Gerard Heumann
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Rethinking Damascus Gate

What if an architectural redesign were enough to bring peace to one of the most dangerous areas of Jerusalem?
Israeli police officers seen during clashes with protesters at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, May 18, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Israeli police officers seen during clashes with protesters at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, May 18, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

A redesign of the entrance of Damascus Gate will save the lives of Jews and Arabs alike and avoid the vortex of violence which we have been witness to over so many years.

The existing gate, discovered in 1930, serves as the main entrance to the Muslim Quarter from East Jerusalem to its mosques and its markets, from there on to the Western Wall.

In addition to East Jerusalem residents, entering the gate are ultra-Orthodox Jews walking from their neighborhoods to and from the Wailing Wall and tourists passing through the area on their way to historic and religious sites in the Old City.

Before 1970, the area immediately adjacent to Damascus Gate was rundown, lacking access to pedestrians and merchandise and blocked by private cars, taxis and trucks.

To alleviate these problems the present entrance to the gate was designed as a large “amphitheater” with stone steps and several ramps for transferring merchandise descending toward the gate. It was completed in 1982 under the auspices of the East Jerusalem Development Corporation, a branch of Jerusalem Municipality. Security considerations were not at all taken into account, as there was no problem at the time.

But over the years, Damascus Gate has become the most dangerous place in Israel, one of the symbols of the Palestinian national struggle, a place of violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers and police. Countless knifing incidents have taken place here. A sharpshooter, his finger on the trigger, is positioned in the niche above the gate. Once inside the Muslim Quarter, small stone memorials to those Jews who were murdered there can be seen on the way to the Western Wall.

The existing “amphitheater,” unfortunately, is an indefensible space, which functions more like a hole in the ground, a trap. Pedestrians enter from every side over a full 180 degrees, making this enormous entrance impossible to control. The temporary police barricades set up from time to time have of course proved ineffective, a flimsy Band-Aid on a major problem — clearly not the answer.

Notwithstanding the loud objections that are sure to come from East Jerusalem residents, Damascus Gate’s external entrance must be re-designed in order to ensure excellent surveillance by Border Police of all those entering and exiting the Old City to save lives.

Following is a preliminary alternative that would limit and thereby better control pedestrian access to the gate by transforming most of the existing amphitheater’s space into fenced green landscaped areas. The new entrance will no longer be a place to stay or rest and will not have any seating. Its pedestrian ways would be treated as corridors, tied to the crosswalk on Sultan Suleiman Street and the bus stops on Paratrooper Street as well as the taxi station adjacent to the wall of the Old City. These corridors converge on the bridge down below at the level of the gate. The width of the bridge would be narrowed through landscape means.

Border Police posts, sensitively integrated yet not ostentatious, would be strategically situated in order to provide maximum eye contact.

Far too much blood has been and is still being spilled here. In building this entrance, the Jerusalem Municipality inadvertently created a most serious problem. It is urgent that the municipality now redesign it. We are speaking here of a matter of life or death.

About the Author
Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.
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