Rioting in Jerusalem Derails Dream of Unification

Some 100 instances of attacks on trains since beginning of July; summer hotel occupancy rates at lowest point since 2000.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Damage to Jerusalem's light rail station.Credit: Courtesy of CityPass
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Two and a half months after the start of civil unrest in East Jerusalem, the light rail line that crosses the city’s neighborhoods and ethnic communities has become its soft underbelly. Since the beginning of July, there have been no less than 100 instances of stone-throwing, and throwing of incendiary devices and paint at the trains, which were meant to be a symbol of the city’s unification.

On Sunday afternoon, David Sirman was one of only three passengers on a Jerusalem light rail car making its way north from the French Hill junction, along with two security guards.

“I’m not afraid. We got though the Yom Kippur War and the 1967 [Six-Day] war, and this won’t scare us,” he said.

Over the past two weeks, the train’s operator, CityPass, has seen increased attempts to damage the cars, with the cost of broken windows alone estimated at about half a million shekels ($138,000).

Damage to the train’s infrastructure and lost revenue is calculated in the tens of millions of shekels, with tens of thousands of passengers electing not to ride the train due to security concerns.

According to cautious estimates, the number of commuters using the light rail has dropped by about 70 percent since the unrest began.

But the real damage is not monetary – CityPass will be reimbursed by the tax authorities. Rather, it is to the sense of security of tens of thousands of residents of the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, which the light rail reaches after passing the French Hill junction and the Arab neighborhoods of Shoafat and Beit Hanina.

Pisgat Ze’ev’s 45,000 residents use the light trail extensively, preferring it over cars and buses, especially after the ordinary stoplights along the way were replaced with smart stoplights giving right of way to oncoming trains.

The new Road 20, which connects Pisgat Ze’ev through Beit Hanina to Begin Boulevard, has also become a security risk. “People are afraid; they feel the ground is being pulled out from under them,” says Jerusalem city councillor and Pisgat Ze’ev resident Yael Antebi.

All attempts by the light rail security personnel and the police to halt the violence have failed, including use of an unmanned aerial vehicle to document the acts as they occur.

Some radical solutions were suggested over the summer. One involves diverting the track away from Palestinian neighborhoods on its way to Pisgat Ze’ev.

Antebi concedes that this is not likely to happen in the coming years – the present route took a decade to build. “Besides,” she says, “even if they change the route, the train will then pass near the Shoafat refugee camp, and I’m not sure that will be nicer. In the final analysis, we all want to get back to normal, but there are extremists who ignite the area.”

Meanwhile, normality seems far off. The incidents began on the night between July 1 and 2, after the abduction and murder of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Kdheir, and they reached a peak last week.

Last Monday, the first death occurred from this “intifada” – 16-year-old Mohammed Sanuqrut – and that night dozens of masked men stormed the gas station between French Hill and the Palestinian neighborhood of Isawiyah, setting it on fire and looting its store. All the attackers got away.

Yesterday, the first suspects in the incident were arrested. Meanwhile, the number of attacks have increased against light rail cars near Shoafat.

The events of the summer have resurrected the seam line between pre- and post-1967 Jerusalem. In Pisgat Ze’ev, a home was struck by several bullets fired from the direction of the Shoafat refugee camp. And a number of incidents of stone-throwing and incendiary device-throwing occurred in French Hill.

East Jerusalem settlers, who live deep inside Palestinian neighborhoods, have stopped counting the number of attacks on their homes and cars.

Another victim of the wave of violence in the city is the tourism industry, which employs tens of thousands of workers and has sunk into a crisis deeper than anyone can remember since 2000.

Arie Sommer, chairman of the Jerusalem Hotel Association, estimates that occupancy at Jerusalem hotels was between 25 and 30 percent, compared to more than 80 percent in an ordinary summer.

The summer of 2014 was supposed to have exceeded an ordinary summer in terms of tourism and events. “It began well in the first week of July, and then the big cancelations started. And some of the 30 percent occupancy we did have were security forces, not tourists. The optimists among us are hoping the situation improves in April 2015,” Sommer says.

The Jerusalem municipality responded: “The municipality, together with the Israel Police, has been investing major efforts to root out violence on the light rail route, including the installation of stone-proof windows.”

The municipality said police and security guards were working together, both along the route and in the train cars themselves.

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