The Street That Encapsulates Jerusalem

Hagai Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, where the latest wave of violence began, is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is whether the street, and the city itself, has a future for the two peoples who live here.

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The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 6, 2015.
The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 6, 2015. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Across history, many people have tried to pinpoint the start of the violent conflict between the Zionist and Palestinian national movements. One possibility is the wave of attacks against Jews in the spring of 1920. A seminal event in those disturbances occurred in Jerusalem on April 5, 1920, when knife-wielding Arabs murdered Michael Gross, apparently on Al-Wad Street in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Avraham Shmuel Haramati, who lived nearby and came to Gross’s aid, was also murdered. According to the National Insurance Institute’s web page in memory of Jews murdered in hostile actions, the assailants were influenced by “statements of hatred and incitement against the Jews” voiced by “Arab leaders.”

Ninety-five years later, on the eve of the Sukkot festival this year, that event was almost replicated at the same place on Hagai Street (the Hebrew name by which Al-Wad Street is known to Israelis) when Aharon Bennett and Nehemia Lavi were stabbed to death. Lavi, a resident of the Muslim Quarter, was murdered when he came to Bennett’s aid. The double murder sparked a wave of violence in Jerusalem that has not yet abated. Naturally, no broad comparative conclusions should be drawn about the two events; the political reality on Hagai/Al-Wad Street is vastly different today from what it was in 1920. But are the similarities that do exist – the primitive weapons, the fact that civilians are murdering civilians under cover of the narrow alleys – an indication that Jerusalem’s past is also its future?

In recent weeks I’ve returned to Hagai Street, which has experienced more than one spasm of violence in the past. More precisely, I went back to a 20-meter stretch of the street – between the Holy City Souvenirs store and the Abu Aziz candy shop. Between them is Wittenberg House, the Jewish community’s center in the Muslim Quarter. It was next to this center that Bennett and Lavi were murdered on October 3.

Hagai Street has a long history. It was apparently built as part of Roman Jerusalem in the second century C.E., perhaps atop an older street from the Herodian period. Its name derives from the Tyropoeon Valley (gai in Hebrew and wad in Arabic mean “valley”), which bisects the Old City from north to south. On its eastern side, the street abuts the Temple Mount; on its Western side, the homes of the Muslim Quarter. As in many parts of the Old City, the density necessitated building above the street by means of stone vaults, so it sometimes feels as though one is walking through a tunnel. The section of the street we are dealing with is also tunnel-like in character.

The building was purchased in the 19th century by an affluent Jew named Moshe Wittenberg, hence its name. In addition to a residence for Jews, it also served as a synagogue and library over the years – a kind of miniature Jewish Quarter in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. Jews continued to live there even after the double murder in 1920. Two young people – Nehamia Rabin and Rosa Cohen – who were sent to assist the occupants, first met there. Two years later, their son Yitzhak was born. Jews continued to reside in Wittenberg House until the disturbances of 1929. In 1948, the building was taken over by the Jordanian government as “enemy property,” and after the Six-Day War and the conquest of the Old City, it was placed under the management of the Custodian of Absentee Property.

Israeli law is clear-cut about property that was abandoned by its owners because of the war: Jews have the right to reclaim property located east of the Green Line, but Arabs who abandoned property west of the Green Line do not have that right. In 1986, the building was transferred to a statutory body called the Wittenberg Hekdesh (a type of trust), but in practice was given to Ateret Cohanim, a vigorous right-wing organization that is connected with Rabbi Shlomo Aviner’s Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Ateret Cohanim settled Jewish families in the building, which became the heart of the renewed Jewish community in the Muslim Quarter. Ten families live in Wittenberg House, and about 1,000 Jews – half of them yeshiva students – in the quarter as a whole. The building is also known as “Ariel Sharon’s house.” In 1987, following another attack on a Jew in the area, Sharon, who was then housing minister, bought an apartment in the building to bolster the security of the Jewish residents.

Hagai Street, in Jerusalem's Old City.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Tectonic shifts

During the two intifadas, Jews in the Muslim Quarter suffered from violence. But as in the Arab neighborhoods of Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, A-Tur and others, in the Muslim Quarter, too, the settlers’ associations took advantage of years of quiet, the generosity of their donors and the supportive approach of Israeli authorities to consolidate Jewish settlement there. Deals were signed, homes evacuated and Jewish families moved in. In 2008, Beit Roi (Roi House) – a new residence funded by the patron of the East Jerusalem settlers, U.S. businessman Irving Moskowitz – was dedicated in this section of the street.

