A wave of random and deadly attacks has raised tensions in Jerusalem
Alleys and roads are deserted: Jews have been targeted but Palestinians also feel threatened
Idan Sharabi waits for his next customer. On a Monday afternoon in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, his pastry shop should be overflowing with tourists and locals, and, at this late hour, he should be running out of the day’s croissants.
Instead, he stands in his shop, knowing the crowds aren’t coming today. They didn’t come yesterday, and, he worries, they probably aren’t coming tomorrow.
“Empty,” Sharabi says, not quite depressed or desperate, but resigned to the pervasive sense of being alone that has spread across the streets of Jerusalem. “Completely empty.”
The streets of the market, which normally require a fair amount of elbowing and jostling to navigate, are nearly deserted, and you can walk from one end of the market to the other without bumping into another person.
“For two weeks, it’s been empty to a point where you could play backgammon on the street,” muses Sharabi.
It’s also quiet in a café nearby. “The tourists are still there, but the Israelis aren’t out anymore,” says Jeremy Loulou, the cafe owner who moved to Israel from France in 2008. “I hope that it will be full soon, but I’m not sure.”
A united city, divided by fear
Jerusalem is one municipality, governed by a single city hall. In many ways, the unity ends there. Nowhere is this more evident now than a cab ride from largely Palestinian East Jerusalem to mostly Jewish West Jerusalem.
“You want to go to an Arab neighborhood, you get an Arab driver,” quips an Israeli taxi driver in West Jerusalem, when asked to drop off one of my co-workers in East Jerusalem.
“I’m sorry. I can’t take you. I’m afraid to go there,” says a Palestinian taxi driver in East Jerusalem, when asked to do the opposite. These two cab rides are on entirely different days, and yet they speak as if in response to each other.
A growing sense of fear has worked its way into the tension of everyday living, as a wave of attacks on Israelis and violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces has kept people off the streets. Those who do wander out walk cautiously, perhaps even fearfully, keeping an eye out for anything or anyone unusual.
On my way to the market – a five-minute walk from the CNN office in Jerusalem – I see two young religious Jewish girls walking together. When they see a woman wearing a Muslim niqab, one girl grabs the other as if to run away. The second girl walks resolutely on, refusing to allow her friend’s fear to change her routine.
It’s not just the market. The Western Wall plaza – usually a beehive of religious activity – is similarly empty. The Old City’s alleys and roads feel deserted.
Most of the recent attacks appear to have been unplanned, uncoordinated and largely unpredictable, using knives or other sharp objects, making them difficult to prevent.
“Everyone says, ‘It won’t happen, it won’t happen,’” Sharabi says in his bakery, “and then it happens to them.”
This fear has triggered and, in some cases, exacerbated a mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis. In an IKEA in Kiryat Ata, a city in northern Israel that isn’t known for being a part of the conflict, police say one Israeli stabbed another Israeli, believing him to be an Arab.
How Israel responded before
In previous waves of attacks, Israel has found a way to deal with the threat. During the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, suicide bombers targeted Israeli buses and cafes, and many Israelis stopped using public transportation and avoided public areas. Israel then built a separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel and instituted checkpoints at the crossings. The barrier sparked fierce criticism against Israel from many in the international community – Palestinians call it the “Apartheid Wall” – but it dramatically reduced the number of suicide bombings.
In last summer’s Gaza war, rocket attacks threatened communities in southern Israel, sending many people running for bomb shelters every time sirens wailed. Israelis knew they had 15 seconds to find cover. Israel deployed the Iron Dome missile defense system to intercept incoming rockets, placing the system near communities within range of the rockets and nearly eliminating the threat.
Now Israel is working on a detection system to pinpoint tunnels dug under the Gaza border and into Israel. Hamas, the militant organization ruling Gaza, considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, used the tunnels to attack communities in Israel during the war. In the past, Israel has developed technologies to find and neutralize threats.
‘Not afraid to die at all’
But there is no detection system for an angry man with a knife.
Police officers stand at bus stops and light rail stations where you wouldn’t see them before. Roadblocks and checkpoints are part of heavy restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem, and Israeli soldiers frequently stop Palestinians walking around the city to check their ID and search them for weapons. But people still feel vulnerable.
“These [security measures], in a sense, are more symbolic. It has to do with a sense of security more than security itself,” says Amos Harel, military and defense analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
Many of the attacks have allegedly been carried out by young Palestinians – often teenagers – who use a knife or sharp object that’s easy to obtain, according to police.
“Obviously the most common weapon here is knifing and stabbing. The interesting aspect from my view is that it’s mostly done by very young people, and that these young people are not afraid to die at all,” Harel says. “These youngsters are perfectly aware that most chances are that they will get killed anyway.”
Although each individual likely has a different motivating factor, a long-standing frustration with Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories fuels the tension. The spark, according to Harel, is incitement shared and amplified on social media. Each side largely shares the videos and stories that support its own narrative. As Israelis show videos of Palestinian attacks, Palestinians share pictures of every checkpoint, every roadblock, and every time Israeli security forces open fire.
Life in East Jerusalem
Fear engenders more fear, and any concern among Israelis manifests itself in more restrictions on Palestinians. Some of the roadblocks and checkpoints in East Jerusalem have now been removed, and age limits on Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa compound have been lifted, but many Palestinians, especially those in East Jerusalem, still live with their own sense of fear.
Rasem Obeidat from Jabel Mukaber, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, tries to live a normal life, but he worries for himself and his four children. His one daughter and three sons are older – the youngest is 17 – but that does little to alleviate his fear.
“This isn’t only a collective punishment. It’s an act of collective revenge,” he says of the roadblocks and checkpoints that have become a part of daily life.
Israel deployed nearly 2,000 extra border police officers in Jerusalem in an effort to maintain security, it says, while encouraging Israeli citizens to carry guns if they have a license. Requests for gun permits have soared in recent weeks.
In Obeidat’s neighborhood, Israel placed so-called “temporary” concrete barriers between Jabel Mukaber and a nearby Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, further restricting movement of Palestinians.
“It’s not the matter of security,” Obeidat says. “It’s a matter of breaking people’s emotions, humiliating them and taking away their rights. They are trying to make their people feel safe this way. It’s occupation and no other word can describe them.”
In Isawiyya, another Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem, you can see lines of people waiting 30 minutes to pass through security checks. Israeli security forces make Palestinians lift their shirts, pull up their pant legs, and present ID to pass. Most women are allowed to pass without checks, though sometimes security forces check their bags.
As we stand by the checkpoint to shoot some video, we see young Palestinians calling home to let their families know they have crossed safely.
Even as cement blocks and checkpoints have been removed from some other Palestinian neighborhoods, they have remained in Isawiyya.
“It feels like a collective punishment,” says Rasha Othman, a mother of two girls who lives in the neighborhood. “It’s a prison inside a bigger one. They are restricting our breathing, they are restricting every single detail in our lives, and if the situation continues this way, then I will rent a house out somewhere and leave the place.”
No common ground left
For all the statements Israeli and Palestinian leaders have made to the media, they have made few, if any, statements to each other. It seems as if swaying international opinion is more important than building a mutual understanding. Both sides see the recent wave of violence as completely black and white.
An agreement between Israel and Jordan to put 24-hour surveillance on one of Jerusalem’s holiest sites, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, is designed to ease tensions at the site. But the violence has spread beyond Jerusalem, and calming the holy city may have little effect outside its hallowed walls.
Most people I’ve spoken with seem to want a normal life. A daily routine. Peace and quiet.
Two simple ideas.
Idan Sharabi looks around the market again.
At least he has one of them.