Jerusalem Light Rail under attack

Passengers wait for the Jerusalem Light Rail train on Jaffa Road.
Passengers wait for the Jerusalem Light Rail train on Jaffa Road.

JERUSALEM – When the Jerusalem Light Rail was inaugurated three years ago, it was hailed as a unifying symbol of the capital’s renewal, a municipal service that would seamlessly bring together the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

No more. Today it has become the symbol of a city under attack.

On July 2, 17-year-old Jerusalemite Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed by Jews, in revenge for the kidnapping and murder by Hamas-affiliated terrorists of three teenage Israelis. Riots began two days later, and a range of violence, assaults and vandalism have been taking place ever since.

The randomness of the violence make them impossible to predict, but there has been one constant: the nine-mile Jerusalem Light Rail, which navigates the city from northeast to southwest along a corridor passing through Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.

In the northern Arab areas of Beit Hanina and Shuafat – the neighborhood where Abu Khdeir lived – the light rail has become the favorite target of attack, with hardly a day passing when stones were not thrown at the train.

Damage to broken windows alone is estimated at about half a million shekels ($133,000), while destruction to the train’s infrastructure and lost revenue is calculated in the tens of millions of shekels.

The rail line maintains its own security guards who work in tandem with police, both along the route and inside the train cars. Security forces on board during some of the confrontations have helped minimize the impact, and police have occasionally apprehended some of the stone throwers. But they have not managed to stop the violence.

Vandals have also worked systematically at night to destroy the train lines, pulling up pieces of the sidewalk near the stations and using hand-held saws to cut into the rails, to ensure that the system is beyond repair.

CityPass, the company operating the system, announced last month that eight cars out of its fleet of 23 had been taken out of service due to Palestinian violence.

Moreover, tens of thousands of frightened passengers have elected not to ride the train due to security concerns, an estimated 70 percent drop since the unrest began.

Last week’s deadly attack was not targeting the light rail, but not coincidentally, it took place alongside. Three-month-old American Chaya Zissel Braun was killed when a 20-year-old Palestinian purposely rammed into pedestrians standing on the platform of the Ammunition Hill light rail station. Braun flew up in the air and slammed down on the pavement, sustaining cranial injuries that resulted in her death.

Another of the injured, 22-year-old Ecuadorian Karen Mosquera, died Sunday. She had arrived from Ecuador a year and a half ago, and was in the process of converting to Judaism. Six others were hurt in the attack.

The driver was identified as Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi, a resident of the Silwan neighborhood. Police shot and killed Shaludi as he tried to flee, later identifying him as a staunch supporter of Hamas who had served a 16-month sentence for security crimes.

He was also the nephew of Muchi a-Din Sharif, the former commander of Hamas’ Izzadin el-Kassam wing, who was eliminated in 1998.
Last week’s attack is the latest incident of a brewing mini-intifada that has been ongoing for four months. On a near daily basis, there have been reports of the throwing of Molotov cocktails, or rocks large enough to kill that have shattered windshields on public buses and private vehicles, as well as the light rail. There have been riots, streets closed off, and damage caused to municipal infrastructure.

According to data compiled by the Shin Bet, there were three terrorist attacks carried out in Jerusalem in March of this year, seven in April, 22 combined in May and June, and then it skyrocketed to 152 attacks in July and August.

Most incidents go unreported. Indeed, a police blotter diary of last Wednesday reveals that even before the light rail attack at 5:53 p.m., rocks were thrown in four incidents, a firebomb in another, a stolen vehicle crashed into the checkpoint leading to Gush Etzion, and an Arab male armed with a knife confessed he was planning to stab a security officer, and was taken into custody.

Ironically, just seven hours before Shaludi plowed into the passengers, a tour was taken by government officials through the problematic neighborhoods, and a new plan was announced to combat the ongoing violence.

Submitted by Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it calls for the formation of special police units equipped with state-of-the-art intelligence-gathering and technical capabilities, to deal with all facets of terror-related crimes in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has been critical of Aharonovitch, publicly calling for the internal security minister to give the police the tools needed to deal with the violence, and for stronger measures to be taken to stop it.

Barkat said the problem was in not suppressing the violent behavior from the beginning, and that the stone-throwing violence gave rise to the terrorist attack.

“This is an atmospheric attack that was born on the background of what is happening,” he said last Wednesday evening following the attack.

MK Ayelet Shaked from Bayit Yehudi (The Jewish Home) agreed, telling Washington Jewish Week that “for over a year we have been talking with Aharonovitch here in the Knesset, and telling him that there is a small intifada in Jerusalem, and that citizens are getting their cars stoned almost every day. It should have been dealt with while it was still minor activity.”

Others blame the government for “provoking the Arab society in Jerusalem, the Palestinian society in Jerusalem, because that is the cause for the latest horrible things that have been happening in Jerusalem,” according to MK Merav Michaeli of the Labor Party.

Aryeh King, a Jerusalem city councilman from the United Jerusalem party, has been railing for weeks over the lack of deployment throughout the city.

“I want to see policemen in eastern Jerusalem every day, not just when there’s a terrorist attack,” King said. “I want to see a policeman sitting in the main junction of eastern Jerusalem no matter what day it is. Not just Ramadan and Sukkot, every day, like I see in the center of town on King George and Ben Yehuda.

“I’m not blaming the policemen. I’m blaming the policy, the orders they are getting through government minister Aharonovitch. Bibi needs to fire Aharonovitch.”

The new plan includes deploying more police on the ground – both uniformed and undercover – at problem spots and at sensitive times, and utilizing new technologies for patrolling, detecting, and preventing trouble.

In addition, observation balloons equipped with cameras have been flying over Beit Hanina and Shuafat, beaming high-resolution pictures to police, who can immediately respond to prevent small incidents from getting out of hand.

At the start of his weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu told the ministers that Israel “will not allow the reality in the city to become such that people lob stones, throw firebombs and disturb public order.”

Barkat is pinning his hopes on the balloons, and is planning to launch four more above the main areas of conflict.

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