A Short History of Terror

The Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem has been the scene of terror attacks since before the establishment of the state, way before the street ever became a pedestrian mall, simply because even then it was one of the city's main streets.

The Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem has been the scene of terror attacks since before the establishment of the state, way before the street ever became a pedestrian mall, simply because even then it was one of the city's main streets. There have been three major terror attacks over the years: the attack by deserters from the British army in 1948; the explosion of a booby-trapped refrigerator in Zion Square (located at the lower, eastern end of the street) in July, 1975; and the attack, similar to the one on Saturday night, in which three suicide bombers exploded simultaneously in September, 1977. In addition, over the years, there have been dozens of other smaller terror attacks and attempted attacks in the area.

On February 22, 1948, at about 6:30 in the morning, British soldiers and police went to the corner of Ben Yehuda and Ben Hillel Streets. They were driving three truck bombs loaded with explosives, and after lighting the explosives, they quickly fled the scene. From the force of the explosion, four buildings in the area were demolished. Fifty-two corpses were found under the rubble and 32 people were injured, of whom six more died of their injuries.

It later turned out that the "British soldiers" were deserters who had been enlisted for the attack, with the promise of bribes, by the commander of the Arab forces in the Jerusalem area, Abed al-Kader al-Husseini (who was killed several months later at the battle for the Castel). The British trucks and uniforms enabled the attackers to pass through all the checkpoints that the British themselves had set up throughout the city, and to reach their target. The explosion was set up to take place near the Atlantic Hotel, at the corner of Ben Hillel and Ben Yehuda Streets, where those who guarded the Palmach convoys usually lodged. British police chased to the attackers, but the latter cried out "Explosion!" The fact that they were themselves British misled the police, who preferred simply to flee the scene.

Jerusalem scholar (and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem) Dr. Meron Benvenisti, who was a boy of 14 at the time, relates that he arrived at the site of the explosion with friends from the youth movement; they were asked to help clear the rubble. "The English offered earth-moving equipment, on condition that they themselves operate it," he recounts, "but the Jewish Agency [the leadership of the Jewish public here at the time - Y.S.] refused, so that's how they brought us in to do the work. I remember that I bent down to clear something and suddenly I saw a human hand sticking out of the rubble. This is a sight that I will of course never forget. The roof of the Orion Cinema, which was located nearby, was blasted off entirely by the force of the explosion, and for years the cinema had only a tin roof, and when it rained you couldn't hear the films that were being screened."

The Etzel and Lehi underground militias carried out revenge attacks in response to the blast. Etzel agents killed an officer, a sergeant and two British drivers near the Jewish Agency buildings, while the Lehi killed 10 British policemen, Ultimately, the luck of the British soldiers who carried out the attack ran out. When they asked for the money they had been promised, the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini (Abed al-Kader's uncle), turned them out on their heels. He did not need them any longer, especially as in light of the international criticism of the attack, he did not want any proof that he had been connected to the deed. Moreover, after Abed al-Kader al-Husseini announced to the press that it was he who was responsible for the attack, the Supreme Arab Committee, which was afraid of international censure, released a statement denying Al-Husseini's announcement. The mufti himself authorized the denial of his nephew's statement. It seems that complex relationships between the perpetrators of attacks and a leadership that denies responsibility or censures these attacks are not just phenomena of our times.

Language of the sword

On Friday, July 4, 1975, a refrigerator that had five kilograms of explosives packed into its sides exploded in Zion Square. Fifteen people were killed in the explosion and 77 were injured. Absurdly enough, a Jewish passerby, Shabtai Levi, helped the terrorist hoist the refrigerator onto the sidewalk. Levi later related that "he had problems with the fridge and he couldn't manage to get it up on the sidewalk, so I got up and helped him." However, the refrigerator aroused the suspicions of Esther Landner and Yehuda Warshovsky, who both worked near Zion Square. Landner called the police emergency line, but it did not answer. She then called telephone information, where they told her to call the central police switchboard in Jerusalem. The operator there began to interrogate her at length about the refrigerator and as they were talking, the explosion occurred.

After the blast, the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, promised from the Knesset podium an uncompromising war against the terror organizations and added: "The murder serves as a warning not to get caught up in illusions about the intentions of the terror organizations ... Therefore we must follow a strict policy of not negotiating with them. We must speak to them only in the language they understand, the language of the sword."

MK Aharon Yariv of the Labor Party, who was later to become the head of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University noted: "It is necessary to make clear the danger in the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank in the context of the terror."

On September 4, 1997, three suicide terrorists from the military wing of the Hamas blew themselves up simultaneously along the pedestrian mall. Four Israelis were killed, among them two 14-year-old schoolgirls (one of whom was Semadar Peled, a granddaughter of Major General (res.) Mati Peled, an early and leading proponent of dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The explosions occurred at about three in the afternoon, when the pedestrian mall was crowded with people. One of the terrorists, disguised as woman, placed himself opposite Cafe Atara on the pedestrian mall. About 20 meters away, downhill on the pedestrian mall, the other two took up positions. The disguised terrorist blew himself up first, and about half a minute later the other two exploded.

The Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, condemned the attack and called it "a terrorist attack directed at innocent people ... something that harms the peace process toward which both peoples are striving." He also expressed the hope that the attack would not affect the impending visit by the U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. The public security minister, Avigdor Kahalani, explained that the police could not check every individual on the street and also that imposing a closure could not ensure the prevention of terror attacks: "There is no border between us and them, and it is possible to infiltrate even through a closure. The closure makes things easier for us, but it does not ensure hermetic protection." He also noted that "there are 165,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem, who move around the city freely."

The grenade didn't explode

Apart from these three major attacks, the pedestrian mall and its environs have been the scene of many more attacks and attempted attacks. Here is a partial list:

l September 8, 1971: A grenade was thrown into the entrance of Cafe Alno on Ben Yehuda Street. The grenade did not explode and there were no injuries.

l December 12, 1974: An explosive device went off in Ben Yehuda Street. Thirteen people were injured lightly to moderately.

l November 13, 1975: An explosive charge went off near cafe Naveh, on Jaffa Road near the pedestrian mall. Seven people were killed and 45 injured.

l April 9, 1976: A car bomb was dismantled on Ben Yehuda Street shortly before it was to have exploded.

l May 3, 1976: Thirty-three passers-by were injured when a booby-trapped motor scooter exploded at the corner of Ben Yehuda and Ben Hillel Streets. Among those injured was the Greek consul in Jerusalem and his wife. The following day, on the eve of Independence Day, the municipality organized a event at the site of the attack, under the slogan: "Nevertheless."

l January 1, 1979: A car bomb was found opposite Cafe Atara on the pedestrian mall and was neutralized about half an hour before it was to have blown up.

l March 24, 1979: One person was killed and 13 people were injured, most of them lightly, when an explosive charge blew up in a trash can in Zion Square.

l May 2, 1981: A police sapper was moderately injured by an explosive charge that had been placed in a trash can near Cafe Alno.

l August 15, 1984: A car bomb was discovered on Ben Yehuda Street and defused about 10 minutes before it was to have exploded. In the car were about 12 kilograms of explosives and another three kilograms of iron nails.