Jerusalem Light Rail Now ‘Lightning Rod’
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Jerusalem Light Rail Now ‘Lightning Rod’

Once a symbol of coexistence, the line is new flashpoint for rising tensions.

Jerusalem — The light-rail platform outside of the 1967 war memorial to the soldiers who united this city was crawling with security Tuesday morning: paramilitary border policeman with M-16s and green berets, a burly private guard with an earpiece and a handgun, even a bomb-sniffing dog.

“We’re supposed to be here to ensure public safety, but we’re not really succeeding,” explained a private guard employed by the light-rail line who declined to give his name. “We need more forces.”

Nearly one week after a Palestinian driver ran down a crowd of early evening train passengers on the same platform, killing a 3-month-old baby and a young Ecuadorian woman, tensions have only escalated in the city.

The turmoil, which some are calling an urban uprising, has been complicated by recent announcements by the Israeli government of plans to add new neighborhoods in parts of the city claimed by Palestinians as a future capital; the announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted protests from the U.S., Europe, Jordan and the Palestinians.

While security chiefs scramble to find the formula to tamp down three months of chronic violence, politicians and the Israeli public are howling about the worst spate of unrest in Jerusalem in more than a generation. Sparked by the July 2 murder of a Palestinian teenager from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat by Jewish vigilantes avenging the murder of three teens in the West Bank, rock throwing, rioting and demonstrations have become a daily occurrence.

Through it all, the light-rail line has become a flashpoint for tensions. In use for nearly three years, the 8.6-mile line was at first a symbol of coexistence in the city because it brought Palestinians and Israelis together on their daily commutes — one of the few places of overlap between two mostly separate communities. Now the line has become a target for attack by young Palestinians looking to act out against Israel.

Before the terrorist attack last Wednesday evening that killed the infant, Haya Zissel Braun, the train line had been targeted by riots sparked by the July 2 murder of Abu Khdeir; young Palestinians destroyed ticketing kiosks and threw rocks at train cars, resulting in 40 percent of the trains being taken out of commission; major delays in train service ensued.

City Pass, the rail-line operator that built the transportation system for about $1 billion, is still waiting for violence to ease before it repairs the damage.

“There can be days without an attack, and there can be days with five attacks,” said Ozel Vatik, a City Pass spokesman. “The attacks on the train are not aimed at the train. It’s a symbol of Israeli rule.”

In the north of the city — where most of the attacks have occurred — the rail line starts in the outlying neighborhood of Neve Yakov, runs past the shopping mall in Pisgat Ze’ev and then heads southward through the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Haninah and Shuafat. Then, it passes by French Hill, a Jewish suburb near Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, passes roughly along the old border between east and West Jerusalem when Jordan controlled part of the city from 1949 to 1967, and then by the Old City.

This week, as the train pulled out of the Pisgat Zeev mall, Julie Dahan, a 51-year-old émigré from France who uses the light rail to commute to an office job in the city center, said she was not afraid of taking the train, even though her daughter and grandchild were riding at the time of a stoning.

“The Arabs threw it. What can we do?” said Dahan. “They [the trains] shouldn’t go through the Arab neighborhoods. If it were normal, it would be fine, but it’s not normal.”

That sentiment has apparently spurred rumors among Palestinians in Shuafat and Beit Haninah that there are plans to re-route the trains around their neighborhoods. One conspiracy theory posits that the new deployment of uniformed and undercover police in Palestinian neighborhoods is intended to provoke more violence by children against the line to serve as an excuse to change the route.

As the train passed through Palestinian neighborhoods, commuter Ghaleb Asmar asked a train security guard whether there were plans to cancel the stops in the Arab neighborhoods. Asmar recalled a time when he was a on a train and it was hit by a rock — “kids” involved in “nonsense,” he explained.

When pressed about why the rock attacks persist, Asmar blamed it on festering unrest surrounding the Temple Mount in the Old City; Palestinians believe that Israel’s government is preparing to bow to Jewish activists who want a ban removed on Jewish worship there.

