Jerusalem Light Rail under Palestinian attack; call goes out for more police

Jerusalem Light Rail under Palestinian attack; call goes out for more police

A concrete security barrier at a light rail station in Jerusalem, Nov. 6, 2014. Four people have been killed at light rail stations in two separate attacks in recent weeks. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A concrete security barrier at a light rail station in Jerusalem, Nov. 6, 2014. Four people have been killed at light rail stations in two separate attacks in recent weeks. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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. It has become the symbol of a city under attack.

On July 2, 17-year-old Jerusalemite Mohammed Abu Khdeir was allegedly killed by Jewish extremists 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 makes 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 rail line has become the favorite target of attack, with hardly a day passing when stones are 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 rail 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.

Citipass, 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.

An attack that claimed the life of 3-month-old American Chaya Zissel Braun and a bystander was not targeting the light rail, but, not coincidentally, it took place alongside. According to police, the infant was killed when a 20-year-old Palestinian man 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.

A woman who later died from her injuries, 22-year-old Karen Mosquera, 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.

The attack was 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 infrastructures.

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. A police blotter diary 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 that the problem was in not suppressing the violent behavior from the beginning and that the stone-throwing gave rise to the terrorist attack.

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

MK Ayelet Shaked from Bayit Yehudi agreed, saying that “for over a year we have been talking with Aharonovitch 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.

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

“The idea is to create a new battle doctrine,” said Barkat, “not to let the rioters reach the seam line and act, but rather to receive a warning and get to them in the places where they organize, in their neighborhoods.”

Elli Wohlgelernter is a Jerusalem-based writer.