Mercury Rising

Tensions between Jews and Arabs are growing throughout Jerusalem.

arab old city 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arab old city 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On a recent sunny morning on Rehov Hatenufa - a main artery through Jerusalem's Talpiot industrial area - six police officers stood outside a clothing store asking questions. Automatic weapons at the ready, the team of Jerusalem Police, backed up by Border Patrol officers, lent a jarring contrast to the scene of otherwise carefree clientele frequenting the furniture stores and eateries that make up this southeast Jerusalem outlet strip. Acknowledging the police presence, a small crowd of onlookers paused on the sidewalk to see what all the commotion was about. "Two guys were fighting in there," a young man in the crowd said. "But I have no idea why." Moments later, a young Arab employee was brought out by the police, followed by a middle-aged man whose kippa hung awkwardly from his head. The latter massaged his jaw and held a blood-soaked napkin. TENSION BETWEEN Arabs and Jews is on the rise throughout Jerusalem, a city that is still struggling to heal from wounds wrought by the second intifada. A delicate social balance is maintained between east and west, which in the past had its successes, but is now mostly relegated to the daylight hours and the outlying "border" areas of the capital. That balance held up for a while: The bombings circa 2002 have come to a halt, and crowded markets and buses have regained at least some sense of security. But the events of the last year, recent months and even recent weeks have begun to jeopardize that sense of calm, as it seems that the Hamas or Fatah-sanctioned attacks of the second intifada have given way to individually sanctioned and isolated acts of terror. In just the last month, Jerusalem Police made more than 10 arrests of young Palestinian men and women - from east Jerusalem or beyond the security barrier - armed with knives and enough motivation to admit that they were planning to stab a police officer or the first Jew they came across. Last week, two teenage Palestinians from the Bethlehem area were arrested south of Jerusalem after an 18-cm. knife was found in their possession. They reportedly confessed their desire to carry out a stabbing attack. Two weeks ago, three young Palestinian men were arrested at the Kalandiya checkpoint after a search turned up knives on each of them. The youths, who allegedly intended to stab police officers stationed at the checkpoint, were arrested and taken in for questioning. Army Radio reported that they confessed to the charges. In mid-April, two police officers were wounded when a Palestinian driver rammed them with his car near the Hizma checkpoint next to the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev. The officers were taken to the hospital, and the driver, a Palestinian man from Eizariya, a village near the checkpoint, was held for questioning. During an initial interrogation, according to Judea and Samaria Police, the suspect confessed to deliberately striking the officers. But after being transferred to Binyamin Police for further questioning, he told officers that he was suffering from a mental illness. At the time, police said the "true nature of the incident" had yet to be verified, adding that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) would also interrogate the suspect. But as The Jerusalem Post reported at the time, police were also "seeking to understand whether the attack was part of a recent wave of 'improvised' spontaneous lone terror attacks." And the list goes on, spanning from the the outer areas of Jerusalem into the Old City. "I can confirm that we've seen an increase in attacks and attempted attacks over the last year and a half," Jerusalem Police Spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said last week. "And I'll say that these attacks aren't like previous ones. The terrorists aren't using explosive devices, and they don't appear to be connected to a larger terrorist organization. These are individual attacks, which in some ways makes them harder to prevent." However, Ben-Ruby explained, heightened alertness on the part of his officers and Border Patrol units have fortunately foiled the majority of the attacks. "To our own credit, we've been able to stop most of these attacks before they happen," he said, "because our officers show great alertness in the field." But back in Talpiot, Malik, a young Arab man who works at a small kiosk next to the clothing store where the fight had broken out, said he blamed the police for adding fuel to the fire. "They look at us like we're dogs in the street," he said. "I'm from Jebl Mukaber," he continued, pointing up the hill in the direction of the east Jerusalem neighborhood a couple of kilometers away. "And because of all the problems that have come out of there in the last year, whenever I get stopped by the police and they see my address, they give me trouble." Indeed, Jebl Mukaber may be one of the birthplaces of Jerusalem's recent rise in tensions. Alaa Abu Dheim, the Merkaz Harav terrorist who murdered eight students at that yeshiva in March 2008, was a resident of the neighborhood, along with Kassem Mughrabi, also known as the "BMW terrorist," who was shot dead by soldiers after ramming his car into a group of them near the Old City in September. More recently, 20-year-old Jebl Mukaber resident Iyad Awisat was killed by Border Police in the neighboring village of Sur Bahir after trying to ram his car into three officers who were overseeing the demolition of the home of a terrorist who had carried out a lethal bulldozer attack in the city last year. That attack, perpetrated by 30-year-old Hussam Dwayat, has also been pointed to as an origin of the unraveling of calm in Jerusalem. Three people were killed and dozens wounded in July when Dwayat suddenly veered out of his work site with a bulldozer and rampaged down Jaffa Road - the first of a series of bulldozer attacks in the capital but by far the most deadly - before he was shot dead by security personnel. The demolition of Dwayat's home, which had been delayed by legal appeals for nine months, was approved by the High Court of Justice in March and carried out in early April. After Dwayat's act of terrorism, more attacks began pouring forth. First, there were two copycat attacks, each of which ended in the attacker's death before that of innocent civilians. Then there was a series of car attacks and attempted stabbings. Nine days after the bulldozer attack, 19-year-old Border Police officer David Chriqui was shot in the head at close range near the Lion's Gate in the Old City's Arab Quarter. Two weeks later, he died of his wounds and his killer remains at large. WITH ALL the seemingly random acts of violence falling closer and closer to one another, many Jews in Jerusalem are