Jerusalem ‘mon amour’

Assessing the Holy City’s mood, amid the ongoing security situation.

A WOMAN PASSES a section of the uncompleted temporary barrier being erected yesterday to separate the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Armon Hanatziv and Jebl Mukaber. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A WOMAN PASSES a section of the uncompleted temporary barrier being erected yesterday to separate the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Armon Hanatziv and Jebl Mukaber.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On Friday morning, the Jaffa Gate is packed with special security forces, and the entrance to the Old City’s shuk (outdoor market) is half-blocked by a magnometer device recently deployed to detect knives or other concealed weapons.
A quick glance inside the narrow alley tells most of the story – it’s empty, and quite a few of the shops are closed.
Walking toward the Western Wall along the Armenian Quarter, through the Zion Gate, provides a slightly more optimistic picture: groups of tourists following their guides, residents of the Jewish Quarter – and more policemen.
Just before the end of the descent to the Western Wall Plaza, a van stands in the middle of the narrow street. Inside is a group of girls; haredi men on each of its sides instruct the driver to continue to drive inside the tiny gate of a building, explaining that “the girls will not get off until it [the van] is safely inside.”
Inside the plaza, many tourists – far more than local residents – approach the Wall, after getting some background information from their guides. On the right side of the street, winding out toward the Dung Gate, no less than seven cabs are stationed, their Arab drivers waiting for passengers. Compared to the business-as-usual atmosphere on the western side of Jerusalem, the Old City seemed far more affected by the wave of riots and violent attacks.
The October 3 murder of Aharon Banita and Rabbi Nehemia Lavi on Hagai Street in the Old City, and the scandalous display of contempt shown by Arab bystanders to Banita’s wife after she was stabbed, have changed the situation in a way that recalls second intifada days.
“It was clear right after the murder of the Henkin couple a week before [who were shot in their car by two Arab attackers in front of their four children] that this would lead to a series of additional acts of terrorism,” explains a police source.
One of the first official steps taken by Mayor Nir Barkat was to request a special additional budget for guards at schools and kindergartens. The education system security budget paid for guards only until 1 p.m.
“In schools where the students are inside after that time, there are no guards,” the mayor said in a statement on the last day of Succot. “The students are not protected. Therefore, we will send them home, so they are not exposed to danger.”
The mayor’s move was supported by the city’s parents association. Though not a strike, studies were halted as soon as the guards left, and that went for public schools in the Arab sector as well. “It cannot go on this way for too long,” admitted a high-ranking education administration official at Safra Square on October 11; indeed, by that evening the government approved a special budget to provide guards until all the students leave the schools.
This week, on Sunday the 18th, universities and colleges began their academic year, and some unusual sights could be seen at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus: parents dropping off their college-age children, to save them from the risks of using public transportation. That morning, the university announced that a shuttle service will be activated from the city center to the Mount Scopus campus, avoiding the Arab neighborhoods that buses take as part of their regular routes.
There is no question that the atmosphere in the city has deteriorated, despite many spontaneous attempts to get back to normal by Jewish residents and officials – such as the highly publicized visit of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom Barkat took on a night tour of the city on October 17, starting with a visit to residents wounded in the past week’s attacks who were still at the hospital, and ending, way past midnight, at the bars still open in the city center.
Beginning with the early-October stabbing on Hagai Street, a series of knife attacks have caused the deaths of six and wounded dozens. The blocking of the Arab neighborhoods and the large number of policemen, special units and even soldiers patrolling in the streets of Jerusalem may have brought back some sense of security, but all agree that this wave of hatred and terrorism is still far from reaching its end.
Nevertheless, for most Jewish Quarter residents, the feeling is that they have already seen worse. Amnon Shiloni has lived in the Rova for 40 years, and says he hasn’t changed any of his habits despite the situation. “I keep doing my shopping at the market in the Muslim Quarter, my electrician doing repairs is the same old resident of the Muslim Quarter, and I have my morning hummus at the same small restaurant in the Old City. But I do pay attention to what’s going on around me, I look around and take no risks,” he admits.
“For us, residents of the Old City, this is just one more wave, we’ve seen more in the past,” details Shiloni, who adds that this past Shabbat morning, in response to the events, the community center organized a special kiddush at the end of prayers – which was attended by 150 Jewish residents, Orthodox, religious and secular alike.
Another aspect of the current situation is the mayor’s plan to invest more in the Arab sector of the city – and the situation’s impact on that plan. While Barkat emphasized during last week’s events that he was determined to continue to improve the conditions on the ground, some of these programs now seem to be disrupted.
Consider the case of Sur Bahir, an Arab neighborhood on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, near Ramat Rahel and Har Homa, where Jewish residents of the surrounding area and Arab residents of that neighborhood have repeatedly asked to lower the intensity of the muezzin call. Research by specialists in urban treatment of noise was conducted, a solution was found and a budget for a pilot to implement that solution was obtained.
“The sum of NIS 200,000 is waiting for the project to be implemented, with the full cooperation of the residents of Sur Bahir,” said the municipality’s employee in charge of the issue, “but now, with the current tense atmosphere, it would be foolish to proceed, because it would inevitably be perceived as an attempt to shut them up.
“And that is only one example; there are quite a few more. Everything, or almost everything, is halted for the moment.”
The stabbing on Hagai Street occurred close to the Austrian Hospice and the Ecce Homo Center, the latter operated by the Sisters of Zion order, which hosts pilgrims and Christians from all over the world for Bible studies. A group of some 30 Christians of all denominations from across the world are studying in the center, and the murder has affected them.
Despite some serious concern for their safety, Murray Watson, the leader of the group, says that “they have all remained calm, also since they realized that apart from the stabbing so close to them, life continued everywhere else.”
As for the center’s nuns, they have established good relationships with all the parties, and “the recent events have only consolidated their will to continue their mission to build a place where differences are not an obstacle but a way to enrich oneself, while they continue to pray for the peace,” said one Sister Paule.
However, another group of Christian Bible teachers who were planning to attend a two-week seminar in Jerusalem and Hebron starting the last week of October have canceled their visit, saying the situation would affect their ability to concentrate on studies.
Shaheen, a resident of E-Tur, the Mount of Olives Arab neighborhood, says he has fears stemming from both sides of the conflict, and thus has decided to remain at home “until things calm down.” As an additional measure of caution, he has even prevented his teenage son from going to school for a few days, “to avoid bad influences,” he explains.
Asked what he is afraid of, Shaheen says this wave of violence is mostly led by youth who do not attend school, and act against their parents’ will. “I don’t want to see my son walking the streets with a knife, and I am so afraid he might be involved in some stabbing and God forbid even killed. These are restless youngsters, they think they are heroes; in fact, they destroy their own families.”
The best thing that could happen now? “A good, heavy rain, to calm the situation.”
The taxi driver who drives me back from the Old City on Friday is not all that optimistic either. “I don’t know if this is going to be like the intifada in 2000,” says Azzim in answer to my query, “but there is a lot of despair among us, and people who are desperate usually do not act wisely.”
Azzim, who lives in Jebl Mukaber and speaks perfect Hebrew, says that he has a lot of Jewish friends, but adds that “Friday and Saturday nights, I don’t work – there are too many of your shabab [youth]; I fear for my safety.”
Questioned what, in his opinion, has caused the resurgence of violence, Azzim answers starkly: “Al-Aksa Mosque.”