Jerusalem is on edge. Its gun-toting mayor, Nir Barkat, is too, but he is also optimistic.
In the past week, there have been three stabbing attacks in the capital city. Two Israelis were killed and several more were injured, including a 2-year-old toddler. Several attempted terror attacks were thwarted. And too many “false alarms” to count have popped up on social media, raising feelings of unrest and unease among the city’s residents.
Mayor Barkat has arrived at the scene of every one of these terror attacks. At times he has even been packing his own modified Glock handgun. Yet he is certain that Israel will prevail.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we will overcome this,” he told The Times of Israel in his office on the sixth floor of the municipality building in central Jerusalem.
His plan is twofold: “Fight the bad guys. And be very, very good — as much as you can — to the majority of the population that is seeking peace and quiet.”
To accomplish the former, he has encouraged the city’s residents who have a legal gun permit to follow his example and carry their weapons with them. This is to both stop terror attacks should the situation arise, and also — although it sounds ironic — to give residents a sense of safety.
“In Israel, if you see someone carrying a gun you get a sense of security, not a sense of insecurity as you do in America,” he said.
But even in Israel, some have expressed concern over Barkat’s recommendation. A more heavily armed and fearful population may accidentally shoot innocent people, critics argue, and a simple misunderstanding could result in unnecessary fatalities.
In the past week, there have also been two incidents where a terrorist attacked someone who was carrying a gun and successfully wrestled it away from them. In both cases, police managed to shoot the terrorist before anyone could be killed with their newly acquired firearm.
But the danger still exists. A terrorist could begin his attack with a knife, but end up with a gun.
Why carry guns?
The mayor, however, trusts in the military training that most Israelis receive. “Here we have trained combat soldiers, who, when they finish their army service, are still reservists,” Barkat explained. “They are well trained, and some of them have civilian licenses to carry weapons.”
These are not novices to warfare, these are “professionals,” he said.
“I am calling those professionals to carry their guns, because you don’t know where a terrorist attack can happen.
“In the past few years, many terror attacks were neutralized by ex-soldiers who carried their guns legally,” he continued.
“That’s what happened yesterday,” Barkat went on, referring to the stabbing attack on Wednesday in which the victim shot his attacker, “you had a resident –.”
Midway through his sentence, Barkat stopped. His ears perked up. There were sirens.
“What’s going on outside?” a Barkat aide asked.
The mayor checked his now-buzzing phone for the updates he receives from his security detail.
“I gotta go.”
“I don’t know yet,” he said, standing up.
On his way out of the office, he turned to another aide — “Grab the gun.”
The aide ran back into the mayor’s office and picked up a black, plastic tactical briefcase where Barkat keeps his gun.
With his security detail and assistants in tow, the mayor got in an elevator.
Our interview was seemingly over.
But seconds later, the doors opened, and the mayor and his entourage reappeared.
There had been an attempted stabbing, he said, but the terrorist had been caught before he could injure anyone.
So this is how it’s been for the past week or so?
“I hope that it won’t continue.” Barkat said.
Jumping right back into the reasons behind his call for citizens to arm themselves, he explained, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s going to help us with security.”
Metal detectors make people feel safer
Barkat’s other measure to prevent attacks — metal detectors at the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem — was unveiled Thursday.
“It’s preventative,” he said. It’s a way “to not fight a terror attack only once it’s already happened.”
This measure may be expanded in the coming days to sites around the entire city, not just in the Old City.
“I think we’re going to see a distribution of handheld metal detectors and large ones, to add security in Jerusalem in general,” he said. “There will be random checks to try to catch [attackers] if they come.”
But, as with additional armed citizens, the effect of the metal detectors is not only practical, but it also gives citizens a sense of security, Barkat argued.
“It’s a good preventative measure, and when people see a metal detector, they feel safer,” he said.
Involving local leadership and schools
In addition to the lethal stabbing attacks in the past week, East Jerusalem — notably the Shuafat and Isawiyah neighborhoods — has been the site of fierce, violent protests by Arab youth against Israeli security forces.
A 20-year-old Palestinian man was killed and nine Border Police officers were injured in a riot in Shuafat on Thursday evening.
To address this violence, Barkat said he has also been working closely within leaders from within the East Jerusalem community. “We’re working with the local leadership, the business leadership, the community councils,” he said.
“Last night I met with the school principals from East Jerusalem, along with the chief of police, to discuss how we can decrease the tension,” Barkat added.
“My goal is to help the principals get the kids into school. They are secure in the schools,” Barkat said. “Especially in the boys’ high schools, we are going to extend the school day until five o’clock, in some cases.”
The older generation is in favor of restoring the relative calm to East Jerusalem. “They are responsible. They understand that nobody gains anything from violence,” he said.
The problem, Barkat went on, is that the youth do not hold the same view. Most of the people taking part in demonstrations in the Arab neighborhoods are 14 or 15 years old.
“Incitement,” the mayor said, “pushes them to take action.”
That incitement, he continued, “is coming from the Palestinian Authority. It comes from Arab Knesset members. It comes from Hamas through social media.”
Although the unrest is ongoing and appears to have no end in sight, Barkat said, “I am very optimistic.”
Just in case, though, he also has a gun.