Michael says he's seen enough violence over the last year to last him a lifetime. The stocky, 20-something resident of Ma'aleh Adumim, who doesn't want his full name used, nor his place of employment listed, is nonetheless one of a handful of men who find themselves in Jerusalem's downtown bar district on a nightly basis, and sober - a rare feat indeed for an area long-fraught with drug and alcohol abuse, and now increasingly violent crimes.
Because he works in a restaurant at one of the area's flashpoints Kikar Hahatulot, or Cats' Square (not to be confused with the nearby "Crack Square"), Michael has become a veritable human security camera, a living film roll of violent beatings, brawls, stabbings and, according to him, even murders, which he says don't always find their way into the headlines.
"Maybe 10 percent of the things I see get reported in the news," Michael says. "Last month I saw a group of young men go at it with two Arabs. They beat one of them until he was unconscious; and the other, they stabbed him to death. I saw it with my own eyes."
While police were unable to verify Michael's claim, partially based on his unwillingness to get involved in the case, other similar stories have been reported, including last Thursday night's stabbing of an off-duty IDF soldier who was killed and another young man seriously wounded in a fight outside a nightclub on Rehov Koresh.
Michael, who says he knew the victim, 20-year-old Yitzhak Mor, says that the location of the fight could signify that the most serious nighttime violence, which was once contained within a smaller downtown radius, is now spreading.
"There have never been problems on Koresh before," Michael says. "And there's a police station right there. Then again, I guess that doesn't matter - the Russian Compound [central police station] is 10 minutes from here, and that hasn't done much to prevent these things from happening, either."
Indeed, while Michael says that the immediate blame for the upsurge in violence rests on the kids who commit the violent acts, the police, who he says are understaffed and don't patrol the area long enough, share part of the blame as well.
"Here at Kikar Hahatulot, there's a Border Guard jeep that sits at the entrance," Michael says. "There are two officers inside, usually a man and a woman, and they are responsible for this whole area, where sometimes hundreds of kids are out partying. If there's another incident somewhere else, they leave the area completely. And even if they stay, they're gone by around 3 a.m."
And it's precisely "around 3 a.m.," Michael says, when the violence peaks. The police leave, the kids are at the height of their intoxication, and oftentimes innocent bystanders are caught in the melee.
"I saw this Sudanese man, an immigrant, walking through the area, and he simply brushed up against someone. The next thing I know, a group of guys are punching and kicking him. The police were already gone, and by the time they responded, the Sudanese man was the only one left here. They left him lying unconscious on the ground and fled," Michael recounts.
Such violence is not a new phenomenon, as the area has long been a haven for a mix of young people who flock to the bars and nightclubs that line the alleyways in between Jaffa and Hillel streets. Troubled youth, be they from local Jerusalem families or abroad, have also used the area's plazas and squares as hang-out dens where they score drugs, drink illegally obtained alcohol and eventually get into fights with one another.
Responding to complaints that they aren't doing enough to prevent the violence, a police spokeswoman says that officers work round the clock to prevent both violence and the sale of alcohol to minors.
"Police are constantly working all week, and especially on the weekends, with a number of special units, including a unit that was set up specifically to deal with young people, and undercover officers," she says.
"Additionally, we rely on volunteers, and young people themselves, who work with us and help us find shops or bars that are selling or serving alcohol to minors. Dozens of stores and bars in downtown Jerusalem have been temporarily closed down by the police after it became clear that they were selling alcohol to minors."
According to the spokeswoman, who said there had been a rise in violent incidents in recent months downtown, but was unable to provide concrete numbers, police have also begun focusing on weapons searches for young people in the area, apprehending anyone in possession of a knife, or even glass shards that could be used as a weapon.
"And we're trying to stop this phenomenon of violence with educational programs in schools," she says. "We already have a number of anti-drug and anti-violence campaigns that are ongoing, but we're adding to them, and really trying to reach the kids before it's too late."
SOCIAL WORKERS began working the area at night, particularly an organization called Crossroads, which was founded some 10 years ago by Texas native Caryn Green.
Green, who has seen generations of young people pass through the area, agrees that the area has become more violent in the time she has spent working there.
"Jerusalem has become much more violent than it used to be," says Green. "Crack Square, which is traditionally a hang-out for Anglos - whose parents have made aliya or young people who are spending a year abroad here - is the scene of fighting basically every Thursday night."
While on weekdays the downtown area draws crowds of a few hundred young people, Green says the weekend nights, like Thursday and Friday, can draw thousands of young people, many of them underage.
But she says that the violence has transformed at its root in the last two years.
"During the [second] intifada, the kids were also targets of all the bombings that were going on in the area," Green says. "So there was a certain tension that led to violence back then, which I think has changed now. Today, it's more individual, it's more about them. Some kid's ego gets the best of him, and he wants to teach someone else a lesson."
Green says that while there was once a kind of moral code that was universally accepted among young people on the street, recent years have seen even that deteriorate.
"When I first started working in downtown Jerusalem, the kids wouldn't allow anything stronger than pot to be sold to girls," she says. "That's gone now."
According to Green, pharmaceuticals have become the new drug of choice. When mixed with pot and alcohol, the resulting "cocktail" is often at play when violence erupts. These drugs are found in abundance at the beginning of the school semester, when yeshivas and year-long college programs begin and the kids have just arrived from abroad. "Then the supply starts to wane, until they go home for Hanukka," Green says. "And they re-up their supply and come back with more."
While Crossroads is constantly working to help steer young people away from drug and alcohol abuse, another of the group's tasks is crisis intervention, which often places Green and her employees inside a situation once it has already spiraled out of control.
"We stay out of fights, and then deal with the medical services," Green says. "Our job is to help these kids emotionally, to try to talk to them and show them that violence is not an answer."
However, Green says that the overall atmosphere in downtown Jerusalem has changed.
"The level of violence has gone up, I'd say over the last two years," she says. "And that has affected all groups. There's even been violence inside our center, which has never happened before. I think... their ability to stop themselves from lashing out is not there."