JERUSALEM, ISRAEL – Although rarely reported by most news outlets, rock-throwing attacks are a daily occurrence for Jerusalemites riding the light rail through the Arab neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shuafat.
The sight of the trains coasting through the city with cracked windows and apologetic stickers stating that “the window will be replaced soon” (they aren’t) have become part of Jerusalem’s timeless charm; much like the metal poles placed in all public places to prevent the running-over of innocent bystanders by wayward motorists.
But now, the Jerusalem Municipality has decided to fight back.
Over the coming weeks, the entire fleet of light trains will be fitted with grenade launchers, capable of firing teargas canisters at both would-be and have-been assailants. The hope is that the resulting burning sensation in the eyes and throat, coupled with the vision-obscuring tears and clouds of smoke, will allow the train to reach the Jewish neighborhoods in peace.
The launchers will be operated by the train’s driver, with the help of a simple mechanism that uses a joystick to take aim and a thumb-operated button to fire. This is very similar to the joystick and button system already used by the drivers to propel the train and operate its electronic warning bell.
Citypass, which operates the light rail, has been training its fleet of train operators to use the new system, which has included theoretical instruction and applied target practice – the firing system is simple, but achieving accuracy while the train is in motion takes skill.
In addition, several windows on each train car are being fitted with firing ports, to allow the train’s security personnel to fire rubber bullets at assailants from within the safety of the train’s impact resistant windows. In the past, guards had to be stationed outside the train, literally placing them between a rock and a hard place.
These upgrades have been very expensive – costing the municipality an estimated 5 million shekel – which has many taxpayers up in arms.
“That’s what they’re doing with my Arnona (municipal tax) money?” asks Ya’akov Gozlan, a taxi driver from the Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev. “My wife and kids take that train every day to school, and every day there are rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown at them. You know what we should be doing? We should be bulldozing those villages off the map.”
Yardena Peleg-Kochav of Ramat Hasharon and a fervent Peace Now activist, also has strong opinions on the matter, although she hasn’t visited what she calls ‘occupied Jerusalem’ in over 15 years. “That’s what they’re doing with their money? What a waste. They could replace hundreds of broken windows with 5 million shekel! Instead, they are using it to perform acts of violence against frustrated, helpless Palestinian youth.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has been personally involved in several security incidents and who has stated in the past that he regrets the train’s current route, hailed the venture as an important step for Jerusalem’s security. “In these challenging times, it’s more important than ever for us to put up a strong defense,” he explained in a press conference announcing the new initiative. “The residents of this city need to know that we will spare no efforts in deflecting any attack thrown our way.” He added, saying he “looked forward to taking the new system on a test run and firing off a few practice shots.”
The Jerusalem Municipality has disclosed that it is exploring the possibility of installing a modified version of Rafael’s active protection Trophy defense system. This technology, developed by Israel’s defense company to protect armored vehicles in battle, can actively identify incoming projectiles and destroy them with “shotgun-like” blasts. The same system could theoretically be adapted for Jerusalem’s trains to provide a more active level of protection, but will cost “many millions” of shekels per unit and it will be “several years” before it would be ready for installation.
If and until that time comes, Jerusalemites will need to rely for protection on the strength of the train’s glass, the accuracy of the train’s guards, and the potency of the train’s teargas.