The new home was named for Maj. Roi Klein, who was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. “It’s true that one could ask, What is the use of redeeming one small house in ancient Jerusalem at great cost, when the vast majority of the buildings in these parts of the Old City are owned by Arabs, Armenians and all the others?” Rabbi Netanel Elyashiv said at the dedication ceremony. “I don’t think Roi would have asked that question The building of Jerusalem must be begun, even with one stone.”

The Ateret Cohanim group is known for its patient historical outlook. Redemption will come stone by stone. “In the meantime, there are no solutions and the present is continuing,” the head of Ateret Cohanim, Matti Dan, told Haaretz recently. “It might take hundreds of years, but the Eternal People is not afraid of a long road.”

For now, a passerby who positions himself next to the souvenir shop and looks up at the roof of the building will discover a slice of reality that characterizes the life of Jews in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods. On the roof, well fenced to prevent stones landing on it, is a play area with a trampoline and slide for the enjoyment of the children in the building, who, given the circumstances, cannot go down and play in the street.

Hagai Street is an important access road for both religions. For Muslims, it leads to most of the gates of the Temple Mount. And for ultra-Orthodox Jews (also known as Haredim), it’s the route that leads from their neighborhoods north of the Old City to the Western Wall. But in the past decade, the tension level has risen rapidly as a relatively new group entered the picture: the Temple Mount movements. Their rise derives from deep undercurrents among the religious-Zionist community in regard to the Temple Mount.

In the past, the Temple Mount was totally taboo for religious Jews. Apart from a small minority, who were considered outcasts, all the rabbis and public leaders asserted that visiting the Temple Mount is forbidden at this time. However, in the wake of tectonic shifts of both a political and theological character – related to the settlers’ defeat in the struggle against Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, the signing of the Oslo Accords and, above all, the Gaza disengagement in 2005 – a movement came into being, not massive but persistent, of observant Jews who visit the Temple Mount on a daily basis, with a religious goal.

Responders at the scene of a stabbing attack in Jerusalem's Old City, October 3, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fittousi

It’s important to point out that the Jews of the Muslim Quarter have almost no connection to that movement – in fact, they deplore it. The activists of Ateret Cohanim are guardians of the legacy of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), and, as such, vehemently object on ideological grounds to Jews visiting the Temple Mount. In the meantime, small groups of Jews are visiting the site – fewer than 100 on a busy day, compared with about 800 tourists and thousands of Muslims.

But the Temple Mount movement has the backing of dozens of organizations and nonprofits, some of which engage in lobbying and campaigning, others in reconstructing the vessels of the Temple and in educational projects. Some of them receive budgets from the government and enjoy state support. More importantly, this movement swept large sections of the political arena in its wake, notably within Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. MKs, cabinet ministers – the two most prominent being Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud) and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) – along with rabbis and public figures, began to urge a change in the status quo on the Temple Mount to make it possible for Jews to pray there.

Those public calls fell like ripe fruit into the hands of the leaders of the Islamic Movement in Israel and other branches of political Islam. The messages about the danger posed to the Al-Aqsa Mosque became more acute and seeped into the consciousness of Palestinians in Jerusalem. The sense of urgency in connection with the Temple Mount, which recurs in every conversation with Palestinians in Jerusalem, is not only religious in character. The Palestinians view the Al-Aqsa compound – that is, the entire area of the Temple Mount, in the Muslim perception – as the last place in which they still retain a modicum of freedom, where the occupation is not absolute. Accordingly, the Jewish ambition to change the arrangements there is seen not only as a religious threat, but also one of a national and even a personal character: to freedom, rights and dignity. “Hands off Al-Aqsa and everything will go back to the way it was,” says Hassan Abu Kaf, a seller of candies in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukkaber.

‘Burn, mosque, burn’

In recent years, the tension on Hagai Street has been felt mainly at the entrances to the Temple Mount, in the street’s more southerly section. Dozens of women from a group called Murabitat came there every day at the behest of the Islamic Movement in order to heckle Jews on their way to the Temple Mount. Occasionally, fights between the women and police officers erupted on the Mount itself, at the gates or on Hagai Street.