beginning to feel that their neighbors to the east are a fifth column, a hostile population preparing itself to do battle. In turn, Arabs believe that Jews, especially the police, are racist. They believe that if an ID check in the Old City or other contentious venue turns up the address of Sur Bahir, Jebl Mukaber or any other east Jerusalem neighborhood where recent Jerusalem terrorists have come from, the police will act more harshly in punishing them for whatever offense it is they may or may not have committed and harass them again in the future. "It goes both ways," said Malik, pouring cups of coffee at the table in front of his kiosk. "There's trash on both sides. But for me, I don't look like an Arab, do I? Most people can't tell. They think I'm a Jew. And working here, the people that come up, you wouldn't believe some of the things they say to me - 'Arabs this Arabs that,' and I just smile and take it because I don't want trouble with anyone." Meanwhile, the young Arab worker involved in the clothing store fight had returned. "What happened in there?" Malik asked him in Arabic. "I don't know," the young man replied. "I bumped into that guy and said, 'Excuse me,' and he just grabbed my face and started yelling at me, 'Talk nicely! Talk nicely!' And then we started fighting." "You see?" Malik said. "If he was from Jebl, there's no way the police would have let him go this soon." But Ben-Ruby disagreed with Malik's claim. "We don't care where you're from," Ben-Ruby said in response. "If you have a knife in your pants, it doesn't matter if you're from Jebl Mukaber, Shuafat or anywhere else. We're going to arrest you. I don't know what other people are telling you, but the reasons people give for trying to carry out an attack are often very different. Many times there's a nationalistic motive, but there are others, too. One woman we caught with a knife said she was doing it because her family wanted to marry her off to someone she didn't like. The reasons can vary, but our response, our level of alertness, is going to remain the same." Walking down the sidewalk in Talpiot, however, makes any ill will hard to imagine. Shoppers - both Arab and Jewish - breeze past with a seemingly carefree air, worried more about their shopping list or appointment at the DMV than an age-old conflict that keeps mutating into a different manifestation. No stress. No worries. "I think that what we're seeing is indeed a rising tension in Jerusalem because the future of Jerusalem is not very clear," said Anat Kurz, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, whose research fields include Israeli-Palestinian relations, terror organizations, strategy, and low-intensity conflict. "Everyone agrees that this is a problem and that the future of Jerusalem will have to be reached in some form of settlement. But in east Jerusalem, they've seen very little movement with regard to this issue, and there's really no organized political protest or political activity from the Palestinian side. So I think there's a good deal of frustration." Kurz also pointed to the high levels of disparity between east and west as a source of the tension. "Jerusalem is unified municipally, but in reality it has two parts," she said. "There's a Jewish Jerusalem and a Palestinian Jerusalem, and these two parts are in no way identical when it comes to housing, jobs and, often, municipal services." "I'm in no way trying to justify violence or terrorism," she said, "but from the viewpoint of east Jerusalemites, all these factors could explain an individual inclination toward violence." Kurz also said that the timing of the renewed tensions is anything but a coincidence. "Jerusalem didn't even come up on the table during [the November 2007 peace talks between then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at] Annapolis, after which the PA remained committed to the peace process, and I think that caused frustration, because east Jerusalemites weren't seeing any fruit there. Then the PA began its crackdown on Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank, while nothing is really happening on Jerusalem. The issue is high on the agenda, but the people are not, and their future looks rather gloomy." On the other hand, west Jerusalem residents are increasingly concerned about what concessions in east Jerusalem might mean for their future. Few assurances have been given to the residents of Pisgat Ze'ev or Armon Hanatziv - neighborhoods that are separated from their Arab counterparts by a street or, in some instances, a wadi. Even in the case of PA control in east Jerusalem, their rule would be severely undermined by Hamas, for whom support runs high in many east Jerusalem homes. Just as Operation Cast Lead in Gaza last January sparked massive outrage on the streets of east Jerusalem, the incessant Hamas rocket fire on southern communities made the prospect of the Islamic group's gaining a bird's eye view of the Old City all the more staggering for west Jerusalemites. "I hate it when my wife walks on the promenade at night," said Ron, a resident of Armon Hanatziv, which faces Jebl Mukaber. "It always makes me nervous." The Haas Promenade, situated at the edge of both neighborhoods, is both a gorgeous lookout and a contentious flashpoint. By day, the site fills up with tourists, snapping pictures of the city below them, while the rooftops of Jebl Mukaber sit quietly below. But at night, crowds of teenagers - both Jewish and Arab - sit along the promenade, often drinking and looking for something to do. Fights inevitably break out, and violence is not an uncommon occurrence. "Just a few Saturdays ago, we were walking though the promenade and two Arab guys, I assume from Jebl Mukaber, were racing their horses through the walkway," Ron said. "Not only was there an air of tension there, as both Jewish and Arab families have picnics around the promenade on Saturdays, but the young guys didn't seem to have any regard for anyone. They were just racing through on horseback; it was dangerous." After Shabbat, Ron said he called the police, who told him they couldn't do much about it. "I asked them what they would do if I was racing a horse through the center of town," he said. "The officer agreed that it would be a different situation, but he didn't give me much of an answer otherwise." Last week, In Jerusalem arrived at the promenade to look for signs of trouble. While there were few people around save for a couple of tour groups, the large glass windows of the downstairs events hall had been shattered - punch marks and rock holes still apparent on a few of the broken panes. Jerusalem Police were mum about the incident, and a request for a statement from the municipality went unanswered. But back on the promenade, two older men running a mobile kiosk answered the question solemnly. "Who do you think did it?" one of them said. "It was the Arabs, and we can't do anything about it."