Criminal mischief on the Mesila

From sexual harassment to burglary, Jerusalem’s green oasis hopes for better days

MESILA PARK, about 6 km. long, is a symbol of coexistence for Jerusalem residents. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MESILA PARK, about 6 km. long, is a symbol of coexistence for Jerusalem residents.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The iconic Mesila Park, connecting the neighborhoods from the Germany Colony all the way to Patt, has had its challenges during – and before – the coronavirus crisis. From sexual harassment reports and a book station burning to petty and organized crimes, one of Jerusalem’s landmarks, a symbol of coexistence and entertainment to its residents, has turned into a source of nuisance.
Earlier this month, sexual harassment incidents along the train tracks came to light. The police reported an increase in the number of complaints from women harassed by passersby at the park. The last wave of complaints led to a police undercover operation; an undercover female officer was sent to the area with a team to locate the ruffians, which resulted in two Arab residents of east Jerusalem being caught for approaching and harassing her. Also holding fake Israeli IDs, they were later ordered to be released by the Jerusalem Magistrates Court from a three-month sentence and NIS 5,000 bail.
The annual report from the Centers for Assistance to Victims of Sexual Assault published earlier this month shows that the number of reported sexual abuse cases has risen sharply during the coronavirus crisis, with a 24% increase. Beyond domestic violence, incidents in public areas have also increased, with cases also being reported in Sacher Park and the Valley of the Cross. No official report has been published, however, specifically on crime incidents in the area of the Mesila Park itself.
Sexual harassment, however, is only one of the troubles plaguing the Mesila Park area. Burglary is another issue that residents surrounding the park have to constantly contend with – many deciding to move as a result. Moreover, there has been a new wave of complaints about electric bicyclists riding at high speeds, endangering runners and pedestrians.
CELIA LEVI, a former resident of the Derech Harakevet, located on the park itself, told In Jerusalem about her traumatic experience in the area. Two years ago, burglars broke into the house she shared with roommates, rummaging through and stealing their belongings.
“The most shocking part of the story was that, after police investigation, we realized that the episode was carefully planned, possibly even for weeks.”
Levi recounts that she and her roommates arrived at home to find that the wrought-iron windows had been cut and the house was turned upside down.
“They went through everything, which according to the police indicates there were probably a number of people involved. Special equipment was evidently brought and there were no fingerprints anywhere.”
Upon talking to neighbors about the incident, they discovered that it was a common occurrence.
“It’s a neighborhood with many wealthy residents and olim hadashim, and the burglars are usually looking for jewelry and cash,” Levi said, adding that two weeks after their incident, neighbors in the next building reported the same kind of break-in at their house.
C., another former resident of the area, relates that she decided to leave after the fifth time robbers broke into her house, locking her and her husband into a room.
“Not only did we find ourselves locked up, but they stole everything they could: TV, telephones, cash.” C. mentioned having almost gotten used to the crime situation until the final episode, in which she feared for her safety.
“There isn’t even a way to try to catch the burglars,” Levi says. “I rarely saw police in the area and there are no public cameras to even try to find them. So we just decided to move away.”
Photo: Marc Israel SellemPhoto: Marc Israel Sellem
LAST MONTH, residents of Derech Harekevet were shaken by the weekend burning of a beloved local reading station. Located at an old bus stop, the station served as a location to either deposit books or take books home – with its importance growing as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, given that communal libraries were shut.
The police, together with the municipality, decided to place cameras in the park following the incident. On a Facebook post, Mayor Moshe Lion lamented the crime, saying the station would be renovated and more books added shortly.
“But the disappointment from the act will probably not be forgotten so quickly,” the mayor added.
“For years I’ve been calling the police whenever I see suspicious behavior in the park,” said R., who lives on the corner of Derech Harakevet and Masaryk Street, located right in front of the book station. “Myself and many other residents have something to complain about. I don’t think it is our job to patrol the area.” Police officials report that they have recently increased their presence in this area and have carried out varied activities. A number of suspects have been arrested, including some for possession of knives and explosives.
“We consider any violent behavior to be serious,” the police stated.
About six kilometers long, Park Mesila was completed in 2013, passing through the German Colony, Baka, Talpiot, Patt and the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. The area was once part of the Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway, which operated for more than a century, from 1892 to 1998. Bothered by the deserted train tracks and the uncertain future of the abandoned tracks, area residents, under the administration of mayor Nir Barkat, presented a plan to transform it into an accessible park connecting different neighborhoods and offering the city’s denizens an additional open space. From the classic old railway station in the German Colony, Park Mesila cuts through neighboring locales with a bike path, open spaces, benches, playgrounds and green areas. Plaques recount the story of the railway along the path, adding layers of history and turning the park into a popular landmark.
PARK HAMESILA has been in the spotlight for some time, given the ongoing controversy over utilizing the area as one of the operating routes of the city’s light rail network. Last month, the District Planning and Building Committee approved the passage of the light rail’s Blue Line on Emek Refaim Street, the German Colony’s quaint central artery located parallel to the park.
The line, which will be single-tracked and partially underground, will link the northern neighborhood of Ramot to Gilo in the south. The plan met with vigorous disapproval from locals, which led to a formation of a committee to prevent the line from being built through the park itself, a second alternative. Emek Refaim residents worried that the line would harm the neighborhood’s character, while the park committee entered the battle to preserve what has become a symbol of coexistence. Eventually, both the local and the district committees approved the route on Emek Refaim, in accordance to the initial recommendation of the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, putting an end to more than four years of struggle to set the plan in motion.
Even though the line would reduce traffic congestion and ease movement in the area, a key concern of the residents and business owners was the increase of crime it could also promote.
“The crimes that take place here are not merely petty crimes. They are organized,” said Gabi Tzeiger, who owns a plant nursery on the corner of Derech Beit Lechem and Derech Harakevet. “A few years ago, robbers actually tore down part of the wall dividing us from the neighbors and stole everything they could,” Tzeiger recounts. “It was an organized operation that required sophisticated equipment to make an actual tunnel through the fences and walls. The planning probably took a long time.” Asked about the steps recently taken by the police – such as implementing cameras – Tzeiger sounded skeptical.
Other local business owners have cameras that recorded incidents of cars parking by and stealing from the businesses around. They handed in all the information to the police, including license plates, but nothing was actually done. “‘That’s how it is here’ is what people have gotten used to saying,” Tzeiger said.
In the past week, residents have noticed more patrolling in the park, given the ongoing reporting of assaults by passersby and runners. In the evenings, mounted police and vehicles patrolled the area, while police officers were seen stopping people and checking IDs.
“We will continue to act in an augmented manner through patrols and targeted activities in order to prevent any incident of violence in the area, and in general to maintain and enforce public order, safety and security,” the police commented on their scaled-up operations in the area.
While the sexual assault raised a red flag and was met with an efficient police response, a long-term comprehensive plan to deal with the burglary in the surrounding neighborhoods has yet to be developed.
“It is as though the police are waiting for a major tragedy to happen in order to take the issue seriously,” one local resident warned.