As one approaches the white walls of the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem, an amphitheatre-style set of stairs takes one down to the famous Damascus Gate.
Business owners carrying large trays atop their heads clamber up and down and women in hijab and men with traditional Palestinian keffiyehs sit along the limestone steps as Israeli soldiers watch them with their guns pressed to their chests.
For Palestinians in Jerusalem, Damascus Gate is a site of community, culture and political significance - but in October, the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem erected a sign reading “Ma’Alot Hadar VaHadas, or “Hadar and Hadas Steps” in Hebrew, after Israeli border police officers Hadar Cohen and Hadas Malka, who were killed in confrontations with Palestinians at Damascus Gate in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The move is seen as a further step in what advocates say is a long history of Israeli authorities renaming geographic areas to erase Palestinian heritage.
‘Serving the occupation narrative’
The decision was made by Jerusalem’s street names committee on 24 September 2019 after an application was filed by the two women’s families and pushed by city council member Dan Illouz.
While one of the mayor’s advisors for East Jerusalem affairs said the naming process was open for public debate and comment, Palestinian Jerusalemites like Rami Saleh, a director at Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), disputes this, saying they only became aware of the decision after the sign was installed.
“As Jerusalemites, we pass by [Damascus Gate] on a daily basis, and we were surprised to see [the municipality] change the names of an important spot for us as Palestinians,” Saleh told Middle East Eye. “We use it for demonstrating, for calling for our rights and especially, these steps of Damascus Gate are where many Palestinians have been killed.”
Scores of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces at Damascus Gate over the years, particularly during a wave of unrest in late 2015. Many such deaths were never investigated by Israeli authorities.
JLAC published a petition online in response to the municipality’s decision, calling the move a “colonial name that serves the occupation narrative”.
The petition goes on to assert that Palestinians will continue to refer to the area as the steps of the Bab al-Amud (meaning "column gate", the name for Damascus Gate in Arabic), the original name for the northwestern entrance to the Old City.
In addition to this petition, JLAC is also planning to send an objection to the municipality. The organisation argues that by not consulting with Palestinians, the Jerusalem municipality “violates the principle of free, prior and informed consent stipulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.
Despite these efforts, JLAC believes that the matter might be taken to court in the near future, expecting that the municipality may counter that the naming was a legal procedure unanimously accepted by the committee.
The move comes two years after Israel installed a permanent watchtower checkpoint at Damascus Gate, a move which was seen by Palestinian Jerusalemites as seeking to further prevent Palestinians' access to the Old City and restrict their access to Damascus Gate.
War of words
While officials with the mayor’s office have emphasised that the name of Damascus Gate itself hasn’t changed, just the staircase, architecture historian at Al-Quds University Yousef Natsheh has objected to this logic.
“Naming the steps of Damascus Gate with a different name is an attempt to separate the monument of Damascus Gate from its architectural space,” Natsheh said in JLAC’s objection statement. “This is the spirit, this is the space, this is the border of Damascus Gate. How are you going to separate between a soul and a body?”
Efforts to rename the surroundings of Damascus Gate don’t end with its staircase. The municipality has also approved requests to change the name of Sultan Suleiman Street, a Palestinian commercial artery that runs parallel to Damascus Gate, to “Heroines Street” after the killed soldiers Cohen and Malka.