Witnessing the Transformation of Jerusalem’s Old City into an Empty Shell | Impact of Israel’s War on Gaza

Occupied East Jerusalem – Within moments of arriving at Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances into the Old City of Jerusalem, I found myself surrounded by four Israeli paramilitary officers.

“What’s in your bags?” one of the officers asked as she began unzipping and rummaging through my backpack, clearly not about to wait for my answer. Another snatched my purse to look inside it.

For once, I felt what it is like to be a Palestinian male in occupied East Jerusalem. Men – young ones in particular – are searched by Israeli officers daily, almost always arbitrarily.

“You’re not allowed to sit here,” they told me.
“I’m standing, not sitting, and I’m waiting for a friend,” I replied.
“You’re not allowed to stand here.”

It took me a moment to process what I had heard. Here I was, in a public space that has special meaning and memories for almost all Palestinians in Jerusalem, being told by Israeli officers that I wasn’t even allowed to stand there.

As a Jerusalemite myself and as a journalist who has been covering the city for the past decade, I have watched the liveliest and busiest commercial centre for Palestinians, tourists and pilgrims in Jerusalem turn into a ghost town.

From the start of Israel’s bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip on October 7, Israeli forces have imposed a strict lockdown on the Old City, which is in the eastern, occupied side of Jerusalem. Only those with their addresses registered within the 16th-century walls are allowed to enter through what residents describe as a siege.

On February 9, however, Israeli forces had loosened the restrictions slightly, permitting a limited number of Palestinians from outside the Old City to enter for Friday prayers. It was for this reason that I was at Damascus Gate, Bab el-Amoud in Arabic, the largest and the most magnificent of the Old City’s seven open gates, used mainly by Palestinians and tourists.

Surrounding the 12-metre (40ft) walls of the gate is a large, semi-circular amphitheatre, where Palestinians have traditionally gathered to sit and sip coffee with friends and family. The gate’s architecture and location have long rendered the space a cultural and political Palestinian icon.

I looked on in shock at the scene before me: groups of officers guarding the small opening between the metal barricades – essentially checkpoints – placed at the top of the staired plaza, only enough room for one person to enter at a time.

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