However, the street is also closed once a month at night for Jews to take part in a “March of the Gates,” and once a year, on Jerusalem Day, it is closed for hours to allow the “parade of the flags.” Ever passing year, the chanting in the parade grows more intense: “May the Temple be built, built, built; may the mosque burn, burn, burn.” In this year’s parade, many of the participants wore shirts bearing a likeness of the Temple.

It was against this background that minister Ariel visited the Temple Mount on Rosh Hashanah eve. Shortly before that, the defense and public security ministers announced that the Murabitat group had been outlawed. On October 1, terrorists murdered Eitam and Na’ama Henkin in Samaria. The next day, Muhannad Halabi, a young man from the West Bank town of El Bireh, wrote on his Facebook page, “What is happening at Al-Aqsa is what is happening to our holy places and to the way of our Prophet. And what is happening to the women of Al-Aqsa is what is happening to our mothers and our sisters. I do not think the people will put up with the humiliation. The people will embark on an intifada.”

On October 3, Halabi – accompanied by another man, Abed al-Aziz Meri – scaled the West Bank separation barrier in order to go to Jerusalem and pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque. Police twice prevented the men from entering the mosque, at different gates, one of them on Hagai Street. After they prayed outside the Temple Mount, Halabi told Meri he felt humiliated and wanted to slap a policeman in the face. According to the indictment against Meri, he convinced Halabi to make use of a knife. Possibly Halabi took advantage of the dark created by a vault overhead in order to ambush the Bennett couple, before pulling out a knife and attacking them.

“I didn’t even realize what was happening,” recalled Odel Bennett, the wife of the murdered man, the day after the attack. “I saw my husband fighting with him and then he attacked me and stabbed me in the back, the chest, the heart. I tried to grab the knife from him but couldn’t. I felt myself bleeding all over. I saw people and looked for one of them to help me. I fell on the ground and tried to get a young man to help me up. I told him, ‘Take the children, they are little babies.’ He told me, ‘Die.’ Everyone looked at me with evil, I looked for a glimmer of mercy, but no one tried to help.”

In the wake of this description, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered an investigation into the behavior of Palestinian vendors in this part of the street for failing to assist Odel. Two storekeepers were detained and questioned, although it is difficult to find a clause in the law that would oblige them to take action in a case like this. The vendors’ friends tell anyone who’s willing to listen that a Palestinian man who rushes to the aid of Israelis in a terror attack puts himself in mortal danger, as he is liable to be suspected of involvement in the event. They also claim that the event happened too fast for anyone to intervene. “If you want to help, they [the security forces] might think you were together and will kill you,” says Samir Abu Sabih, from the candy store. “Look what happened in Be’er Sheva. Soldiers with weapons ran away, so what do you want from us?”

Two weeks after the attack, the health minister ordered an investigation into the staff at the Israeli health maintenance organization clinic that operates on the street for ostensibly not assisting the casualties. The director of the clinic, Omar Atoun, vehemently denies the allegations. “I was in the room that day,” he tells Haaretz. “We heard the shouts and we went out and saw someone with blood. The doctor shouted for someone to bring his first-aid bag, but as we were about to go out, shooting started. I was afraid that the person shooting would enter the clinic – I didn’t know whether it was a Jew or an Arab. At that moment I called the police. I was the first to report it. I told them we had a doctor and could help, that he should tell the police outside to call us. But then the Magen David Adom arrived.”

Redrawing the mental map

What is a branch of an Israeli HMO doing in the heart of a Palestinian neighborhood? The clinic is located opposite the entrance of Wittenberg House, a few meters from the scene of the murder. It opened last August, after a lengthy renovation, in place of an antiques store that had been there for decades. The before-and-after photos tell a fascinating story.

The new and glittering X-ray unit was previously a cave-like room built from exposed stone vaults in medieval times. The spotless waiting corridor was a long, dark, hall of arches. The clinic’s exterior – a colorful sign, renovated walls, powerful lighting and computer work stations – contrasts sharply with the other stores on the street. A special system sucks in the air in the clinic and replaces it with fresh air every few minutes. If you’re waiting in line at the clinic and ignore the vaulted ceiling, you can easily imagine you’re in a West Jerusalem HMO.

The opening of the Hagai Street HMO is connected to deep and dramatic developments that have changed relations between the Palestinian public in Jerusalem and the Jewish public and authorities. In recent years, an unprecedented Palestinian presence has been discernible in West Jerusalem. In the malls, Palestinians are not only washing the dishes and mopping the floors, they are also the salespeople and buyers. It’s the same at Hebrew University, at places of work, in educational institutions and places of leisure in the western part of the city. On the surface, Jerusalem in 2015 is, in many ways, a more united city than ever before.

