A few hours before six Hamas-launched rockets reached the capital Thursday evening, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat assured city residents that if they follow the city’s protocol when warning sirens go off, they should remain safe.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post outside his office in Safra Square, Barkat discussed heightened tensions between Arabs and Jews in the city, while reassuring residents that Jerusalem remains one of the “safest cities in the world.” “If you look at the statistics, no one in Israel has been hurt, so Israel knows how to very well defend itself,” he said. “The reality is that generally, it is one of the safest places in the world. Naturally it doesn’t look like that on television, but the reality is that our crime rate is one-tenth [per capita] compared to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.”
Asked what the Municipality is doing to keep residents safe, Barkat cited Iron Dome, as well as the cities many bomb shelters. “We have a shield that protects us from indiscriminate rockets, and Iron Dome knows how to differentiate between rockets that land in open fields and those that can do damage, and targets the ones that can,” he said.
The mayor continued: “God forbid if a rocket does fall in the city, people know how to take cover. So the system as a whole gives us a very high confidence level in times of trouble.”
In terms of piqued tensions throughout the city between Arabs and Jews since the murders of the three yeshiva students and subsequent revenge killing of an Arab teen, Barkat said it is imperative for both groups to work together to eradicate radicals who engender such hatred.
“The murders caused a great deal tension and grief both for Jews and for Arabs all across the country, and I believe all over the world,” he said. “By Jews and Arabs condemning terrorist acts and killers that are using barbaric methods to hurt innocent children, we agree to push terrorists out of the picture.”
Noting the protracted riots in east Jerusalem following Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s brutal murder, allegedly by seven Israeli radicals, the mayor said there must be a zero-tolerance policy for violence.
“It’s fine for people to express grief, but we cannot accept violence,” he said. “So we’ve made sure that people understand that violence is not allowed, violence doesn’t pay, and in the last few days we’ve had practically zero violence in Jerusalem – in spite of the fact that we still have violence in the south in Gaza.”
Asked if any distinction should be made between the Jews arrested for Abu Khdeir’s murder and the two Hamas operatives arrested for the murders of Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel, Barkat was unequivocal.
“Both were acts of terrorism,” he said. “There is no distinction between those who kill innocent people just because they are Jewish or Arab. It is unacceptable, and I, like the 95 percent majority of Israelis, will defend that view... There’s no doubt in my mind that Israel will do everything in its power to punish the barbaric murderers the maximum the law allows.”
With respect to postponing major cultural events in the city for one week, including the sixth annual Woodstock Revival Festival and opening night of the Jerusalem Film Festival, both initially scheduled for last night, Barkat said “it is the responsible thing to do.”
“I think that the residents and visitors that come understand we care for their safety as much as we care for their fun and enjoyment, and hopefully by next week this will be behind us,” he said.
Still, Barkat noted that the vast majority of daily activities in the city remain unencumbered by the conflict. “The city is alive, we’re working, the kindergartens are open, the schools are open, but big events we prefer to delay for a week,” he said.
As a former elite soldier who fought in, and was seriously injured during the Lebanon War, the mayor said he is confident that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the IDF will ensure the safety of Israelis and limit innocent Palestinian casualties as they counterstrike Hamas terrorists.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the government and army will know how to best deal with the situation, which is maximum protection for Israeli residents and maximum impact – targeting militants as much as possible, [while limiting] innocent people from getting hurt in the situation,” he said. Asked what he would say to residents when the city’s rocket alarm siren goes off, he said that it is imperative to find shelter within 90 seconds.
“We’ve made sure that all people and all residents – including the municipality and schools practice the drill – and when there is a drill you have to go to a [bomb shelter]... find cover, wait for 10 minutes and then can go on with your daily life,” he said.
The mayor also noted the “absurdity” of firing rockets into a capital that is home to three major religious groups and numerous holy sites.
“Indiscriminate rockets don’t know the difference between boys, girls, Christians, Muslims and Jews,” he said. “We’re all in the exact same danger here, which is an absurd situation to be in. The procedure is the same; we take cover in the same places, so in many ways there is unity and understanding that his is bad for all residents.”
Ideally, Barkat said, the heavy toll Israeli rockets have on Hamas will push the terror organization “back in time.”
“There is only bad in terror and in indiscriminate rockets, so we have to stop that and make sure terrorists make zero gains, and in fact take them a few steps backwards in time,” he said. They have to understand the reality is that Israel is flourishing and Jerusalem is doing extremely well. It is a place where if you come peacefully you’re going to enjoy it if you are a Muslim, Christian or a Jew.”
Meanwhile, Barkat has offered southern residents of the country refuge, as hundreds of rockets continue to be fired at Israeli cities and communities near the Gaza Strip, adding that the municipality will host a number of activities for children and adults.
“We all stand with the people of the south and security forces,” he said. “Jerusalem residents will open their homes and hearts, and I hope that our initiative will ease a little of the stress and tension that they are experiencing.”