserved Jerusalem’s Islamic identity'

- Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas

“Jerusalem is not alone in this confrontation, and Gaza is present with its valiant resistance to protect our people in occupied Jerusalem… The youth of Jerusalem won when they forced the settlers and the occupation police out of the plaza and stairs of Damascus Gate and preserved Jerusalem’s Islamic identity,” Haniyeh said. 

Over the weekend, Israel struck targets in Gaza, destroying what the army claimed were underground infrastructure and rocket launchers belonging to Hamas, and closed Gaza's fishing zone on Monday.

In 2020, the Al-Aqsa Mosque was shut twice after the coronavirus pandemic hit. The first closure was from mid-March to 31 May, while the second, from mid-September, lasted for a month.

Israel had banned Palestinians from entering the mosque for the whole month of Ramadan in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Israeli settlers were reportedly allowed to visit Al-Aqsa at the time, escorted by Israeli security and intelligence units.

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