Israel, day 3

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02/11/2008
When the Israelis won control over all of Jerusalem, during the Six Days War in 1967, they also won control of the Old City of Jerusalem, home to three of the most holy sites for the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in roughly 1100 on the spot where Jesus Chris was killed and entombed; The Western Wall, where Jews were forced to pray for 1900 years because it was the closest they could get to the place where they believe God lives on Earth; and the Temple Mount, which is to this day controlled by Muslims, though it is on the site where the Jews believe God lives (this is a major point of tension resulting from a decision made by Menachem Begin on the day of Israel's greatest victory). What this also gave the Israelis was the major headache of securing these places against any number of potential dangers. Further, these sites don't actually belong to the Jews or anyone. Inside and along these places, any number of religious sects have agreed to ownership and this makes protecting them very dicey, as you'll see in my video below. Who are they protecting these places from? Any number of people, as we learned in presentations given by an ex Major General in the Israeli Army and the chief of the Old City Police, whose job it is to protect these places. Israel is constantly under siege by Muslim forces who are gathered in the north and south, in Lebanon and Egypt (Hezbollah), and from the West Bank (Hamas). It is the West Bank that surrounds Jerusalem, and from which suicide bombers started streaming into the country, particularly in 2002 and 2003, when tactics changed significantly. Shalom, the Major General, said that he implored his superiors early in his career to consider that suicide bombers could become a major tactical threat. "In the first years of suicide bombers, 1983-2003," he said, "whenever I came to my bosses, I told them, 'Suicide bombers are a strategic threat to Israel.' They always laughed at me. Not some of them, all of them. Becauses it was only every three or four months that we were attacked. I said, 'If it’s three times a day, which we had at times in 2003, that could brings us to our knees.' But they could not imagine such a thing. Intelligence people need to have the vision to see how things combine and develop when you have a security threat. That breeds a lot of imagination. I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but i remember that I was very adamant about the suicide bombers. It was a strategic and existential threat. It can bring us to a full paralysis if we do not deal with it." As we were told, Israel society nearly ground to a halt, and this is why they have the heightened and constant state of security they have now (though it was previously very vigilant) and why they have a large wall that encircles virtually all of northern parts of the West Bank, and surrounds Jerusalem. This wall, combined with intelligence efforts that went into the West Bank and searched houses door-to-door, has reduced suicide bombings in Israel from more than 225 in 2003 to only 4 in 2007. Israel has basically won that front of the War on Terrorism. It has come at quite a cost, however. The wall, as you saw in the video, is imposing, and it has hurt the economy both in the cost of its construction, and in that Palestinians are now rarely able to work in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities, depriving Israel of a labor force and the Palestinians of a livelihood. This has caused great resentment on the part of the Palestinians, as you might imagine. This has only furthered tensions in the old city. On Fridays, we were told by the police chief, he must deploy hundreds of officers to the gate to the city nearest the Western Wall, as Muslims will frequently start riots by hurling rocks, chairs, bottles, etc., over the Western Wall and onto the heads of Jews praying there. We saw on their video archive, gathered by more than 300 cameras deployed in one square kilometer (17 of them have analytics deployed, including some impressive object-left-behind rules) that things can get very hairy, indeed. We were shown one video, akin to a Hollywood movie, where a terrorist stalks two police officers (they dress very casually, but carry weapons and a full police belt), sneaks up on them, grabs one of their weapons, shoots one officer, and then runs away. The cameras are daisy-chained so that they follow the terrorist through the streets, and we see the police officer chase him down and shoot him dead. It was surreal. The police chief was sort of chuckling as we watched, and admonishing his officers for not checking their surroundings more often. As I said yesterday, security is a way of life. Yesterday, I got that impression because of the singular way in which the Israelis go about protecting themselves. Today, I got that impression because of the casualness with which they take security measures, meaning things that I found remarkable, even scary, they found commonplace. For another example, as we were viewing the wall separating the West Bank from afar, I turned around and saw Achi, one of our tour leaders, standing there with an M-16. For some reason, I was taken aback by this. Did I really need to be protected in this area, a tourist spot with a sign explaining it was the hill on which Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac? (By the way, another thing the Isrealis take for granted is the historical nature of their surroundings; I remarked how cool it was to be on this hill where Abraham had faced his decision and Amotz said, "yeah, everything's like that around here. We just passed through the Valley of the Shadows of Death and you didn't even know it.") Later, in similar fashion, it was clear that Achi really didn't like a Muslim man who was watching us as we heard from a traditional tour guide deep within the walls of the Old City. He eyed him, and the bag he was carrying, very closely. It was the first time I felt actually unsafe here. And you don't have to pay much attention to realize that the threat here is real, and it is daily. We woke up to a photograph on the cover of the paper delivered to our rooms of a little girl who'd drawn, for her class the day before, a picture of a rocket injuring one of her school mates. Why? Well, because the day before a Qassam rocket had been launched into her southern town, taking the legs off two brothers and sending their sister to intensive care. All of this simply made me feel the irony all the more distinctly when our tour guide pointed out this simple fact: Jerusalem translates literally to, "City of Peace." Of course it does.