Picture the scene: buzzing cafes, busy streets and tourists (less than average for the season) roaming the streets of central Jerusalem on a sunny, slightly cooler than usual Monday afternoon.
Suddenly, a noise pierces the air. Not Tel Aviv’s azakot (plural: sirens), which are rare in Jerusalem, but a much more locally familiar sound – that of the police siren.
Now there are two sirens, then three, then more. Out of nowhere, police cars careen down the streets towards an unidentified location just down the road from you. This is the signal that all is about to change.
Dear readers, I have never sought to talk politics. Not here, nor in my personal blog documenting my Aliyah process and beyond (link below). I couldn’t discuss the political situation if I tried; nor would I want to. But, ladies and gentlemen, earlier today, things became personal.
Or ‘more’ personal; it’s difficult not to feel collectively victimised when rockets are being shot at you, particularly at 6am on a Saturday morning, as happened the other day on a visit to Tel Aviv. Or in the ‘West Bank hello’ – the loud and heavy gunfire morning, noon and night, just 1.5km from my building. These are all aspects of the situation that you just have to accept are going to happen.
Having said that, as one of the people in central Jerusalem yesterday, the sudden change of context was unfamiliar and alarming. Gun fire is usually over in a matter of hours. The azakot process takes about 5-10 minutes, from the alarm to the boom. But this type of terror was different. It was unsuspected and arbitrary. What looked commonplace just a few minutes before now took on a quietly sinister, threatening aura.
Yesterday afternoon, an Arab from a nearby village stole a tractor from his workplace and drove it into a bus in central Jerusalem, pushing it over. There are no debates to be had – that is what transpired. Following reports of this happening, the atmosphere in the city became visibly more tense. Along the street, people checked the news on their phones and began to tentatively scan the areas around for signs of suspicious activity. But most stayed where they were, for the time being at least.
Ninety minutes later, I was waiting for the rakevet, the tram which runs through Jerusalem’s Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods, when the police sirens erupted again. As before – one, two, three…more sirens rang out, followed by the cars zooming down the road. I’ve never heard that many Israelis fall sporadically silent. People stopped in the streets, frozen in either uncertainty or incomprehension, but maybe I’m speaking only for myself. I scanned the surrounding environs.
And then people began moving again. The sirens faded into the distance. The rakevet arrived and we boarded.
I once more felt myself shutting down into what, post-aliyah, I refer to as ‘survival mode’. I entered the rakevet, feeling sick to my stomach. Other passengers around me began turning to look outside, as more sirens and more police cars zoomed in several directions. Anxious phonecalls were made and received, as everyone tried to delineate the situation.
As a Brit (and yes, I am still proud of my heritage. I consider myself, in personality and nationality, a dual citizen), I am attuned to carefully scan and assess these types of situations. As a born and bred Londoner, it’s something that has become necessary over the years, especially post 7/7.
There have previously been random attacks on the rakevet before – from rock throwings to stabbings. As such, when all is up in the air, being right in the midst of the situation (and in one of the busiest areas of the city) I didn’t feel safe. I could hear my heart beating in my head. I kept my breathing steady, but only with a highly concentrated effort.
There were police posted at every rakevet stop now. I’m pretty certain that hadn’t been the case when I boarded. I checked the breaking news – a motorcyclist had opened fire on a man in my old neighbourhood. The gunman had fled the scene and the hunt for him was underway.
A favourite quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ ran through my head – ‘When sorrows come, they come not in single spies/But in battalions’ – and decided it was best to return home.
Two indiscriminate, unprompted attacks, linked seemingly only by their desired outcome and geographical location. I have only been in the country just under a month, but already I’ve experienced two of the most passively frightening situations that Israel has to offer. At least with the azakot, there are between 15 and 90 seconds of warning. We know that, once that blaring starts, you run. After that, you wait for the boom. Then you continue your life as normal. Repeat ad nauseum with every azaka.
With random acts of violence (it is too early to tell whether or not it is something more widely orchestrated) – it is just that; you’re forever second-guessing yourself. Who knows what it’ll be next, and where, and when?
Even returning home was problematic. The only bus I could take has recently been subjected to rock throwing, occasions which Israelis seem to take in their stride. I could have taken a cab, but there have been a shocking amount of stories lately about Arab cab drivers attempting to abduct passengers.
Ultimately, I opted to take the bus back. That too was fraught with tension. I continued scanning the roads for anything suspicious, as well as passengers boarding the bus.
Maybe I’m being melodramatic; maybe it will take a while to gather up that thick Israeli skin of nonchalance, but this first encounter in Jerusalem– especially when the atmosphere had previously been calm, relative to the rest of the country – left me quietly terrified.
Having googled the BBC’s coverage of the two ‘attacks’ (sic.), I’m appalled to see that the first, where a tractor was intentionally forcibly smashed into and overturned a bus, killing a bystander, is reported as a ‘suspected ‘attack’ on a bus with digger in Jerusalem’. If you care to google the video, you’ll see there was nothing ‘suspected’ about it. The second attack has been ignored as far as I’m aware.
This is definitely the most terrifying period of time I’ve yet had the pleasure of spending in Israel.
Amongst the bias of the BBC and other news outlets; the frankly anti-semitic outbursts of ‘anti-Israel’ protests around the globe and the similarly ridiculously misplaced and widespread support for Hamas (google them. They’re a designated terrorist organization several times over) – all topics I will be covering in my frequently redrafted next blog post – I do wonder how I managed to live in London for so long. I’d much rather be here at the fore of the situation and understand it myself, than do so through the prejudiced, selectively reported ‘news’ in the Old Country.
Maybe going out and about will be difficult for the next few months here. It will be, as I discussed in my previous post, ‘uncomfortable’. But at least I know what’s going on and – in some cases – am even witnessing it with my own two eyes. Which is more I can say for some of the more respected news outlets.