‘Just firecrackers’ all day in Jerusalem?

I have lived in Jerusalem for more than 50 years, and have become used to the occasional sound of firecrackers going off — usually in various celebrations in the city’s eastern part, but around Purim in the western part too. Being acquainted from military service with pyrotechnics as well as genuine gunfire, I can usually tell the difference.

But I have never heard anything remotely like the massive blasts that woke me up early Saturday morning and continued throughout the day and well into the night. The number and intensity of explosions sounded as though an ammunition dump had caught fire and was gradually blowing up. It did not sound like an artillery barrage or missile attack and was too extended for even a multiple terrorist bombing, but it was still disturbing.

Within a few hours the police had issued a reassuring statement whereby these were just firecrackers being set off in East Jerusalem and surrounding villages to celebrate the announcement of matriculation-test results and the end of the school year. Maybe, but I don’t remember anything of such magnitude around the same date in previous years. It was good news that the tests for Palestinian students had gone ahead despite the coronavirus and  without much spoiling the PA’s otherwise fairly good record in this matter, but that’s another story

“Fireworks” is a translation of the misleading Hebrew term ziquqim [di-nur] in the police report. It brings to mind the kind of visual display of star-shell rockets, Roman candles and the like, such as those we enjoy on Independence Day eve. This led skeptical commenters on the TOI report to ask how come  “fireworks” were used in daylight. What we heard on Shabbat were actually more by way of firecrackers, set off just for their sound effect — like the gunshots in the air that often accompany weddings and other celebrations in Arab communities.

But both kinds of pyrotechnics involve gunpowder or other types of low explosive that are designed and packaged for recreational use but can nonetheless be dangerous. That’s why they are illegal except for strictly controlled use, but enforcement has been problematic to say the least. They can cause real damage by accident (which was narrowly averted in several cases on Saturday, as mentioned in the TOI report), and as recurs annually with injuries among kids marking Purim. When stored in quantity and exploded due to negligence or incaution, they have caused major disasters around the world.

As a signalman in the IDF reserve, my gear included a signal-rocket pistol. It looked quaint and wasn’t designed as a combat weapon, but the movies are full of scenes when, as a last resort, the otherwise unarmed hero blows the villain away by shooting him with such a gun. Such fireworks have occasionally been aimed at IDF soldiers on the West Bank. These aren’t toys. Worst of all, of course, their components can be mined for intentional and more effective hostile purposes (ask Guy Fawkes about uses of gunpowder).

So the police report actually left me more worried. It stated that in order to avert widespread “fireworks” that were foreseen for Saturday, the police conducted searches, impounded some caches and made arrests. This already confirmed that “fireworks” are imported and stored even in those Palestinian areas that are under Israeli security control, never mind the Palestinian Authority’s. It would be an overstatement to say that these could just as easily have been weapons-grade rockets. But still… And this police operation not only failed to  forestall the hundreds (if not more) of blasts on Saturday, but once they began it was unable to stop them for hours on end.

Now this may have really been just an innocent celebration of exam results. It may not have been intended as a demonstration of what some Palestinians, organized or not, might do – with actual weapons — and that Israel might be hard put to counter — if the Netanyahu-Gantz government goes ahead with even a token annexation of areas in the West Bank. But in retrospect, one can’t help asking whether it doesn’t turn on yet another warning light (“the rockets’ red glare”?) against such a move.

Fortunately, the annexation seems to be off anyway, at least for the time being, for a range of other reasons. But I’ve already written about that.

About the Author
Gideon Remez, formerly head of foreign news at Voice of Israel Radio, is an associate fellow of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University. The views expressed here are his own and not the Institute's.
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