The top 10 stories of 5774

The past year saw former PM Olmert convicted, the murder of a Jerusalem teen that sparked unrest in Jerusalem and the snowstorm of the century.

Ehud Olmert (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: REUTERS)
May 12, 2014, was the day former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sentenced to six years in prison for his conviction on two charges of bribery in the Holyland corruption affair. “A public servant who accepts bribes is akin to a traitor,” Judge David Rozen said in his opening statements, which were read in the Tel Aviv District Court – and repeated on a loop in both national and international media. Announcing (what many commentators considered a severe) sentence, Rozen added that the defendants (indicted along with Olmert, the verdict also addressed former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski, who was sentenced to seven years, and the city’s engineer during their both terms, Uri Sheetrit, who got six years) deserved lengthy punishments to help deter future corruption. Two months earlier, in March, Olmert was found guilty of accepting bribes when he served as mayor of Jerusalem, in exchange for helping developers to enlarge the Holyland Park residential project (after it had already been rezoned from hotels to residential towers, against the will of most of the residents in the neighborhood). Olmert was also fined NIS 1 million.
It was not the first time that the former prime minister had been brought to trial, but he always emerged unscathed from these legal scrapes. This was the first time that he was found guilty and sentenced. Undoubtedly, it was a surprise – for the media and the political sphere – and a very nasty one for him. As for Lupolianski, who in addition to his sentence is seriously ill, a sense of genuine sadness was shared by many. The judge, however, was clear – whether the bribes reached private accounts (Olmert’s) or a charity association (Yad Sarah, in the case of Lupolianski), both were found guilty and had to pay for their crime. Meanwhile, the two have appealed their verdict to the Supreme Court and as a result, the start of their prison time has been postponed. But the message was received loud and clear at Safra Square – it certainly reinforced Barkat’s position, as a candidate who ran on the “Mr. Clean” ticket – and enables him to enforce anti-bribery rules. He still has to shorten bureaucratic procedures to unclog the construction permits department, one of the worst offenders under Olmert.
Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old resident of Shuafat, was kidnapped on his way to the mosque on July 2, the morning following the highly publicized funeral of the three murdered Jewish teens. His family immediately reported his kidnapping to the police, who located his burnt body a few hours later in the Jerusalem Forest. He had been beaten and burnt while still alive. Jerusalem, which had the night before witnessed large groups of Jewish rioters who filled the streets seeking revenge and spreading hatred against young Arabs, was now the scene of riots by Arab avengers.
Despite the hundreds of Jewish visitors who went to express their sympathy to the bereaved Abu Khdeir family, nothing seemed to placate the masses, which managed to stop the light rail – a symbol of coexistence – from running the full length of its route. Railway tracks were dismantled, stations were destroyed and burned, while in seam neighborhoods as Neveh Ya’acov and Pisgat Ze’ev, attacks and retaliation between young Arabs and Jews continued and were amplified.
On Sunday, July 6, police arrested six Jewish suspects, all religious, four of them haredi. One of them confessed, incriminating three others, two of whom were minors. Within a day, the other three confessed and reconstructed the murder. The main suspect, a haredi man, married and the father of two, was arrested.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blamed the murder on the Israeli government, a crime that indeed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemned. The murder was also condemned by the families of the three murdered Israeli teens, who sent the Abu Khdeir family their condolences. But things continued to deteriorate.
One of Abu Khdeir’s cousins, 15-year-old Palestinian-American Tariq Abu Khdeir, was brutally beaten by police officers in an assault caught on camera. Another cousin, a 19-year-old with the same name, was being held by police since a July 28 protest. Although he is an American citizen, Israel did not notify the US authorities about the arrest.
Shuafat is a relatively calm, well-to-do neighborhood, one whose residents do not often get into confrontations with the police.
Nevertheless, the violence of the riots following Abu Khdeir’s death surprised the police. In fact, the riots have not stopped completely, but their virulence has abated.
When Mayor Nir Barkat opened his reelection campaign HQ in June 2013 ahead of the municipal elections on October 22, many journalists felt it looked like the closest thing to a non-story. No serious candidate, or in fact any candidate at all, stood between him and another term in office.
But it took only a month-and-a-half for the picture to dramatically change. Moshe Lion, once the chief of staff at the Prime Minister’s Office, close to both Yisrael Beytenu leader and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and Shas MK Arye Deri, joined the race. What at the outset seemed a strange, if not ridiculous candidacy – Lion never lived in Jerusalem and couldn’t name a movie theater or locate a famous restaurant in the city – soon became a serious threat to Barkat’s plans. In fact, the mayor’s reelection was secured mostly because Lion failed to obtain a commitment from Ashkenazi haredim to vote for him. Their leaders couldn’t bring themselves to call for the requisite support for a Sephardi national-religious candidate, and simply blessed him in general words.
Lion decided to remain in Jerusalem and has become a city council member, proudly seated on the opposition bench – despite forecasts that he would abandon the city – perhaps waiting for the next round. Barkat’s laboriously won election on October 22 heralded two noticeable byproducts; the backing of his fiercest opponent at city council, Meir Turgeman, who not only supported him but became his deputy mayor; and his pledge to be more attentive to the needs of haredi neighborhoods, at least as part of his plans to rebrand the city of Jerusalem.
The snowfall of 5774 was a far cry from a light white blanket covering the city and a photo opportunity of the mayor building a snowman.
December 2013 brought a heavy storm to the country, and especially to the city, with snow, ice and long hours without power to large parts of the population. In fact, forecasters called it the worst storm in 100 years. Three days after its eruption on December 13, Mayor Nir Barkat said that municipality special staff were still working “in a state of emergency,” grappling with a “storm of extraordinary proportions.” The first goal was to help thousands of residents across the city who were still without power – estimated at more than 8,000 households. Meanwhile, the municipality organized thousands of volunteers to answer the city’s primary needs. Roads to and from Jerusalem were closed – including to public transportation – due both to the treacherous conditions and the dozens of vehicles abandoned in the snow and ice. Schools remained closed for four additional days as the snow reached 40 to 60 centimeters. The light rail was suspended until the third day after the storm, and special trains to Tel Aviv and Haifa departed the Malha railway station throughout Saturday without causing protest, despite breaking the Shabbat status quo.
Though the most generous estimates, which put the number of mourners at close to one million, significantly dropped as the weeks progressed, the funeral (considered the biggest ever to take place in the country) of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder and incontestable spiritual leader of the Shas movement, has become a landmark event. During the last 48 hours of his life, when Yosef was semi-conscious at the Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, there was a palpable build-up of suspense – with all the Israeli (and several foreign) media outlets focused on his condition. There were hourly reports broadcast from the hospital’s large hall, medical bulletins released every few hours and periodic heartbreaking requests from his relatives and MK Arye Deri calling Israelis to add their prayers for the sake of the revered leader until his death on October 7. Politicians gave interviews depicting their personal relationships with the man who had a phenomenal memory for biblical verses and talmudic material, who called for moderate steps regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, yet nevertheless directed some nasty declarations toward the Arabs. The “liberal” parts of society – the media, politics and academia – watched stunned at this demonstration of popular passion for a man who represented something most of them considered obsolete – religious ecstasy.
Whether 800,000 mourners (according to Shas sources) attended, or 300,000 as suggested by other outlets, the pictures on our TV screens showed an unprecedented mass of people power, which less than a year later seemed like more the end of an era than the movement’s apotheosis. The fact is that today, neither at the Knesset (where they are not part of the coalition) nor on the city council (where they don’t even have a deputy mayor), Shas is no longer in a state to dictate anything anymore.