The year the light rail pulled out of the station

...and nine other top stories of 5771.

First day of the Jerusalem light rail 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
First day of the Jerusalem light rail 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem, in all its pain and beauty, was encapsulated for me this past year at kilometer 38 of the first Jerusalem Marathon as I headed down Highway 1, with the Old City laid out before me and the hills of Rehavia – and the finish line – almost within my grasp. Every part of my body was screaming in pain as I ran down the road that divides east Jerusalem from west Jerusalem, Arabs from Jews, religious from secular.
I started as the Jerusalem reporter for The Jerusalem Post just a few days before Rosh Hashana last year. For the past year, I have been crisscrossing Highway 1 to cover news issues in all of Jerusalem’s many sectors. Last year, Jerusalem was at the front and center of the news in Israel, with major condemnations of construction in east Jerusalem grabbing the headlines almost every other month.
This year, the major news from 5771 has been focused elsewhere – the dramatic events of the “Arab spring,” infiltrations on the northern border, negotiations at the UN for a Palestinian declaration of statehood. But the news here in Jerusalem has still been intensely personal for me – as exhilarating and as painful as the marathon. Here, I share with you my picks for the top 10 news stories of the past year.
The light rail
It was going to start, and then it wasn’t. It was going to be pushed off for a month, then six months, then another month. Even days before the start date on August 19, transportation officials still weren’t sure if or when the train would actually start carrying passengers.
After last-minute arbitration ruled in favor of the passengers, nearly 40,000 people crammed into the light rail like sardines on its first day of operation, complaining of chaos and a very slow ride.
The NIS 4 billion project, a decade under construction, was six years late. In the past year since the light rail began running tests along the entire length of the track, there have been more than a dozen small accidents between cars crossing at illegal intersections. Also this past year, Jaffa Road was closed to all traffic, except the train, for the first time since the road’s construction more than 120 years ago. Store owners along Agrippas Street and Jaffa Road complained that they have lost more than one-third of their customers due to construction and congestion, with the Agrippas store owners holding several protests over the “Agrippas Street parking lot,” which can take upwards of half an hour to traverse.
But CityPass – the company that built and now operates the light rail – and transportation officials are confident that after a breaking-in period, the light rail will serve its purpose and carry more than 100,000 people a day, changing the face of the city into a clean, contemporary urban environment.
“This is a modern, new, green mode of transportation that can not only fill gaps in tourism but also convey a message of tolerance and patience. The trains are full of Jerusalem residents – secular, religious, Arab and haredi,” said Yehuda Shoshani, the CEO of the CityPass consortium. Jerusalemites are waiting to see if he’s right.
Social protests
When Daphni Leef posted a sarcastic message on Facebook that due to ever-increasing rent for her Tel Aviv apartment she was pitching a tent on Rothschild Boulevard, no one could predict the upheaval of Israeli civil society that gripped the country for the entire summer.
First, tents sprouted up like mushrooms across the country, from major population hubs such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to smaller cities from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona. Then other causes joined the fray, demanding a change in everything from nursery school and the cost of living to public housing, gas prices and public transportation.
Pundits said the Arab spring had caught on in Israel as well, and it certainly felt like the country was finally waking up and demanding something different. The protests started off attracting mostly students but culminated in the March of a Million on September 3, which drew 400,000 Israelis to the streets in a series of protests in one of the largest demonstrations the country has ever seen.
The official response from the government was to create a committee to examine the demands raised by the protesters, led by Manuel Trajtenberg. After a summer of communal living, the students and demonstrators voluntarily dismantled most of the tents on September 4, insisting that the protest needed to evolve into a more sustainable stage. But dozens were arrested in Tel Aviv and Holon when the respective municipalities tried to clean out the tent cities, and hundreds of homeless families with nowhere else to go are still living in their tents.
In Jerusalem, 100 homeless activists waiting for public housing broke into an abandoned dormitory to try to turn the building into public housing, but they were evicted two weeks later and forced to return to their tents.
Though the tents have been folded up as summer turns to fall, the activists are adamant that the civil passion that gripped the country this summer will continue to force the government to take action.
Terrorist attack in Judean hills
“What a waste. I’m 46 years old and I’m being murdered.” That was the thought running through Kay Wilson’s mind as she was being brutally stabbed in a terrorist attack by an independent terror ring based in Hebron.
Wilson had been hiking with a friend, Kristine Luken, an American visiting from England, and her dog Peanut near Moshav Mata on December 18 when they were approached by two Arab men who asked them for directions. Soon the two women were bound and gagged, and the terrorists were attacking them with serrated knives.
Wilson played dead, but Luken’s cries for help drove the terrorists to continue stabbing her, eventually killing her. Wilson, bleeding profusely, bound and barefoot, stumbled to a picnic area, where a family alerted the authorities, who found Luken’s body early the next morning.