The turning point in the closer relations between Jerusalem Palestinians and the state occurred about a decade ago, when the separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank was built. In one fell swoop, the wall cut off Palestinian Jerusalem from its natural community: from the markets in Hebron and Ramallah, from marriage ties, from institutions of learning and places of employment in the West Bank cities. Although the checkpoints of the West Bank are open to Jerusalem residents, the wall redrew the mental map of young Palestinians in Jerusalem. If in the past they saw their future in studies at the university in Nablus, marriage with a partner from Hebron and a job in Ramallah, today they do not rule out attending an Israeli college, marrying someone from Umm al-Fahm and getting a job in Jewish Jerusalem.

The Israelization processes underway in East Jerusalem are reflected in an increase in the number of Palestinian students sitting Israeli matriculation exams; the numbers enrolled in Israeli institutions of higher education (a record this year); those learning Hebrew and seeking full Israeli citizenship (the vast majority of East Jerusalem residences have permanent-residence status); and the growing presence of Israeli HMOs in East Jerusalem. True, in contrast to the western part of the city, the HMOs in East Jerusalem operate through subcontractors and there are numerous complaints of corruption and wild competition between the contractors. But the bottom line is that a few high-tech, well-equipped branches of Israeli HMOs have opened in nearly every neighborhood.

One of them is the clinic on Hagai Street. It was opened by Atoun, who lives in Beit Safafa, a village incorporated into western Jerusalem after the 1967 war. “By my son, if I’d known this is what was going to happen in the Old City I would not have opened,” he says. Before the start of the wave of violence, he even provided care to a Jewish woman who lives across the street – a rare instance of a connection between Jews and Arabs here. “She said she had an urgent case, and in the end she asked for her file to be transferred here,” Atoun relates.

On the surface, the Israelization processes fly in the face of the manifestations of growing political and religious extremism, and the surge in violence. A deeper look, though, shows that these two developments are not self-contradictory but are actually complementary. As is the case everywhere, in East Jerusalem, too, there is no contradiction between education and nationalism. Furthermore, when a Palestinian Jerusalemite crosses the line, learns and speaks Hebrew and tries his luck in the Israeli employment world, he understands better the discrimination and disparity between his neighborhood and other neighborhoods in the city.

The complexity of Palestinian identity in Jerusalem is reflected in polls conducted in recent years among East Jerusalem residents by David Pollock, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (in conjunction with an independent Palestinian research institute).

In the first poll, conducted in 2010 (and popular among right-wing spokespersons), 35 percent of the Palestinians in Jerusalem said that in the event of a two-state solution, they would prefer to remain under Israeli rule. A year later, that trend was even more pronounced: More than half the respondents (52 percent) said they would prefer Israel over Palestine (42 percent would rather live under Palestinian rule). But in the same breath and the same poll, 61 percent supported “violent resistance to the occupation and car-ramming attacks,” while 40 percent supported Hamas. The Islamist group enjoyed its greatest support in Jerusalem – even in comparison with the West Bank (24 percent) and the Gaza Strip (20 percent).

“They feel they are Palestinians, but at the same time the majority of that community sees practical advantages in being under Israel,” Pollock says, by way of explanation. “They see what is happening on the other side of the wall and they don’t want to imagine their future there.”

Atoun is clear about where the troubles are coming from. “Let people forget politics,” he says. “Without the politics and without the religious people on your side and on our side, we would get along.”

Heightened reinforcement

Let’s return to Hagai Street, between the souvenir shop and the candy store. After the murder, a sign was hung from the windows of Wittenberg House, above the alley: “Behold a people that riseth up as a lioness” (Numbers 23:24). A large hole was cut above one of the letters to enable the security camera to continue filming the street. Cabinet ministers, MKs, rabbis, members of the municipality all came to visit, tour the area and proffer opinions. Ateret Cohanim set up an open-air yeshiva at the scene. The public area of the street was narrowed by means of police barriers, most of the Palestinian stores closed down on their own, and for about a week a Jewish house of learning operated in the street, with dozens of young people studying, eating and singing.

