To the local Israeli population, Jerusalem Day is a holiday celebrating the "reunification" of Jerusalem after it was taken by Israeli forces during the Six Day War of 1967. To the rest of the world, that translates to: Israelis relish in an annual celebration over that time their government destroyed 125 Palestinian homes in the eastern part of the city.
Not that they stopped there, of course; home demolitions continue at a frightening pace today, despite international condemnation of the so-called "Judaisation" of Jerusalem. Which basically makes Jerusalem Day an event commemorating the start of a 46-year-long sustained ethnic cleansing campaign.
The absolute best thing about Jerusalem Day, however, is watching the celebrations. Coming from the United States, I thought I'd seen the heights of jingoistic nationalism during our yearly Fourth of July celebrations, but it turns out I wasn't even close.
I started the day by walking with some friends to the Damascus Gate, the entrance to the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's old city. The plaza in front of the gate was filled with around 150 Palestinian protesters waving flags and chanting, as well as a dozen or so Israeli policemen who were armed to the teeth. I loitered for a bit and, after determining that nothing much was going on, made my way up to King George Street for the Israeli bit of the celebration.
What I found up there were thousands and thousands of people singing, dancing and wildly pogoing in what looked suspiciously like a state of pure ecstasy. I wondered if the revellers were conscious of the fact that there were no Arabs present. From Damascus Gate, where 150 Palestinians were struggling to have their existences acknowledged, to King George Street, where 10,000 Israelis were actively refusing to acknowledge it, I got a front-row seat to the spectacle of a definitively divided Jerusalem.
I wandered around taking photos for a bit, until I got a text from a friend back at Damascus Gate telling me things were "getting rowdy". I hurried back and found a police barricade surrounding the entire area. On the side of the barricade facing Jewish West Jerusalem, a group of black-clad Haredim (the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism) were gathered, staring down the cops.
I had to take the long way around the barricade to reach the Arab bus station, where the remainder of the Palestinian protesters had gathered. A friend told me that a small group of Jewish settlers had arrived at the Damascus Gate, and after some shouting between them and the Palestinians the police had cleared the square, swinging batons without warning and arresting several photographers.
Mounted police were also out in force at the bus station, and a few minutes after I arrived they started charging the crowd on their steeds. Jerusalem's horse cops are notoriously violent, famous for never stopping the animals mid-charge, no matter who they run down. I stuck around to witness some more horse charges and a couple of arrests, before things calmed down to an intense staring competition between a few remaining protesters and the cops. That got boring pretty quickly, so I decided to head back over to where the Haredim had been standing.
The barricade had been removed to allow exclusively Jewish access to the old city, and a group of about 30 settlers dressed in white – mostly teenagers – had installed themselves in its place. They chose the spot because the police had set up an impromptu holding cell there for the photographers they arrested, giving the settlers convenient access and allowing them to continue harassing the photographers with complete impunity and protection. Noble stuff.
At first, this was just a minor nuisance. The cops would drag a Palestinian or two off in handcuffs, the photographers would run after the cops and the settler kids would run after the photographers, trying to block their shots. But as it went on, the kids got more and more aggressive. I soon found myself surrounded by about a dozen of them. They grabbed at my camera and my backpack, shoving me back and forth.
One little bastard, about 12 or 13 years old, screamed, "Me Jewish! You goy [non-Jew]!" I pushed through the settler crowd to get a shot of the latest arrest and the kid yelled, "Knife! I have! I use!" He looked too small to be much of a threat or have the kind of determination it takes to plunge a knife into somebody, so I ignored him and followed the cops dragging the Palestinians away.
I was photographing a couple of handcuffed Palestinians sitting against a low wall, when I felt a sharp prick in the back of my knee. I turned around and caught a glimpse of the kid who'd threatened me earlier. The little dickhead grinned at me before scurrying off. Whatever he had wasn't a real knife, but it was sharp enough to hurt. Crossing my fingers in the hope that it wasn't a dirty needle or some rusty compass from his school pencil case, I decided to see just how much impunity the settlers had and approached a cop.
"Hey, the little one has a knife. He just tried to stab me," I said.
The cop looked at me confused, so I repeated myself.
"Which?" he asked.
I pointed him out again: "That little one, right there."
The kid was still just standing there, grinning at me like I'd just given him a brand new micro-scooter splattered in cow's blood, or whatever it is that junior sociopaths are into.
"You talk to my commander and he arrest him," the cop told me. So I walked up to his commander and repeated the story.
"Saakin?" the commander asked, using the Hebrew word for knife.
"Yeah, him, the little one." The commander looked at him, still just standing there grinning, then walked off in the opposite direction.
I wasn't really expecting the police to arrest him, but I was hoping they'd take the knife away – for his own protection, if anything. But no, not in Israel. This is how established the climate of impunity for settlers has become; there doesn't seem to be anything they can do that warrants the slightest police investigation. I later saw a group of slightly older settler kids viciously attacking a Palestinian cameraman while the police watched on indifferently from ten feet away.
A while later, a couple of friends and I carefully made our way through the settler crowd gathered outside Damascus Gate and into the Muslim Quarter, following the road that leads past al-Aqsa Mosque and out to the Wailing Wall. The old city was eerie – eerily quiet, eerily dark and eerily segregated. The Jewish majority marched proudly past Palestinian shops that had been closed by police order, past barricades keeping Palestinian residents of the old city from leaving the streets they live on.
I wondered if they knew that this was an actual neighbourhood they were marching through; if they knew that Palestinians were confined to their homes for the duration of the march, potentially terrified by the display of strength from a country intent on taking everything they have. I decided that those who knew probably thought this was a good thing and that the rest just didn't care at all.
After a quick stop at the jam-packed Wailing Wall Plaza, I made my way back through the Jewish Quarter of the old city. There were no police barricades or closed shops, just residents mixing happily with tourists. I got on a bus and rode back to my West Bank apartment in silence. The day before, I'd taken the same route and we'd been boarded by soldiers demanding everyone's documents. The bus had been full of high-school kids on their way home. One of them was arrested because he forgot to bring his ID card. A friend later pointed out that this is their school bus – they ride that route every day from the time they start going to school as children, subject to random arrest by Israeli soldiers at any time.
Jerusalem Day is a gigantic nationwide celebration of this system; a jubilant parade honouring modern-day apartheid. It's a good thing I never had much faith in humanity, because I definitely would have lost it on Jerusalem Day.
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