Police hailed Wilson as a hero for providing detailed descriptions of the attackers, leading to a breakthrough that enabled them to break up an independent terrorist ring responsible for at least one other murder, two attempted murders, rape, theft and other violent crimes.
Thirteen Palestinians from villages around Hebron were arrested. Wilson, who worked as a tour guide before the attack, spent months in trauma therapy and testified on September 18 at the trial of the main attackers.
“It’s important for my emotional health to get back to work, and I’m not going to give in to that kind of terrorism,” she said in January, three weeks after the attack. “I am going to go back to the site one day, and I am going to walk and I am going to take my dog there, and I’m going to guide there again one day. But I’m not ready yet.”
Jerusalem Marathon/Bus bombing
The international prestige that Mayor Nir Barkat so desperately coveted for the first Jerusalem Marathon may have been tainted in the last few minutes of the race, when the three lead runners took a wrong turn and ended up at the wrong finish line. But that confusion could not overshadow the immense achievement of the marathon – an almost spiritual event that went ahead, as scheduled, with all its participants, just two days after a fatal terrorist attack.
The bus bombing from a package left at a bus stop next to the Jerusalem International Convention Center on March 23 echoed across Jerusalem as the familiar site of a bombed-out bus brought shudders to a city that has tried to forget the skeletons of burnt buses from the second intifada.
Mary Jane Gardner from Scotland was killed in the attack that left 39 wounded. It was Jerusalem’s first bus bombing in seven years. But when the mayor was asked, at the scene of the bombing, whether he would cancel the marathon, the answer was an emphatic “Absolutely not.”
Some 1,000 people took part in the city’s first marathon, and 9,000 ran the half marathon and 10K races. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised for charity, and runners called the race “almost spiritual,” adding that it was amazing to race in Jerusalem, especially to show the city’s strength after a terrorist attack. The fact that it took place two days after the bombing and not a single person – not one! – pulled out is what makes the city strong. Because more than being a race, the Jerusalem Marathon was about Jerusalem: ups and downs, pain, heartache and beauty.
PA funding east Jerusalem projects
City hall received a surprising bit of news last October when it was revealed that the Palestinian Authority had set aside millions of dollars to renovate 15 private schools in east Jerusalem. The move angered city councillors and right-wing groups, who felt that the renovations amounted to the PA’s flouting its authority inside municipal Jerusalem. It is also illegal for the PA to be active or transfer money to projects inside Israel.
Additionally, the PA paved roads in Arab neighborhoods located within the city limits but on the other side of the security barrier.
The PA sponsorship put the municipality in an awkward position because the shabby state of school facilities in east Jerusalem is well known, with a shortage of more than 1,000 classrooms and a quarter of existing classrooms in unacceptable condition.
“Even if we didn’t put [enough money], that doesn’t mean that someone else is allowed to attack our authority,” said Yakir Segev, the city councillor who held the east Jerusalem portfolio at the time. “There’s no connection. Authority isn’t a matter of money.”
Meretz rejoins the coalition
Nearly a year after Meretz members were ejected from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition over disagreements regarding the mayor’s controversial Gan Hamelech program in the Silwan neighborhood in July 2010, Barkat and Meretz signed a memorandum of understanding on June 28 that would bring Meretz back into the coalition.
With Meretz’s return, the party regained the portfolios that it had lost upon leaving the coalition, including a deputy mayor position, which was firebrand opposition head Pepe Alalu, as well as cultural portfolios, portfolios concerning pensioners, workers’ rights, education in east Jerusalem, disabilities, special needs and health care.
Meir Margalit, a Meretz city councillor and co-founder of the Israel Committee against House Demolitions, was given the east Jerusalem portfolio in one of the major gestures to the party.
“It would be really irresponsible of me not to utilize this historical opportunity,” Margalit said in an in-depth interview with The Jerusalem Post after receiving his new portfolio, noting that he is usually one of the activists demonstrating outside city hall rather than being one of the authority figures holding the portfolio inside.
Samr Sirkhan shooting
On September 22, 2010, a private security guard in the Silwan neighborhood on an early morning patrol found his way blocked by trash bins and several men throwing stones at him. He opened fire at the men, calling it a “lynch” situation, and killed 32-year-old Silwan resident Samr Sirkhan, father of four.
The shooting of Sirkhan led to the largest riots that east Jerusalem has seen in the past year, with 10 people arrested and eight wounded, including a 35-year-old Israeli who was stabbed in the back on the Mount of Olives in a retaliation attack. The violence swept into the Old City, with riot police entering the Al- Aksa Mosque Plaza in order to halt stone-throwing onto the Western Wall Plaza below.
