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Nationalistic crimes, converging holidays and, of course, terrorism present challenges for Old City Police precinct

Police call Jerusalem's Old City the 1-square kilometer that affects the world

Israeli police guard in Jerusalem's Old City, during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Oct. 11, 2022. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

JERUSALEM—Dealing with nationalistic crimes is the No. 1 priority for the police stationed in Jerusalem’s Old City, a police officer said in a briefing with journalists on Sunday following a month of scuffles, threatening messages, vandalism and rising tensions plaguing Christians in the Old City.

Shmuel Miro, chief inspector of the Intelligence Division of the David Precinct, said police deal with such crimes – between Jews, Christians and Muslims – year round.

“We give priority to nationalistic crimes – it doesn’t matter if its Jews, Christians or Muslims,” he said.

“I can promise you, there is no nationalistic crime that gets swept under the rug. No one is perfect and also not us. A 100%-conviction rate is our goal, but we are doing our best to investigate all the nationalistic crimes – even if someone wrote on a wall with a marker,” he said.

Miro addressed the vandalism of a Protestant cemetery on Jan. 1, in which 30 graves were desecrated and threatening messages calling for 'death to Christians, Armenians and Arabs' scrawled in marker on the walls outside the Armenian convent two weeks ago.

“In the Old City, we give priority to nationalist crimes so we can maintain order,” Miro said. “There is not a single crime where a complaint was addressed formally to the police that a case wasn’t opened by the police.”

The Old City of Jerusalem – where 50,000 residents and millions of pilgrims from various religions converge on a daily basis – is always on the international radar. It is less than 1-square kilometer, but any small event that occurs on this plot of real estate reverberates around the world.

And this is where the Israel Police deal with some unique challenges not found anywhere else in the country.

“It’s a very special 1-square kilometer for all of us, for all the religions,” said Mirit Ben Mayor, chief superintendent of the Israel Police spokesperson unit. “Since it is so small and so sensitive – and we can’t ignore the political situation, obviously – we do have many challenges here.”

The Israel Police “David Precinct” covers the four quarters of the Old City with an unspecified number of officers, security cameras and sensitive dealings between the residents who come from various religious backgrounds, Dean Elsdunne, a police spokesman, explained.

"We, as the police treat all religions as equal," he said.

The police also work with the Waqf, the Islamic trust that is tasked with custodianship of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, also known as the Temple Mount.

On an unseasonably warm January day, the Western Wall plaza outside of police headquarters was teeming with tourists and worshippers and seemed genuinely peaceful. But Miro, formerly an undercover police officer in the precinct, explained how terrorism, nationalistic crimes and pilgrimage holidays can make for dicey policing in a small geographic area which is essentially a powder keg waiting to happen.

He pointed to the spring of 2022, when Ramadan, Passover and Easter all fell within the same week. During that time, tens of thousands of people were packed into the Old City to visit and pray at the holy sites.

“We treat all the religions as equal. The complications occur during the holidays – especially when there is an overlap of holidays,” Miro said.

Thousands of police were distributed at the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Haram al Sharif to allow pilgrims the freedom of worship while maintaining public order.

“At the end, our goal is to allow all religions to come together and enjoy their holidays,” Miro explained, noting that the police force is comprised of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze officers who are, at times, assigned to police people of their own faith.

Nevertheless, tensions always rise during the holidays because of the closures and restrictions for entry to churches and the mosques.

“I couldn’t believe how it is possible to put so many people in this square kilometer at one time, but it happened,” Ben Mayor said.

Other potential flare ups include visits to the Temple Mount by lawmakers, such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, other Jewish groups and a possible sacrifice on the Temple Mount. One organization actually requests permission every year to perform a sacrifice on the Temple Mount.

“They are always refused,” Miro said.

Last year, a group of Jews was caught trying to smuggle a goat onto the Temple Mount.

Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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