Zemira Tahan thought twice before boarding the tram at the north Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev.
“My kids tell me, ‘It’s scary there, why go on?'” she told The Times of Israel on Tuesday afternoon, as the tram made its way southward, downtown. It had been pelted with stones three times that morning. “But I say to myself: if I don’t ride, and you don’t ride, and no one rides, the train may stop entering Pisgat Zeev. We’ve waited many years for this train and we deserve to enjoy it.”
Tahan is not the only Jerusalemite wary of boarding the light rail these days. Lauded as an oasis of coexistence in a deeply conflicted city upon its inauguration three years ago, the tram carries some 130,000 passengers a day along a 14-kilometer (8.5 mile) route from Pisgat Zeev in the northeast to Mount Herzl in the southwest, traversing the Palestinian neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina.
But when riots erupted in Palestinian areas of Jerusalem early July following the kidnapping and murder of teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir — apparently at the hands of Jewish extremists, in a revenge attack soon after the bodies of three murdered Israeli teens were found in the West Bank — the tram’s infrastructure in Shuafat was the first to be targeted. Rioters set on fire the stops and the ticket-selling machines, and even attempted to bring down an electric pole using an angle grinder. The tram stopped running north of French Hill for a week, as the police and city hall assessed the damage.
The light rail continued to be targeted by Palestinians throughout Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, but violence did not die down even after a ceasefire was reached. According to Jerusalem Police, 13 cases of stone throwing were reported between September 7 and September 28, with two people arrested and one indicted.
Stone throwing has become such a menace, in fact, that a special police task force was recently created in Jerusalem to combat the phenomenon. In a revelatory interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday, Yaron Ravid, the CEO of CityPass which operates the light rail, said that police had instructed his company not to make public the attacks on the tram, arguing that media attention would only encourage offenders. CityPass told Ynet on September 16 that 95 attacks had been carried out against the light rail since July, mostly during evening hours.
Citypass has been forced to put 30% of its cars (7 of 23) out of service due to damage from stone throwing, and estimated the damage caused to its trains and infrastructure by the end of August at NIS 35 million ($9.5 million). A spokesman for the Jerusalem municipality informed The Times of Israel that all cars are now equipped with stone-proof windows.
Waiting at Givat Hamivtar station near Mount Scopus, Hebrew University student Ashraf Kheiri, 23, said that stone throwing was a Palestinian reaction to ongoing neglect on the part of Jerusalem’s municipality and the police.
“There’s no other way to protest,” he said. “Put yourself in their place. They have nothing and wanted to react to the murder of Abu Khdeir. What would you do? As far as they’re concerned, no one takes care of them.”
“I would never do something like that,” he said emphatically. “Do you know why? Because I use it every day. If it’s stuck, I can’t get home.”
On a crowded northbound train, Monica, a 48-year-old tour guide from Pisgat Zeev, said she avoids taking the tram in the evenings, when the risk of stone throwing increases.
“There’s no lack of security, but I can sense the hostility outside in the three [Palestinian-area] stations. It’s scary,” she told The Times of Israel. “Being attacked with stones or Molotov cocktails is one experience I don’t want to have.”
Pisgat Zeev’s local newspaper has begun referring to the tram as “the roller coaster,” and a group of residents has called for a boycott until the tram is rerouted away from the problematic Palestinian neighborhoods. Monica said she opposed that effort.
“Right now coexistence is an illusion, but it did happen at first. I believe we will return to that situation, but time must pass. Both sides need to be more tolerant; this doesn’t happen overnight.”
Despite the anxiety, Arabic and Hebrew still mixed on the tram Tuesday in the loud chatter of veiled Arab schoolgirls on their way home and the raucous cellphone conversations of middle-aged Israeli women. A security guard in khaki and an earpiece (one is assigned to every car) paced slowly back and forth, as the loudspeaker announced the next station in Hebrew, English and Arabic.
Traveling on the tram has become a scary experience not only for Jews, but also for Arabs, albeit for different reasons. Since the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach south of Jerusalem in June, Palestinians — especially veiled women — have reported a sharp increase in verbal and physical attacks on the tram, one of the only places of close contact between Jews and Arabs in the city. One video of a verbal attack directed at a Palestinian woman was uploaded to YouTube and went viral.
At Shuafat station, 41-year-old housewife Khawla agreed to talk about her experiences on the tram, but apologized for having to get off at the next station to buy a ticket. The vending machines have still not been repaired since being vandalized, and she did not want to get fined. She stopped using the tram when the Palestinian teenager was murdered and only resumed traveling on it two weeks ago, she said, when the financial burden of taking taxis finally overcame her.
“I stopped using the tram because it became too dangerous even before [the murder of] Abu Khdeir,” she told The Times of Israel. “There were slogans written on our walls in Shuafat: ‘Beware of child kidnapping.'”
Once, at a tram station, schoolchildren harassed Khawla and her son with nationalistic chants, she said. Two weeks later, a Jewish teenager spat on the boy unprovoked while she was leaving Pisgat Zeev mall with him.
“The situation has escalated in all aspects,” she said, noting that at one point in recent months she would call another son — who works as a truck driver in West Jerusalem — five or six times a day to make sure he’s all right. “I’ve experienced a difficult period of tension.”
The increased presence of police and light rail security has not added to Khawla’s sense of safety; quite the opposite.
“The police haven’t left the area since the riots. Just two days ago a 16-year-old from my son’s school was beaten and arrested,” she said. “I don’t let my son leave home. I fear for his future if he too is arrested.”
Khawla bemoaned the situation of Jerusalem’s Palestinians, who she said are shunned both by Jerusalem’s City Hall and by the Palestinian Authority.
Like Khawla, Pisgat Zeev resident Meital Balas, 32, was traveling on the light rail for the first time in a month and a half with her young son on Tuesday. She said she has witnessed many cases of Jews provoking Arabs on the tram “for no reason,” sometimes even coming to blows.
But If it were up to Balas, Khawla — like other Palestinian residents of Jerusalem — would have limited access to the tram.
“I think separation is warranted, and [the tram] should not pass through Shuafat,” she said. “I’m not a racist or anything, but they show no willingness to live in peace. If they burn their own stations and start rioting again, and if we live in fear in our own city, what else do we have left?”