All around the town

Meet Rafi Yigal, one of several hundred men and women who patrol Jerusalem's buses.

bus guard ij 298.88 (photo credit: Chaya Hyams)
bus guard ij 298.88
(photo credit: Chaya Hyams)
'Standing on your feet for nine hours a day isn't simple," says Rafi Yigal, a bus security guard with the Jerusalem bus security unit. "In the beginning it's really difficult. In the first two to three weeks everyone's legs just ache but you get used to it. A few months later you don't even feel it anymore, and at the end of the day you aren't as tired as you first were." Bus security guards work six days a week, and earn NIS 27 per hour. Guards fresh out of the army pay less income tax. Yigal's net total as a team leader is approximately NIS 6,500-7,000 monthly. "This job is a hard job but it's a good job for guys who are just out of the army, haven't gone to university yet and who want to save money," says Yigal, who served as a tank commander in the army and is completing his first degree in history at the Hebrew University. Yigal began working in bus security four years ago and became a team leader in 2004. As one of several team leaders in the Jerusalem unit, Yigal oversees 100 men and women, to ensure that everything stays on schedule and that guards arrive and leave their jobs on time. Occasionally, Yigal guards a bus stop or guards on a bus if he has to replace someone or when the situation calls for extra guards. Bus security guards move around according to their assignment, are in constant contact with the police and are briefed daily by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). "In the beginning the job is a bit scary but you get into it," says Yigal. "You don't really take it in that at any moment a bus can blow up and you may be in or outside the bus. You don't really think about it during the day [because] you may go nuts." When Yigal worked in bus security during the second intifada, buses were blown up on a regular basis . "During my shift, a few buses blew up... I saw buses five minutes after they had blown up," Yigal says. "It's scary, but you do get on with life. You wake up the next day and there's life and the city, and people shop and you just continue." Yigal says he wasn't afraid to come to work, but wishes more could have been done to stop an attack. "It's not a pleasant thought to think that you're part of a unit that's supposed to prevent things from happening and it still happens," he says. "In the street people would blame us for the buses blowing up. It's not an easy thing to hear but you understand that people are upset and you have to continue with your job." When describing his worst moment working bus security, Yigal speaks thoughtfully and haltingly, glancing down every so often. "My worst moment would most clearly be when I arrived at the scene of bus No. 2 that was blown up three years ago on Rehov Shmuel Hanavi. You really wouldn't want to see what it looked like. Although we have all seen the same pictures on television, it's different... when you actually see it and smell it." Yigal, however, says he hasn't suffered from nightmares after being on the scene of a bombing. "It's nasty for that evening, but it passes." After a suicide bombing, guards are deployed to prevent multiple terror attacks, as terrorists usually strike in numbers, Yigal says. Even after a bus would explode, Yigal says he wouldn't feel he had failed his mission if the terrorist hadn't gotten by him personally. "You can look at it in two ways," says Yigal. "You can say, 'I've failed,' or 'Something's happened and let's prevent it from happening again. Let's prevent them from surprising us again.' That's the attitude anyone in charge on the scene of an attack has and gives over to his group members." To help guards ease the strain of their job, there are counseling services available. During the second intifada, the bus security unit sent its employees to group counseling. To relieve the stress of the job, Yigal goes to the gym or talks to his wife. His English mother and American father, who made aliya in the 70s, have adjusted to their son working in such a risky job, he says. "If anything happens in town, I always make sure my parents and my wife know that I'm OK but that I also have to do my job. Any Israeli mother is always scared when she has a son working in security or police or in the army." It's been a little over three years since the last suicide bombing, on February 22, 2004. The calm can be attributed to a variety of sources, Yigal says, such as improved security techniques. The unit has learned how terrorists work, he says. For example, guards are moved around during the day to keep terrorists on their toes. "We try and change so nothing is the same day after day," says Yigal. "We try to surprise whoever's coming. We know for sure that some buses that blew up happened because the terrorist knew where we weren't going to be or when we weren't going to be there." Guards also work longer hours, from the first bus at 5:30 a.m. until the last bus just after midnight. "There's always someone out there," he says. The changes to the bus security system, however, come at a cost. According to the Transportation Ministry, since the middle of the second intifada in 2002, bus security has cost the government approximately NIS 10-15 million annually. Bus security is a joint project of the Internal Security Ministry, the Transportation Ministry, the police and Egged. "We are very satisfied with the security and the cooperation we get from them," says Sam Gorenstein, head of the security unit at the Transportation Ministry. The city and its buses are safe, Yigal says, but he advised the public to always keep their eyes open and call police if anything seems strange. "If you see a suspicious person on a bus, get off the bus!" he says. Despite the safety that security guards help bring the city and its buses, the job is often thankless. "People should be kind to the guards, not curse them if they don't like the way they were approached or spoken to by a guard," says Yigal. "Let anyone stand outside for nine hours when it's 35 degrees and see how he feels, or when it's snowing, or pouring rain. "It's not an easy job and people should be more grateful."