‘Numb Enough’ To Carry On
09/04/04
Israel Correspondent
Photo Galleria: 

Jerusalem — The summer has been busy for Yafit Kaduri. The 18-year-old waitress at the Sbarro pizza in the central part of this city described a restaurant packed with American, French and Mexican tourists.

As she passed out advertisement leaflets on a cobblestone street just around the corner, Kaduri shrugged off fears of a repeat of the August 2001 Sbarro bombing that killed 15.

“Whoever lives here knows it could happen anywhere,” she said. “Should we stop living because of this?”

[Her comments came just days before a female Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up at a bus stop Wednesday in the French Hill section of Jerusalem, killing at least two, including a police officer who stopped to question her, and wounding at least 15 others. The attack was the first carried out in Jerusalem in seven months.]

Dozens of yards away on Zion Square, two border policemen reclined on the concrete base of a pole. Buried under a flak jacket, backpack, M-16 and the weight of late afternoon sun, one of the officers savored the respite from patrolling the plaza.

“It’s relaxed — for now,” he said.

Four years after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, Jerusalem is carefully trying to accustom itself to a new routine. Like the rest of Israel, the city has experienced a dramatic drop in the number of attacks this year, and those who live and work in the capital are trying to reconstruct the pieces of a normal life.

With a seven-month respite in major attacks in Jerusalem, residents are returning to cafes and to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in the center of the city. Commuters are again riding the buses. Emergency workers have turned their attention to preparing for natural disasters like earthquakes.

But if this city has been able to recreate a notion of the routine, there are few who fool themselves that it is a complete return to normalcy. With daily reports of foiled bombings, Jerusalem remains in a constant state of alert. Life continues in the absence of any foreseeable solution to the four years of violence, but it is under a heavy blanket of security that Jerusalemites have accepted as part of their new landscape.

And with the trauma of previous attacks lying just beneath the surface of the mundane, locals say they have grown thick skin to protect themselves in the event of a new calamity.

“Everybody in Jerusalem lives in a state of trauma,” said Caryn Green, a social worker who runs a shelter for teenagers one block off Zion Square. “Everybody has been affected by an attack and has lived through it. It becomes normal. It allows you to become numb enough to continue on with normal life. … You become like, OK, I’m still going jogging.”

But normal life for Green also means being able to tell when the city is on high alert for a terrorist attack even without listening to the radio. Two to three times a week, the roads and intersections around Zion Square and Jaffa Street become covered with security personnel who are assigned in pairs to patrol every corner. The police presence has become so regular that Green admits she no longer notices it.

Even in the absence of a terrorist alert, the security presence on Jaffa Street is hard to miss. In addition to the border and regular police officers, Jaffa’s strip of restaurants and retail shops swarms with private guards hired by the local businesses.

At the beginning of the year, Sbarro moved from the prominent corner of Jaffa and King George streets where it was bombed three years ago. The new location on Jaffa, on the opposite side of Zion Square, is just as central though much more modest. On a recent weekday afternoon, the restaurant was half full with families and patrons in their teens and 20s.

As she walked up Jaffa Street away from the restaurant, one customer who had just finished eating said she has stopped worrying about the possibility of a bombing.

“We’re used to the fact that you can leave your house and you don’t know if you’re returning,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

The last attack to rock the city occurred on Jan. 29, a bus bombing that killed 10. Since then, security forces have foiled dozens of attacks. Yet Jerusalemites know their safety is still precarious. The separation barrier that protects northern Israel still does not completely surround the city. And just a few weeks ago, a would-be suicide bomber who had reached the entrance of a cafe relented at the last minute.

Amid the tentative calm, Israelis gradually have re-established routines — some of them familiar and others slightly altered. In Jerusalem, for example, restaurants are now judged not only on their food but also their level of security.

“I think the country has adapted a business-as-usual attitude,” said Alan Cohen, an assistant director at the Israel Community Stress Prevention Center. “It’s not completely the way it was, but there’s an equilibrium. In Jerusalem there’s a quiet tension. People adopt certain types of behavior to assert control over the situation.”

