Life under fire

Jerusalem’s streets are far from empty during the hostilities, but there is an undeniable sense of tension in the air.

Escalator repairmen stand at the bottom of the escalator alongside city shoppers at the newly renovated Hadar Mall in Talpiot this week. (photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
Escalator repairmen stand at the bottom of the escalator alongside city shoppers at the newly renovated Hadar Mall in Talpiot this week.
(photo credit: SARAH LEVIN)
Friday morning was, at first glance, no different than usual in the Mahaneh Yehuda area and at the First Station. But a second look revealed the slight change that had come over the area since the Color Red siren went off the evening before – namely that there were far fewer people in the streets than one would expect during the summer vacation.
Apart from that, a stranger couldn’t tell that the scarcity of people on the streets was the result of a series of rocket and missile attacks on the country. There was no apparent stress, no particular tension – though the main topic of conversation buzzing around the bus stops was the “situation.”
The market was, as usual, abounding with colorful fruits and vegetables beside coffee shops and restaurants – none of them empty of clients, but there was clearly less crowding than at other times. The beggars were there, each one at his or her regular spot – perhaps making a better income, as the situation may have led more people to think about the wisdom of charity.
By noon that same Friday, residents of the Baka neighborhood were filing into the coffee shops on Bethlehem Road. But here again, all of them focused on the siren of the day before, what they were expecting to happen over Shabbat, and the most important question: “Where were you when it went off, and where did you hide?” All were a bit bemused, a bit concerned about how the situation would affect the children or planned vacations out of Jerusalem. Very few spoke at the time about cancellations of planned visits from family members overseas, but that was going to change rapidly.
I noticed that Ruah, a young girl from the village of Al-Dura, north of Hebron, who sells her embroidered purses near a coffee shop in Baka on Fridays, was there as usual, despite the sirens and the tension in the air.
But even she left earlier than usual, perhaps because of the heat, perhaps because on that day few people were interested in her merchandise.
WHEN THE first siren sounded in the city last week, most of the residents thought at first that it was a mistake; few understood right from the start that it could happen again. Many just went out of their apartments, remained in the stairwells and wondered what they should do. By the second siren, people in my neighborhood and others (according to reports on Facebook) didn’t waste time finding out and just went quickly to their shelters. Young children in my building were simply told it was something that had to be done, and it mostly went calmly.
Saturday evening, shortly before the end of Shabbat (and after a second siren in the city, which turned out to be for a missile that fell in the Hebron region), three Nepalese – two women and a man – were waiting in vain at Zion Square for the sherut taxis to Tel Aviv.
They asked if I knew why there weren’t any stationed at their usual spot. I explained that it was close to Iftar, the evening meal breaking the Ramadan fast, and that it would be at least an hour before anyone showed up since most taxi drivers in the city are Muslims. The three seemed to despair, and the conversation among them became agitated. The man explained after a while that many of their friends, caregivers for seniors, usually went to Tel Aviv on their free day each week, but this time, due to the rockets, only the three of them were daring to continue that trend.
“It’s safer here in Jerusalem,” concluded the man, causing me to smile as I remembered the awful days of the intifada, which turned Jerusalem into a ghost town.
A little after 9 p.m., a friend posted on Facebook that she couldn’t cope with it anymore, that the news on the TV and the alarms even in Jerusalem had brought her to a stage of unbearable nervousness.
“I can’t focus on anything, the children can’t sleep because they are afraid they won’t hear the alarm, I don’t know what to do,” she wrote on her wall. Within a few minutes, she was invited to a few houses in her neighborhood to relax a bit, eventually spending the night with other people in the same situation.
“The problem,” she explained the following day, “is that the children are also afraid to go to camp, and then I can’t go to work!”
EARLY SUNDAY afternoon, the newly renovated Hadar Mall on Talpiot’s Pierre Koenig Street is far from being as crowded as it usually is at this time of year, when children are on summer vacation. A saleswoman in one of the clothing shops says that since the outbreak of the hostilities, the number of visitors to the mall has dropped. Asked why that’s the case, considering that the mall’s first floor is a protected space, she replies that her regular clients have admitted that they are afraid to meet Arabs doing their shopping there.
“The absurdity is that most of our Arab customers refrain from coming for exactly the same reasons,” she says. “One of my clients phoned me this morning and asked if our sales would be extended a few days more, because, she explained, she was a little afraid to come to the west side [of the city] during these days of attacks and fear.”
In the city center a little later, Zion Square is almost empty – here and there are a few teenagers, locals and tourists, but it’s a far cry from the usual crowd of youths who hang around there during the summer months.
A family of tourists from France – father, mother and six children – walks down the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. They ask for directions to the Jaffa Gate in simple, heavily French-accented Hebrew, and on receiving an answer in their own language from a passing woman, they start up a conversation.
“Relatives told us we should cancel our visit to Israel because of the situation,” says the man, “but we didn’t. We wanted to show our solidarity, and also the children love it here. They know about the situation, but we are all very religious – we believe that things are not in our hands. God will prevail.”
On King George Avenue, Ayala Matlow, the director of a nonprofit organization, is looking for shoes for her daughter’s wedding.
“The wedding is in less than a month. I guess by then things will get back to normal – my younger daughter and I have to do some shopping, despite the current situation,” she explains with a smile.