Trump Did Not Bring Jerusalem Crashing Down

In the Palestinian area of the city, many people just want to get on with their lives.

Ammar Awad / Reuters

JERUSALEM—After President Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on Wednesday, the Palestinian militant group Hamas called for three “days of rage” to protest the decision. Many people answered that call.

In Gaza, the Palestinian territory governed by Hamas a few hours south of Jerusalem, Israeli fire killed at least one Palestinian protester, according to The Associated Press. Journalists have reported a march of thousands of people in Amman, Jordan, roughly 40 miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies. Other protests are happening as far away as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan.

But Jerusalem—the political and geographical center of the debate—stayed relatively quiet. Although the comparative calm of Palestinians here may seem surprising, they, unlike Muslims in faraway places, may have more to lose from major protests.

On Friday, it seemed that every journalist in Jerusalem was waiting for something to happen at the Damascus Gate in the Old City—one of the most popular entrances Muslims use to reach the famous Al-Aqsa mosque for Friday afternoon prayers, and a common site for big protests. Yet the resulting melee was not the massive demonstration everyone seemed to be waiting for.

Israeli soldiers stood in dozen-person groups at the entrances Muslims use to reach Al-Aqsa, and in frequent smaller clumps all along the way. I asked one soldier stationed at the corner of Al-Wad, the street leading to the mosque, whether this Friday was any different from others, and whether he expected any problems. He smiled, and said it was the same as any other day. A few feet away, a man selling bread concurred. “Every day is a day of rage,” he told me in Arabic.

The divided city is one claimed by both Israelis (in West Jerusalem) and Palestinians (in East Jerusalem) as their capital, and American presidents have typically treated its status as an issue to be resolved through negotiations. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, people in the Palestinian half of the city are angry, but few seemed eager for the new intifada, or uprising, that some Muslim leaders are calling for.

Crowds of men began streaming into the city for midday prayers. A few older women obligingly shouted things like “Trump is bad!” when they saw the waiting crowd of foreign journalists. All was quiet for about an hour, and then the same giant crowd streamed back out, many people stopping to shop on their way back to the Damascus Gate, where the cameras were conveniently waiting.

The area outside Damascus Gate is literally set up like a stage: Big steps lead down on three sides to the lowered platform where people emerge from the Old City. A few dozen people stood on the steps and chanted in Arabic, holding a sign featuring a truck that called on America to “dump Trump” and another sign showing Trump’s lips as urinals. A throng of journalists surrounded this group, outnumbering them roughly three-to-one. As protesters moved, the cameras shifted around them, moving like a flock of birds near a power line. Most Palestinians, however, went home.

A half-mile away at the Educational Bookshop on Salah Eddin Street, Najwa Muna fussed with her coffee machine and worried. That morning, she and her husband Imad had opened their store as usual. But they had closed the previous day when young men came running by and yelling “Close, close, close!”

Palestinians in East Jerusalem have integrated with Israelis to a significant extent; they depend on Israel and its tourists for their livelihoods, so there’s a lot at stake if they decide to protest or strike.

“It’s not good for us,” Muna said. She doesn’t like strike days, when kids don’t go to school and people don’t work and they can’t open their store. It was “too dangerous” to stay open when Palestinian leadership called for a shut-down, she said. But “every time, it’s the same.”

The Munas’ store is fervently pro-Palestinian: They host speakers on the nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe” that Palestinians use to speak about the birth of Israel in 1948. Their bookshelves are lined with investigative journalism about human-rights abuses in Gaza, the mistakes of Zionism, and the future of Palestine. Najwa said she “shook” when she heard Trump’s announcement on television: “We feel like Jerusalem is being stolen from us,” she said. Even so, she and her husband are not looking forward to the prospect of an intifada.

“After Trump, it is difficult,” she said. “No one knows” what will happen. She’s hoping that the uproar over his announcements will pass: There will be disruptions in Jerusalem “maybe for a few days, and then they’ll forget,” she said.

“So many people are just living their life, and would be disinterested in politics,” said Omar Yousef, a Palestinian architect who has tracked the political developments in the city, on Thursday night. “Not like they support the government … It’s more, ‘I’m retreating from following all of the political details, because I don’t believe in the players.’” The same frustrations have led a lot of people to resignation and grief, he said, rather than violent anger. “Somebody told me, ‘Why are you outraged? What were you expecting from the States or Trump?’”

Back at the Damascus Gate, 22-year-old Wissam Abu Madhi watched the protests from the sidelines with a group of friends. He had been protesting, he told me, but stepped out to finish his cigarette. “This is not angry days. These are normal days,” he said. He came out to protest because he has “a lot of negative energy,” but he wasn’t surprised that the crowd was small. “For me, I can scream, I can shout, but I’m going to be safe.”

One reason why Palestinians in Jerusalem may be less eager to turn out for protests is the threat of being policed by Israeli forces, as opposed to Arab police forces in other countries that might be more friendly to the cause.

About two hours after the protest started, as minor scuffles with police began to break out, dozens of soldiers streamed into the area and started breaking up groups of protesters. Soldiers on horseback chased down groups of boys on the streets above. The feeling turned from staged to serious; the cameras had backed away by this point. A few people were injured, and a couple were dragged away to be arrested. But aside from occasional bursts of yelling and pushing and a few thrown bottles and rocks, things stayed relatively calm.

For his part, Abu Madhi says he wishes the Israeli government would make East Jerusalem a little nicer. “You’ve been to Tel Aviv sometimes?” he asked me. “Clean country, high-speed world, green trees.” He pointed to the Damascus Gate area. “Why shouldn’t we have here a garden, and here a basketball court? This thing that I prefer, the government could do.” Even though he came out for the protest, he’s more focused on finishing his degree at Hebrew University and keeping his job in Beersheba, where he works on air conditioners, than pushing for political change. “I know it’s selfish,” he said. “But that’s okay.”

Eventually, a man brought a tarp out to the area near the Damascus Gate for the next round of prayers. More than 60 men lined up before the Old City, facing a row of cameras, a line of Israeli soldiers just behind them. This was the most peaceful form of protest—and the most normal thing in the world.

“Just one hour, and you’re going to see everything’s okay,” Abu Madhi said. “You’re going to see an Arabic man and a Jewish man sitting here.”