Fear and Tension on a Mixed Jewish-Arab Street in Jerusalem's Old City

Palestinian residents fear it will become a replica of Hebron's Shuhada Street, which was closed to Arabs following the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein.

Olivier Fitoussi

The tension and violence between Jews and Muslims along Hagai Street in Jerusalem's Old City, did not begin with the stabbing attacks last week in which Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett were stabbed to death.

The tension on the street has been rising steadily for several years now, particularly in the alleys leading off it to the Temple Mount. That is where Muslim women gather to curse Jews on their way to the Temple Mount and where closely-guarded groups exiting the Western Wall tunnels make their way back to the Western Wall concourse.

It is where hundreds of ultra-Orthodox pass on their way to the Western Wall and where hundreds of tourists gather while walking the Via Dolorosa. The street is also one of the two main markets of the Muslim Quarter.

Last week, in the wake of the two attacks, the street turned into a security area, with about 10 checkpoints and hundreds of police posted along it. Most of the Palestinian merchants closed their stores, waiting for the rage to pass. Every few hours, a politician popped up, with an entourage of assistants and cameras.

In the center of the street, near Beit Wittenberg and close to the spot where Lavi and Bennett were killed, members of the Ateret Cohanim organization opened an open-air yeshiva in order to protest against the security situation and in memory of those killed. Prayers and Torah lessons were held there throughout the week.

Olivier Fitoussi

Beit Wittenberg, also known as Sharon's House (Prime Minister Ariel Sharon bought an apartment there in 1987 in order to enhance the security of the Jews in the area) is the center of a sizeable Jewish community that lives in the Muslim Quarter and along Hagai Street.

Most of the Jews in the Muslim Quarter belong to Ateret Cohanim, a right-wing NGO that works diligently to acquire Palestinian homes – mainly in the Muslim Quarter and the village of Silwan – for Jewish settlement.

About 1,000 Jews, among them hundreds of yeshiva students, live today in the Muslim Quarter under heavy security. In contrast to their radical image among the Old City's Palestinians, the members of Ateret Cohanim are regarded as moderates in the nationalist-religious community, certainly as far as visiting the Temple Mount is concerned.

They see themselves as the guardians of the legacy of Rav Kook and are thus also opposed, ideologically and religiously, to the entry of Jews onto the Temple Mount. They have not been publicly critical of those visiting the sanctuary in recent days, but between the lines it is possible to read strong criticism of the temple movement, whose actions have complicated the lives of the Jews in the Muslim Quarter.   

"We have very reasonable neighborly relations with our Arab neighbors," said Matti Dan, the head of Ateret Cohanim and leader of the Jewish community in the Muslim Quarter. "We have no personal enmity. We live here and we will have to live together for hundreds more years."

Olivier Fitoussi

"But there are terrorists who succeeded in messing things up," he added. "We need to clench our teeth and find solutions. In the meantime, there are no immediate solutions. It's not easy for people to go through it, but they know they didn't come here to find housing solutions but on a mission. The Eternal People is not scared of a long road."

Dan, who doesn't normally give interviews to Haaretz, maintains that it is possible to return quiet to the street.

"The approach needs to change," he says. "We need to relate to the Old City as we would to a nuclear installation. To secure it like we secure the prime minister.

"They need to take responsibility for this kilometer. People without IDs shouldn't be able to enter. Anyone entering the Old City should be checked. It's a place people come to pray, each in his own way. We can't accept that a Jew is attacked on his way to the Western Wall.

"From my perspective, they can post a policeman every meter. And if there are people who are frightened, the road from Damascus Gate to the Wailing Wall should be made sterile. Freedom of access to religious sites is not just a slogan; it requires the government to come up with the methods that will enable people to pray without fear and to make all the budgets available to get it done. We must remember that the Israeli government that freed Jerusalem made a commitment."

Dan has excellent connections with government, the Jerusalem municipality and the police. On Friday, it seemed that his message was being heard. Metal detectors were installed at the entrance to Hagai Street, from the direction of the Damascus Gate, the Via Dolorosa and Shalshelet Street.

When he speaks of a population that is fearful, he is hinting at the ultra-Orthodox, who have stopped visiting the Muslim Quarter – and even the Wailing Wall – since the unrest began. During Succot, the heads of the community instructed their flock to stay away from both the quarter and the wall.

Ever since then, Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz has been trying to make the ban less stringet, but it appears as if the Haredi community prefers at this stage to keep its distance from the area. They were virtually absent from Hagai Street on Friday, even though it's the natural route from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods north of the Old City to the Western Wall.

Dan is careful when talking about the Temple Mount and the differences over Jewish entry into the sanctuary.

"I don't think there are pogroms and attacks because we began entering the Temple Mount," he says. "The Arabs are looking for opportunities and they find them. The Temple Mount is dear to me, even if I don't go there."

In keeping with the approach of Rav Kook, he says that only the chief rabbis are authorized to decide on the issue. "When the nation was first established on the land, Rav Kook established the chief rabbinate, which is part of the nation like breath is to the body. The rabbinate is the body that needs to guide and lead us on all the public questions connected to the Jewish character of the state, like marriage and divorce, conversion and the Temple Mount. We cannot miss that stage and enter the Temple Mount without the chief rabbinate."

On the other hand, the government needs to ensure that law is maintained, that laws are implemented and that there is order under Israeli sovereignty.

After the Six Day War, the state decided, with the agreement of the chief rabbinate, that Arabs could continue to pray and it did not decide that the state would rebuild the temple or that Jews could enter the Temple Mount.

"Therefore, any change from the original decision needs coordination with the chief rabbinate," Dan says. "There is no Sanhedrin in our generation. We are still at the start of the road."

The Palestinians working and living on the street are concerned that Dan's scenario will turn Hagai Street into a replica of Hebron's Shuhada Street, where, in the wake of the massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein and in the name of defending the Jewish residents of the city, security measures were implemented that soon led to the complete closure of the street to Palestinians and the abandonment of their shops.

For most of the past week, the shops on Hagai Street remained closed and the Palestinians who normally flood the street were replaced by columns of police, security guards, protesters and politicians. There were times when the Hebron model did not seem far-fetched.

That said, the concern seems exaggerated at the moment. It is a street with an international reputation that serves thousands of tourists every year and part of it overlaps the path of Jesus' suffering. It is also in Jerusalem of 2015, rather than Hebron of 1994. The 21 intervening years have significantly reduced Israel's ability to take unilateral action.

In the meantime, Ihab Barkat, owner of the City of Peace coffee bar on Hagai Street, is in despair. At midday yesterday, he counted 20 shekels and $3 in the cash register from a few glasses of juice sold to tourists. Tension infuses every glass of juice.

"When I prepare the juice, I am scared to cut the oranges in case someone sees me with the knife and shoots me," he says.