“We have very reasonable neighborly relations with our Arab neighbors,” Matti Dan said at the time. “We have no personal enmity. We live here. But there are terrorists who succeeded in spoiling things. We need to grit our teeth and find solutions.” The solutions were temporarily found by beefing up security on the street, with dozens of police officers and Border Police troops, a historic decision to close all of the Old City gates for two days and the installation of magnetic barriers – none of which prevented four more terrorists from stabbing or trying to stab police or civilians on Hagai Street or nearby.

The Jerusalem Municipality came up with one solution, albeit a rather clumsy one, in the form of a type of collective punishment against local Arab businesses. On October 14, Ashur Juweils reopened his café after it had been closed for two weeks in the wake of the terrorist attack. Within minutes, two municipal inspectors arrived, escorted by six police officers. They slapped Juweils with a fine of 5,000 shekels ($1,290) for not posting a no-smoking sign in the café. Juweils and his neighbors don’t remember anyone ever getting a similar fine in the Old City. Apparently no one in the Jerusalem Municipality remembers, either; a query to the spokesperson’s unit elicited a bland response: “The municipality carries out constant enforcement in all parts of the city throughout the year.”

Five days later, inspectors showed up again. This time, Juweils received a fine of 475 shekels for not paying the municipal tax for the sign above the entrance. He was also ordered to remove the pool table that stands in the middle of the café. “Look at how they are taking revenge on us, as though we are guilty of what happened,” a café employee said, before the inspectors moved on to shoe salesmen who had dared place their merchandise beyond the permitted 40 centimeters from the door.

The inspectors also entered the HMO and asked to see Atoun’s ID. “I asked them what for and they said I was getting a fine for the sign outside. I showed them that everything is legal and I have all the permits, and they left,” he recalls. “The next day a soldier passed by and said to me, ‘You’re still open, but don’t worry – you will soon be shut down, and I will be the first to come and take down your sign.’ Then he left.”

The municipality first devised the idea of resorting to “heightened enforcement” and making life tough for the local population as a way of coping with the violence more than a year ago, when unrest ran high in the wake of the brutal murder of the 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir. At that time, inspectors started to hand out fines in East Jerusalem for spitting out shells of sunflower seeds and urinating in public places. Haaretz revealed that the municipality also has “blacklists” of people suspected of fomenting disturbances, but who get breaks in regard to law enforcement in a variety of matters, including building infractions, business permits and parking tickets. These measures apparently did nothing to prevent the new wave of violence.

Two weeks after the murders in October, amid the inspectors, barriers and police, most of the merchants had reopened their stores and spread out their wares. The open-air yeshiva was removed. The politicians and television cameras that had been omnipresent disappeared. But the street has hardly reverted to its former self. Mohammed Ibrahim, from the souvenir shop, says that since the beginning of the month, he has not taken in even one shekel. Abu Sabih from the candy store takes out his cash box – actually an earthenware bowl – and shows his earnings so far for the day: 15 shekels, as of 1 P.M.

Further down the street is Abdul Fatah, an antiques dealer. His place is located on a strategic route – the Via Dolorosa. Hundreds of thousands of tourists pass by every year. “In the past 12 days, I have sold 10 shekels worth of merchandise,” he reveals. “They’re out to close us down like they did Al-Shuhada Street in Hebron [in the 1990s]. But each of us has a family, a house – where do they want us to go? We are not afraid to die. If my time comes I will die, as it is written.”

Those who care to may also find fatalism resonating in the words of Rabbi Yehuda Ben Yishai, from the religious-Zionist movement, who spoke to teenagers at the scene of the murders a few days after the event. “We must be pioneers, holy pioneers,” he said. “Everyone who gives his life in martyrdom is a pioneer of holiness. Including those who were martyred here a few days ago. If we become holy pioneers, we will help find the solution. Hashem [God] needs to give us the solution; human beings will no longer be able to find the solution.”

Not far from there is the family store of the Armenian photographer Elia Kahvedjian. The Armenians are a separate category on the Jerusalem scene, allowing them to observe the chaotic events from the margins. “The horizon does not look good,” he says. “My father used to say that Jerusalem is like a mosaic – if you remove part of the picture, it will not be whole. But people have somehow lost their humanity. Instead of looking at one another as human beings, we are looking at people as eternal enemies, and that is a great pity. Let people start looking at the human being on the other side, and then possibly things will start being resolved.”

The writer is the Jerusalem correspondent for Haaretz.