Jerusalem, Back to Its Dismal Bloody Normal

If things don’t calm down very soon Jerusalem will be back to 'normal' with a slump in tourism, conferences shifting their venues and European soccer and basketball teams demanding to play matches in Cyprus.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Scene of the terror attack on Jerusalem's Malkhei Yisrael Street, October 13, 2015.
Scene of the terror attack on Jerusalem's Malkhei Yisrael Street, October 13, 2015.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In the decade between 1995 and 2005, when suicide bombings on Jerusalem buses were often a weekly, and sometimes a daily, occurrence, police and local governments became very efficient at cleaning up the scene. Within an hour and a half after an explosion, bodies and any other trace of human tissue had been removed for identification and swift burial, the crime-scene investigators finished sifting through the wreckage for evidence, the bus towed away, road hosed down and traffic, including public transportation, restored.

Tuesday morning’s shooting and stabbing attack on a No. 78 bus at the edge of Armon Hanatziv (East Talpiot) in southeast Jerusalem, in which two passengers were killed and over 20 wounded, was the first of its kind in a long time. Still, they were pretty quick about it, and two and a half hours later the route was back to full service. Only a few police cars and camera crews remained; even Mayor Nir Barkat, having had enough of giving interviews, had driven away in his Mercedes SUV, blue lights flashing. A team of property-tax officials was already making the rounds, checking if anyone’s vehicle or apartment had been damaged by the bullets and needed help filling out the claim form.

At the other end of the city, on Geula’s Malkhei Yisrael Street — the most crowded thoroughfare of the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods — things were back to normal as well. At nearly the same time as the bus attack, a Palestinian employee of Israel’s Bezeq phone company rammed his small service van into a crowded bus shelter and got out and stabbed passersby, killing a 59-year old rabbi and wounding three additional people.

Traffic on the street is so dense, it’s hard to understand how the driver was able to accelerate before smashing into the people on the sidewalk. The shattered glass of the shelter’s walls was gone, and dozens of teenage girls waited for a bus. Students at the adjacent seminary, they were going home early for Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish calendar month — Heshvan, sometimes called Mar-Heshvan, the month of bitterness after the High Holy Days. On the sidewalk across the street were a few dozen teenage boys and young men, averting their eyes from the girls and looking at the people in the passing cars.

“Arabs are still going around freely,” said one flushed youth with blond sidelocks. “Just now, a van full of them passed.” Bored-looking policemen stood at the ready to stop any vigilantism.

Jerusalem is back to its dismal bloody normal. A story of three divided cities. Two of them, the Zionist and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish, united for a short while by, and in, hatred for Palestinian Jerusalem. Even the few links still connecting these cities — such as Bezeq, which serves all of Jerusalem — now seem threatening.

Before leaving the scene, Barkat demanded that the government impose a closure on Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods, home to nearly 40 percent of his constituents. This has never been done in the 48 years that Israel has controlled East Jerusalem, and would be nearly impossible to implement: Many of the Jewish and Arab areas abut each other, cheek by jowl, while in other areas Arabs and Jews live on the same street — apart, but side by side. Besides, closing off East Jerusalem would be tantamount to admitting that all the talk of an “eternally reunified” city is just that. Talk. But it’s not just the headline-hungry mayor who is talking about curfews and lockdowns. Apparently even the police commanders and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan are seriously considering the idea.

The pattern of attacks in the city shifted rapidly over the past 24 hours, from stabbings mainly in around the Old City and on the routes to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, to Pisgat Ze’ev and Armon Hanatziv — outlying neighborhoods across the Green Line — and the western side of the city and to buses, beginning with the attempt Monday night to grab a soldier’s rifle on a bus at the main exit to Route 1. But while shops and streets were emptier than usual, in most of the city things were still normal.

Just a 10-minute walk from the Malkhei Yisrael attack, an international space exploration conference continued with senior representatives from NASA and the European and Chinese space agencies. Along the Sherover Promenade, leading to Armon Hanatziv, dozens of buses delivered first-time tourists to the best view of the entire city. All the visits were booked in advance, but if things don’t calm down very soon Jerusalem will be back to “normal” with a slump in tourism, conferences shifting their venues and European soccer and basketball teams demanding to play matches in Cyprus. At the main entrance to the city and along Ben Zvi Boulevard, Israeli and Indian flags fly for Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s state visit, which is still going ahead. Indians are used to this level of violence, just as Jerusalem is.

The politicians still speak of solutions, no matter how outlandish. Ordinary Jerusalemites are less utopian. The bus attack was literally around the corner from the Palestinian “village” of Jabal Mukkaber. The two perpetrators of the bus attack were from there, as was the perpetrator of the Malkhei Yisrael attack. It still isn’t clear whether the two simultaneous attacks were coordinated.

Armon Hanatziv and Jabal Mukkaber are practically conjoined, although the building styles and pavement quality clearly delineate the border.

Golan Cohen-Gabai, a teacher in Armon Hanatziv, was driving in the opposite direction from the No. 78 when he heard gunshots and saw one attacker get behind the wheel of the bus. He moved his own car to block the bus’s path, then called the police.

“They come in here, the Arabs from Jabal Mukkaber, every evening, they walk around and harass people. We can’t stop them from using the bus here,” Cohen-Gabai says. He doesn’t see the two communities living peacefully side-by-side. “Coexistence?” he snorts derisively. “What coexistence?”

Just 100 meters up the road, in Ahmed’s grocery, a very different version of the day’s events is playing on the Palestinian television station that he watches, the volume muted. Here, the attackers are “heroes” and “martyrs.” Prices here are in some cases half of what they are in the Jewish groceries down the road, and in calm periods he says 60 percent of his customers are from Armon Hanetziv. None of then has shopped here in recent weeks, and on the counter Ahmed has place small photographs of Al-Aqsa Mosque surrounded by women Islamic Movement “guardians” and by Hamas fighters. Still, he says he believes in peace.

“The leaders on both sides are at fault. I would stick [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] in the same hole and pour fire on them. No reason we shouldn’t live side by side. Where Jews live is Israeli, where Muslims live is Palestinian.” But the red line is Al-Aqsa: He has no doubt the Jews want to destroy the mosque. “They are digging beneath Al-Aqsa and building an entire city. I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he claims. No, he doesn’t have any proof, but everyone in his family and his village know it’s true. “You must understand, everything is happening now in Jerusalem because of Al-Aqsa. That’s why we are going out and dying.”

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