Visiting the most contested city in the world.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and considered holy within all of the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the beginning of Islam, Muslims used to pray in the direction of Jerusalem before the direction of prayer was changed to the Ka’bah in Mecca. For Muslims, Jerusalem is home to the Dome of the Rock (built in the 7th century AD) on the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound (referred to as the Temple Mount by Jews) and is the third holiest city in the world. It is the holiest city in Judaism and one of the holiest cities in Christianity. Visiting Jerusalem was important for me due to both its historical and religious significance.
It’s important to note that access to the Al Aqsa compound is hotly contested. Per my Old City tour guide, each year during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam, when many worshippers pour into Al Aqsa for prayers, they are frequently met with violence and aggression by both settlers and riot police, resulting in frequent headlines of “clashes” at or near the compound.
Add to this that the extremist “Temple Movement” of Jewish and Christian Zionists call for the destruction of the Muslim sites at the compound so a third Jewish temple can be built on the site (the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans when they destroyed the city in 70 AD). The guide of my Old City tour, who was Israeli and Jewish, was very concerned about this movement moving into the mainstream. Some of the Temple Movement activities are directly funded by the government of Israel.
The Status of East Jerusalem
The status of Jerusalem is disputed and both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital. Israel occupied East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1980. However, the majority of United Nations member states do not accept this as Jerusalem’s final status and locate their embassies in Tel Aviv with the exception of the USA (a move under the Trump administration which the Biden administration has not reversed), Honduras, Guatemala and Kosovo. The United Nations considers East Jerusalem to be part of occupied Palestinian territory.
”East Jerusalem is subject to the principles set out in Security Council resolution 242 (1967) of 22 November 1967, notably the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force, and is therefore not under Israeli sovereignty … the Fourth Geneva Convention is fully applicable to East Jerusalem, as it is to other territories under occupation.” — The Status of Jerusalem — United Nations
The status of the city is described as “one of the most intractable issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
24/7 Surveillance Means Facial Recognition Cameras are Everywhere
I primarily used the Damascus Gate to enter the Old City, a gate thousands of Palestinians pass in and out of everyday. Directly facing the gate and monitoring the open forum area are two tall posts equipped with dozens of cameras. These cameras are equipped with facial recognition technology and are reportedly part of a plan to create a database of Palestinians. Outside of the Old City, I also saw similar camera posts like this situated directly in front of a mosque. I’ve only seen this level of surveillance in Tiananmen Square in China.
The Constant Presence of Armed Soldiers Felt Oppressive
Two police outposts housing militarized police officers (I thought they were soldiers at first) flank the area around the Damascus gate. The officers carry rifles with them and appear heavily armed. On my last evening exiting the Old City, I noticed an officer in one of the outposts had his rifle casually resting on a windowsill pointing out into the street as people walked and cars drove by. I was afraid the gun would go off.
It’s about a 20 minute walk from the Damascus Gate to the Al Aqsa compound and there are police stationed throughout different points of the walk. There are also cameras throughout that walk. As an American whose country has issues with police brutality and mass shootings, the militarized Israeli police were scary and triggering for me. So much so that I skipped walking through the Old City to the Dome of the Rock (a daily ritual for me) one evening because I felt anxious about coming across the police stationed along the route.
I wore a hijab and abaya to go to the mosque and since I presented visibly as Muslim, I definitely felt profiled.
Although the Old City is beautiful and people continue to go about their daily lives within it, the environment created by the police, cameras and resulting profiling felt very oppressive to me.