A mass-casualty terrorist attack was averted in downtown Jerusalem Sunday when security guards prevented a West Bank man armed with explosives and knives from boarding the light rail at the Jaffa Center station.
Shortly before 9 a.m., police said security guards stationed in the city center observed a suspicious man carrying a shoulder bag. Confronted, the man admitted he was armed. The suspect, who police described as in his 20s and from the village of Beit Ula near Hebron, was forced to lay on the ground at gunpoint.
Security personnel found three pipe bombs and knives in his bag.
Police cordoned off the area and evacuated store workers and pedestrians for several hundred meters along Jaffa Road from the intersection of King George Street until Zion Square.
Tram service was halted for an hour as sappers neutralized the bombs. During a press conference, Jerusalem District Police Commander Yoram Halevy said the suspect targeted the light rail and planned to detonate the explosives in a “large attack.”
“It appears that the terrorist planned a mixed attack of explosions and stabbings,” said Halevi.
Joseph Spaniel, who lives across the street from the Jaffa Central station, said he was walking to a nearby laundromat when he saw the chaos unfold.
“At about 9 a.m. I saw a security guard with a gun holding it at someone lying on the ground, and another guard came and took his trousers off and searched for other explosives,” he said.
The police secured the area by Zion Square, and “I was rushed by police over here, and have been waiting to go home since.”
Chaya Benveniste, 18, who lives nearby, said she saw people fleeing to safety after police arrived at the scene.
“I had just left my apartment to use the light rail and saw people running and scared a little before 9 a.m., and I ran back to my apartment,” she said. “It was very frightening.”
Nir Shuval, who owns a popular candy shop across the street from the tram station, watched the scene unfold a few meters away.
“At around 9 a.m. I saw security guards holding their guns at some man lying on the ground and then the police rushed over,” he said. “All the store workers on the street were evacuated by police, and we had to wait one hour to go back.”
Sarit Cohen, who owns a women’s evening gown store next to the light rail stop, said she walked three kilometers to work from the Central Bus Station after tram service was frozen.
“Of course, I saw from my cell phone what was happening,” she said inside her shop, moments after police reopened the area at 10:25 a.m.
“It is a different event than the ones we became used to over the last few months. It was a major event, and it’s good that they were alert and stopped it. There was a lot of luck.”
Asked if she feared for her life, Cohen held back tears.
“Thank God nothing happened this time, but what’s our children’s future here? What?” Ronen Dahon, who works at a shoe store on Jaffa Road a few meters from the tram station, said he was prevented from entering his shop when he arrived at the scene shortly after at 9 a.m., and watched police and sappers continued to search the area around and King George and Jaffa Roads.
“I knew what was happening because someone sent me a message on my phone saying some Arab came with a bag of explosives,” he said.
“The police closed off all the area, so I had to wait over an hour to get to work.”
Dahon added that he was not surprised by the bomb scare, noting that daily security threats unfold in the area.
“All the time this happens in this area on King George and Jaffa Roads – not like this for one hour, but all the time people come here and have something [suspicious] in their bag, and the police search them and do security checks,” he said.
Shiko Shakovitzky, a cashier at a cell phone shop across the street from the scene of the prevented attack, said he had just opened the store when the man was detained.
“There was no train there at the time, and the security guys were screaming at [the terrorist] and had him on the floor for about 10 minutes,” he said. “They took off his clothes and checked his bag and found three bombs, and that’s when the police told me to leave the store, so I did.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat praised the light rail guards, whose quick actions prevented what could have been a disaster.
“This morning, thanks to the vigilance of the Jerusalem Municipality guards of the light rail, a major attack was prevented,” Barkat said in a statement.
“The guards stationed at the light rail are part of the fabric of the human shield of Jerusalem against the terrorists who are trying to sow terror and fear. Our message to the public is to continue your routine, remain vigilant and never give in to terrorism.”
Barkat added that while police continue to “pursue terrorists everywhere without compromise,” the city must continue to function and develop.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said heightened security remains in effect throughout the capital.