“Of course [the rock attack] didn’t feel very good. … Everyone is losing because of this. This helps us,” Asmar said, reflecting widespread sentiment among Arab residents of Jerusalem that the train has made commutes more convenient for Palestinians. “Look — there are Arabs getting on the train,” he said.

At one bend in the line outside of a mosque in Shuafat, a two-story banner with the image of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the slain teenager, hangs. The 16-year-old was kidnapped just steps from the train line and burned to death hours later in the Jerusalem forest. At his funeral, mourners knelt in prayer amid the glass shards from a destroyed train station.

In recent days, border police in bulletproof vests and helmets patrolled nearby. Police balloons provide real-time surveillance from above and videos of cat-and-mouse chases of rock throwers for the department’s Facebook page.

On the platform in Shuafat, there are signs posted where ticket kiosks used to be informing passengers that ticketing services are temporarily unavailable.

“The fact that the train continues to pass here means it passes against our will. It brought problems for us — they’ve started arresting people and giving fines,” said Hani Dweik, a 24-year-old Shuafat resident who said that he opposes the rock throwing.

Despite that, he said, “The train unfortunately has become a symbol of racism, and a symbol of Jewish presence in Arab areas. … I have Jewish friends. I would like things to go back to normal.”

Last Wednesday — just hours after the Israeli police chief predicted that calm would be restored swiftly to the city — a Palestinian from the Arab neighborhood of Silwan drove a compact car onto the train line at the Ammunition Hill train stop located across the street from the national Israeli police headquarters — a nexus between Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The driver was shot by police and later died of his wounds, spurring more riots.

A day after the attack, dozens of Jewish demonstrators gathered at the rail stop and held up signs calling for revenge — “Death to Terrorists” some read — and criticizing the Israeli government for not doing enough to get control of the violence.

“The Arabs do what they want. First, it started with rocks, and the police didn’t respond,” said Naftali Karlowitz, a 15-year-old yeshiva student who was attending the demonstration. “Then there was a terrorist attack,” referring to the driver’s actions.

Ever since the attack, the violence in Jerusalem has dominated the news. Tel Aviv schools cancelled field trips scheduled for this week at the request of parents. The police called in fresh reinforcements to patrol east Jerusalem.

In recent days, Prime Minister Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas and the Islamic Movement of Israel for stoking the violence. He and others said there’s no excuse for rock throwing at the train line. But despite all of the reinforcements and stepped-up alerts, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharanovitch acknowledged that getting the violence under control will take some time.

The violence, which has been contained to Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, has focused on meeting points between Jews and Arabs in and around those neighborhoods, said Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist who monitors east Jerusalem.

“The light rail has been a lightning rod,” he said. “This paradigm of coexistence in Jerusalem was always a little disingenuous —with the image of the Palestinian in a keffiyeh, sitting next to ultra-Orthodox Jew, sitting next to a soldier with an M-16. It was all Kumbaya. Whoever is doing this is saying, ‘We’re not going to be extras in your the fantasy world.’”

At the Ammunition Hill stop, a burly security guard named Hyman (who declined to give his last name) pointed out places where various cars had been hit by stones. While a pair of riders debated whether there was reason to feel scared while riding the rails, they had one point of consensus: Palestinians should be banned from the trains. “They shouldn’t be here at all,” said Liron Ashtor, a 24-year-old passenger.

Back on the rail line northward, as the train passed through the Beit Haninah stop en route to Pisgat Zeev, Shimi Gidinyan played with his infant son and said that right at the same spot three days ago rocks had slammed into the car while he was riding. He said that the attacks were actually more “massive” a month ago, prompting him to take taxis.

But with the persisting violence seemingly uncontrolled in Jerusalem, there’s no way to tell if the coming days would bring a new surge of rock attacks.

“Maybe,” Gidinyan said, “it’s the calm before the storm.”

editor@jewishweek.org

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