Keeping the Peace in Jerusalem's Complex Old City

A stabbing in Israel's most sensitive precinct gives reporters a front-row view of the challenges faced by police.

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Shortly after a stabbing attack in Jerusalem's Old City, October 7, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fittousi

A few minutes after taking our leave Wednesday morning from the head of the Jerusalem Police’s David Precinct, Commander Doron Turgeman, after touring the Old City with him, we watched him hare down the street from Jaffa Gate toward the Western Wall, cellphone to his ear and several police officers running behind. The alleys of the Old City are so narrow that no patrol car could have taken him to the crime scene on Hagai Street more quickly.

The reports over police radio of a new incident, just a few dozen meters from where Aharon Bennett and Rabbi Nehemia Lavi were stabbed to death by a Palestinian man on Saturday night, were still sketchy: A young Palestinian woman had stabbed an Israeli man. The victim, who suffered mild knife wounds to his back, pulled out a gun and shot her at close range, seriously wounding her.

All this took place only a short distance from a police position, part of the marked boost in security forces that followed the double murder. Police officers guard in threes, standing near one another as senior commanders, foot patrols and plainclothes detectives pass by. But the policemen cannot form a human chain around every Jew walking through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. The young Palestinian woman, who did not raise suspicions before she acted, was very close to Lavi’s home, outside of which were mourners and protesters, when she drew her knife.

Police arrived quickly, but not before both the victim and his assailant lay wounded, not far from each other. The police could only arrange for the two to be evacuated, protect the perpetrator from angry Jews, prevent scuffles between Jews and Arabs and collect evidence. A few minutes later, a special narrow ambulance, more like an all-terrain vehicle, evacuated the Israeli and Palestinian, one after the other.

“Why are you even treating her?” yelled a bystander. “I would have shot her in the head.” That was the general sentiment among the onlookers, most of whom easily penetrated the ring of forces the police had deployed along the nearby streets.

Turgeman and his subordinate, commander of the Temple Mount police position, Supt. Shlomi Tubul, are responsible for one of the smallest but most sensitive precincts in Israel — the Temple Mount and the four quarters of the Old City. Over the past few days the area has been reinforced with an enormous police presence of more than 2,000 Israel Police and Border Police officers, among them members of special units. Many senior officers were securing the area alongside ordinary cops; Commander, Ofer Mualem, head of the Tel Aviv District’s investigations branch, who usually investigates organized crime, was spotted on patrol.

The police activity has been greeted with demonstrative indifference by the area’s Palestinian merchants. On Hagai Street, a main commercial street in the Old City, many shops have been shuttered since the last attack. Even as policemen ran down the street following reports of Wednesday's stabbing, the merchants reacted with disinterest. Two streets over, it’s business as usual, although there aren’t that many tourists.

Before Wednesday's stabbing, both Turgeman and Tubul stressed that life in the Old City goes on and the police mission was to try to restore relative routine. This involves daily dialogue with the Palestinian residents, merchants, and members of the Waqf, the Islamic Trust, on the Temple Mount, although their ability to calm things down is considered limited. It’s clear that the police officers know many of the Palestinian residents of the Old City and make a point of talking to them. Still, even with Israeli identity cards, this is an occupied population that tries to avoid contact with the authorities.

Turgeman and his men, mid-ranking police officers, make fateful decisions that can influence the situation in Jerusalem, the territories and even Israel proper. Their recommendations must be approved by Jerusalem District Police Commander Maj. Gen. Moshe Edri, and sometimes by the political leadership. But these are the professionals who formulate policies and take measures, like closing off the Old City to nonresident Arabs for two days after the Saturday night attack. Wednesday's terrorist entered the Old City only after it had been reopened.

The heart of the matter is the Temple Mount itself. Some 10,000 Jews visited the compound last year, as did twice as many foreign tourists. All had to go through a security check before entering. Visitors must present an ID card or passport, and are checked on the police computers. If a warning turns up next to a name, that person is refused entry. The blacklist includes dozens of Jews (like Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick) and hundreds of Muslims, like the heads of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, sheikhs Ra’ad Salah and Kamal Hatib.

On ordinary days, between 30 and 40 Jews and tourists enter the mount in two groups, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They enter through the Mugrabi Gate under heavy police protection. The status quo in the compound bans Jews from stopping anywhere or praying, but many try to get away with murmuring prayers. The compound itself is around the size of the yard of a large Israeli high school, but that’s enough space to contain high levels of violence, as has been demonstrated recently.

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