Over years of attacks in the city, Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem has absorbed the largest number of casualties. The dubious distinction has made the hospital’s emergency staff into a model of efficiency.

A software system dubbed “Adam” was developed to share data on bombing victims with other hospitals. With the lull in the attacks, the hospital is trying to adapt the Adam system for use in case of earthquakes and other instances of crisis management. At the same time, the staff is still bracing for the next bombing.

“When things are getting quieter, it’s easy to put things aside and act as if life has gotten back to normal,” said Rita Abramov, chief of the hospital’s social workers.

“It’s a dissonance. It’s a crazy situation because you can’t live on alert all the time, so you try to get back to normal life. But on the other hand, you can’t let things go as if nothing is going to happen.”

Security And Downtown Development

For the last three summers, an annual outdoor craft festival has been moved to Ben Yehuda Street to boost business in the city center — only patrons now must pass through a security perimeter to reach the merchants. It still hasn’t brought back the thousands of foreign tourists that used to pack the walking mall past midnight on summer evenings.

“Look outside. You call that a pedestrian mall?” asked Yossi Zakaim, who owns a souvenir shop on Ben Yehuda within spitting distance of Zion Square.

Since the start of the intifada, Zakaim has been forced to lay off his staff and has run down a lifetime of savings to stay in business.

“It’s only going backward. I eat from whatever I sell,” he said. “I’m not greedy, but for the young people there’s no future.”

For municipal planners, the spate of attacks has spurred plans to revitalize the center of Jerusalem. For two decades, new neighborhoods had spread outward with self-contained commercial centers and shopping malls that took away business from the areas around Ben Yehuda and Jaffa Road.

When the infiltration of bombers turned the city center into a ghost town, the municipality realized it needed to invest more in building up the main shopping district. So despite the increased security threat, the city moved ahead with plans to build a $300 million light railway system and is planning on giving a facelift to buildings downtown.

“Terror is the worst possible thing, but big cities know how to use it for change,” said Asaf Whitman, the director of Eden, the municipality-owned commercial development company.

The wild card is how much to invest in security. Eden assumes that the high-level terror atmosphere during the first three years of the intifada can’t hold up for 20 years. But many merchants in the center have pressed Jerusalem to close roads and build a permanent perimeter of gates around the shopping districts to be manned by security personnel.

Whitman said the city has dismissed the request. Defining an inner security blanket would stir an unending dispute, with city merchants left outside the perimeter. What’s more, closing off the city center permanently would be a disaster for the city’s image at home and abroad.

“There are no doors in cities; cities are open places,” he said. “I didn’t see them closing New York City after 9-11. We’re the same.”

Back at the Jaffa Street Sbarro, Alladin, the restaurant’s Arab shift manager, greets customers, but recoils from questions about business and the Arab-Jewish cooperation at the pizzeria.

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” said Alladin, who declined to give his surname. “It was a good story three years ago, but enough.”

Outside the restaurant, a handful of security guards from nearby restaurants and bus stops gather to joke and talk soccer. Though they wear uniforms ranging from olive green fatigues to khaki vests and white button-down shirts, the security are working together and comparing notes.

“Even though some Jerusalemites feel more comfortable in restaurants, security guards cannot relax,” said Motti Sorokeh, who oversees about 10 guards posted at stores along Jaffa Street. “Every day there are alerts.”

The trip wire of that tension is extremely sensitive. A reporter taking notes and snapping pictures of restaurants and security guards soon arouses suspicions of a terrorist agent. The “suspect” is detained by border police, delivered to the bus security and grilled on the street by a regular police officer.

After 20 minutes of deliberation, police officer Oren Ohayon returns the reporter’s notebook and identification card with an apology.

“I’m sorry for the discomfort, but we had to check,” Ohayon said. “It’s routine that’s not a routine.”

Last Update:

03/03/2010 - 16:07

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.