Jerusalem — It’s pepper spray time here.
In a sign of the increasingly tense times, where a string of terror attacks in the city and beyond have rattled residents, members of a Jerusalem listserv signed up for bulk orders of pepper spray; they were hoping, presumably, that the spray could stop a terrorist from carrying out an attack. Others asked fellow members how to legally procure a gun permit.
At Defense, an army-and-navy store on Ben Yehuda Street in downtown Jerusalem equipped with IDF uniforms and a large assortment of knives and camping equipment, the owner, who requested anonymity, said business for pepper spray “has been brisk since the war in Gaza started, but especially since Monday’s terror attacks.”
There was no corresponding jump in the sales of knives, he added.
That was a caustic reference to the violence on Monday, in which Palestinian terrorists from the West Bank fatally stabbed Israelis in two separate attacks; one was at a Tel Aviv train station, the other at a bus stop by the entrance of the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut.
Yet an outsider visiting downtown Jerusalem would be hard-pressed to notice much difference from a day or a week ago. Commuters waited patiently at light rail train stops on Jaffa Road despite the fatal vehicular attacks at light rail stations that claimed the lives of three people, including a 3-month-old baby with American citizenship, in recent weeks.
The only security measure discernible to the public were several large cement blocks placed on sidewalks next to the train tracks to prevent terrorists from driving into pedestrians.
“We’re feeling very comfortable here,” said Mitch Gold, a tourist from Baltimore, as he and his wife and parents shopped on bustling Ben Yehuda Street in the heart of downtown. “There is nothing here that would cause us alarm.”
For many Israelis, Monday’s attacks signaled that a wider conflict is developing — one not confined to always-volatile Jerusalem. Some believe the attacks, as well as widespread rioting in east Jerusalem and Arab towns in northern Israel, constitute the start of a third Palestinian uprising. Others hope it’s a blip and that calm will be restored in the near future.
Either way, people in Jerusalem are worried but trying to live their lives as normally as possible.
Emerging from Defense with a small container of pepper spray, a young immigrant from New York who gave her name as Shira said she purchased it to calm her mother’s fears.
“Personally I don’t think it will make a difference in a terror attack, and I don’t think the violence going on now is much worse than what happens in Israel at other times,” she said.
Downtown storeowners don’t agree, especially ones like Sarit Cohen, whose dress shop was destroyed when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up outside her store on Jaffa Road during the second intifada.
“I hope this isn’t a new intifada but I’m worried,” said Cohen, standing behind the cash register of her empty store, which, until the start of the war in Gaza in July, was packed with Jewish and Arab shoppers.
Cohen, who has three children, including one in the army, said business has dropped more than 50 percent since before the start of the war, when Israelis barely left their homes.
“I have many regular [Arab] customers from east Jerusalem who are afraid to leave their houses due to the rioting in their neighborhoods,” said Cohen, who said she called her customers at home to see how they are faring.
Some of the Arab women are also concerned about being harassed by Jews in west Jerusalem, she said.
Shmuel Katan, the owner of a Ben Yehuda Street store that has sold everything from antique menorahs to Persian rugs since 1960, said business has been down 80 percent since the start of the war in July, and has only gotten worse in recent days.
“Tourists have been scared away but it’s not as if no one is here,” he said, gazing out the window at the pedestrian mall, where people were strolling and eating outside thanks to the spring-like weather. “The problem is that at times like these no one is in the mood to shop.”
Cohen said he is “sure” Israel is in the grips of a third intifada. “They don’t want to live in peace with us,” he said.
The storekeeper expressed the hope that the American Jewish community will organize a series of fairs and invite Israeli storeowners to sell their goods overseas, just as they did during the second intifada.
“That would help us a lot,” he said.
Bar-Ilan University Professor Mordechai Kedar said the ingredients for a new uprising are all present “but we don’t yet see buses blowing up, so I’d say we’re not there yet,” he said.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if this happens,” he said.
Kedar believes the unrest that gripped east Jerusalem and Arab sections of northern Israel following the murder of east Jerusalem teen Mohammed Abu Khaeder, and more recently by the police shooting of a knife-wielding Arab in Kfar Kanna in the Galilee, who, a video shows, appeared to be running away, is being fueled first and foremost by Islamic fundamentalism.
“There is a connection between what is happening in Israel and what happens to the Palestinians, and there is a connection between the Islamic Movement in Israel and the leadership of Hamas. It’s no accident that the riots in the Arab sector started in Kfar Kanna, the place where Sheikh Kama Khatib, the deputy leader of the Israeli Islamic Movement lives,” he said.
Kedar said the two share the same ideology calling for Israel’s destruction and the establishment of an Islamic state “on Israel’s ruins.”
The growing popularity of the Islamic Movement in Israel is “very much connected” to emergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” he said. “ISIS has a vast influence on the feelings and emotions and motivations all over the Middle East, including Israel.”
If there is a difference between the two Palestinian uprisings and the wave of Palestinian violence taking place now, Kedar said, it is the fact that Arabs in Israel, not the West Bank or Gaza, are taking the lead.
“You can see the greater intensity this time around, which manifests in the number of incidents and the number of young people taking part in them. For them it is a religious struggle, no doubt about it,” he said.
When it comes to encouraging terrorism and rioting, Kedar said the Palestinian Authority is trying to keep up with Hamas because otherwise “it would lose its legitimacy and popular support.”
Another important component, Kedar said, is the feeling of disenfranchisement many Israeli Arabs feel.
“They claim, with some justification, that the services — the allocation of roads, schools, infrastructure, industry — Israel allocates to its citizens are distributed in an unequal way,” he said.
Further, Kedar said, “we cannot deny that Israel is a state that represents the Jewish aspirations and sovereignty through its flag, its national anthem and its language. It does not embody the national, cultural and religious aspirations of the Arab sector. In fact it negates the aspirations of the Islamic religion, which says Jews must be subservient to Muslims.”
From the young’s viewpoint, the Islamic Movement gets things done while “the old guard are not willing to fight for what they think is important,” he added.
Standing on the line of a cash withdrawal machine on Ben Yehuda Street, Suha Bahar, a middle-aged Arab woman from east Jerusalem, said Arabs in Israel “are frustrated by the stalemate” in the peace talks, “the imprisonment” of Palestinians in the West Bank and “Jewish attempts to take over the Haram al Sharif,” the Arabic name for the Temple Mount.
But Bahar said she “abhors the violence taking place on both sides. Violence is never the solution.”
In the meantime, Joshua Shuman worries about the safety of his three children — two soldiers and a teen — as well as his wife, who teaches Hebrew to Arabs in Shuafat, where many of the clashes between Arab rioters and police are taking place.
“This certainly feels like the start of the third intifada,” he said, “and I’m worried.”