Nightwatch undone

A proposed Jewish-Arab night patrol in Pisgat Ze'ev falls apart almost as soon as it was put together.

When Talia Ramati and Lana Jeries were assigned the Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze'ev as part of their community social work studies at the Hebrew University last November, the two had little idea that they would be pushed to the forefront of the area's Jewish-Arab tensions. "We weren't setting out to tackle the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict," says Ramati. "We just wanted to see what the problems in the neighborhood were and try to work toward solving them." But through their efforts Ramati, a Jewish Jerusalemite, and Jeries, an Arab Jerusalemite, were the inspiration for a neighborhood watch group comprised of both Arab and Jewish parents tasked with patrolling the Pisgat Ze'ev streets at night to try to defuse violent encounters between Arab and Jewish youth, while working toward better relationships between them in an area fraught with suspicion and mistrust. Last week, however - after months of professional training courses and meetings with local police - the group was disbanded indefinitely. But the story starts when Ramati and Jeries began their work in the neighborhood last fall, going door to door asking residents what they thought the biggest problem facing Pisgat Ze'ev was. "There are other problems in Pisgat Ze'ev," Ramati says. "But the issue that stood out the most was tension and violence between Arabs and Jews there." Pisgat Ze'ev is part of Jerusalem that was captured during the Six Day War and was officially annexed through the Jerusalem annexation directorate of 1967, and later through the Jerusalem Law of 1980. Building commenced there in 1982 but was done so among the few Arab homes in the area that date back to before the war. Those residents stayed, and more Arabs moved to the area in the following years, especially as the security barrier was going up, which led some Palestinians to move to Pisgat Ze'ev before they were cut off from jobs in Jerusalem. Today in Pisgat Ze'ev, some 600 Arabs live among 50,000 Jews. The result, says Ramati, has been a shaky existence marred by prejudices on both sides and sporadic violence that can erupt without warning. On Holocaust Remembrance Day in April 2008, for example, two young Arab men were beaten and stabbed by a group of Jewish youth in front of Pisgat Ze'ev's mall - a poignant reminder of what can happen when tensions there spiral out of control. But what Ramati and Jeries also found through their door-to-door forays into the neighborhood was a common complaint from Jews and Arabs that the young Arab men involved in much of the violence are not from Pisgat Ze'ev at all. "Many of them come in from Shuafat and Beit Hanina," says Ramati, "which makes them harder to find and harder for the youth outreach groups to deal with." So with the city's outreach organizations unable to prevent the violence before it happened and police coming in after it had, Ramati and Jeries began speaking with residents about the joint patrols. "Some of them even brought it up," says Ramati. "A lot of the Arab residents we spoke to said they wanted to be more involved in the community but were afraid or didn't know how to start. And it could work very well. If Arab parents came and spoke to the Arab youth in Arabic, it would help defuse the situation much more than if Jews came and spoke to them in Hebrew. That could even make things worse." Therefore, armed with the apparent motivation of residents and a community administration that was willing to help, the idea started to take off. Parents began meeting, training, and then, just as soon as things started, they began to fall apart. "There were a few times when the patrols were supposed to start, and they didn't," says Ramati. "Every time before, it was because of some problem - someone had an accident, someone couldn't make it, and so on. Finally, this last time, the Arab families said they were uncomfortable with the idea." But Ramati categorically rejects the idea that they had been threatened or were afraid to be seen as "collaborators," saying instead that increased attention over the plan in its final stages had simply scared the families off. "This is a very emotional, delicate situation," she says, "and suddenly there was a lot of attention. There were some newspaper articles written about it before they started the patrols that I think made them very uncomfortable." In hindsight, Ramati adds that perhaps the plan had been moved forward too quickly. "I think it would have been better if we had set up a community group for the Arab residents of the neighborhood first, something to empower them or make them feel more secure, because in the current climate they're just really scared." But Ramati and Jeries are still hopeful that the project will take off. The main problem they see is not hesitation on the part of patrol members but the fact that the duo's semester is over, and next year they will be assigned to a different location. "And right now we're completely crammed with finals," says Ramati. "We don't have time to go out there, and I'm not sure if we will." Still, the two hope to set up a group to replace them before next semester begins in the fall. "It was so close to happening," Ramati says. "It would just be a shame if we let it all go to waste."