Three buses were destroyed by stoning near the Old City, injuring one of the drivers, and tires and even a few police vehicles burned across Silwan for two days.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel called on the government to stop funding private security guards, who they claimed are much “quicker on the trigger” than police or the army.
Bashar al-Masri/Nof Zion
Nof Zion’s residents chose their homes in the new neighborhood past the Haas Promenade, inside the Jebl Mukaber neighborhood for many reasons: the panoramic view of the Old City, the quiet on the edge of Jerusalem, the spaciousness, the new buildings. Many residents also said they chose the apartment complex – which will eventually have more than 400 apartments with a commercial center, hotel, synagogue, and nursery school – for the community they hoped to build there. The complex was marketed as modern Orthodox housing and an ideological statement about the sovereignty of Jews over east Jerusalem, and almost all residents who have moved into the first 100 units – part of the first of three stages of construction – fit that profile.
So residents were shocked and outraged when Digal Ltd., the company that owns the complex, announced that it was in such financial trouble that it would be forced to sell the complex – to Palestinian-American businessman Bashar al-Masri, who wanted to build the remaining 300 apartments for Arab families in the area.
Jebl Mukaber, like all of east Jerusalem, has a severe housing crisis. After a month of tense negotiations – during which many Nof Zion residents bought small shares in the company so they could attend shareholders’ meetings – supermarket mogul Rami Levy stepped in with an Australian partner to offer to buy the troubled project. Though his offer was lower than Masri’s, it was accepted by Digal’s shareholders.
“All this surprised us. A month ago; we thought, ‘This thing can’t happen,’” said Nof Zion resident Shai Cooperman. “It was very close to happening,” he said.
Naksa violence
Every spring around Independence Day, Israel braces itself for possibly violent reactions to Al Nakba, or “the catastrophe,” as Palestinians have named May 15, the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel.
But this was no ordinary spring. After watching Arab residents across the region in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and even parts of Jordan rise up in revolution, the spirit of protest was in the air.
Tension began on May 13, the Friday before Nakba Day, with rioting in the Silwan neighborhood that left 17-year-old Milad Sayish Ayyash from Ras el-Amud dead. There was also rioting on Saturday, during Ayyash’s funeral.
On the 15th, east Jerusalem was “much quieter” than expected, police said, with 36 arrested in skirmishes in Isawiya, Shuafat, Kalandiya and A-Tur.
The real surprise of the season was “Naksa Day,” or “the setback,” which Palestinians observed on June 5, the anniversary of the Six Day War, which had never been a day known for widespread demonstrations. In Jerusalem, 40 people were wounded in clashes in Kalandiya, mostly from tear gas inhalation, as 250 demonstrators tried to march towards the Dome of the Rock for prayers before being stopped by soldiers.
However, attention was mostly focused on the northern border, where more than 30,000 Palestinian refugees and Lebanese tried to illegally cross the border near the Golan Druse town of Majdal Shams.
Syrian TV reported that 20 demonstrators were killed and 225 wounded in the attempted infiltration. Palestinian activists had said that the Nakba and Naksa Day protests were part of a triple punch of protests. The third protest, on July 8, was the Flightilla protest, when 124 pro-Palestinian activists attempting to disturb the peace were deported after flying into Ben-Gurion Airport.
Chilean miners
The entire world watched with bated breath last October as the most dramatic rescue in recent history was completed: 33 miners, trapped for 68 days 700 meters below ground, were brought back to the surface. As each miner fell into the embrace of his loved ones and more than one billion people tuned in to watch the rescue, the entire world was ecstatic with the celebration of something so purely wonderful and happy.
Immediately, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov invited the miners to Israel for a “journey of thanksgiving.”
“Your bravery and strength of spirit, and your great faith that helped you survive so long in the bowels of the earth was an inspiration to us all,” Meseznikov wrote to them.
Twenty-three of the 33 miners took Meseznikov up on his offer, arriving in Israel on February 23 with their wives or girlfriends. Their whirlwind trip started in Jerusalem with a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Catholics believe Jesus was crucified and buried in the cave.
“It is a great honor for us to be here because the God who rescued us from the bowels of the earth is the God who brought us here, and we are so grateful,” said miner Jose Enriques inside the church. “It is amazing to be here, in this place, to be able to thank God for what he did for us.”
Though the visit to the church was inundated by the media, which outnumbered the miners by a ratio of 4-to-1, the Tourism Ministry was thrilled that their visit to Jerusalem was covered by dozens of major international news outlets.
A recent article in the UK’s The Guardian, written a year after the initial mine collapse, revealed that most of the miners are taking medication and struggling psychologically with flashbacks, and some are facing severe poverty as the negative side of fame threatens to tear them apart.