OLD CITY, Jerusalem — When a Palestinian terrorist stabbed a Jewish couple and a rabbi who came to their rescue in the Muslim Quarter last Saturday, killing the two men, Hemda el-Hai was sitting in her family Sukkah a few streets away.
“We heard very loud gunshots and immediately understood that something had happened, but we didn’t know exactly what,” the 23-year-old student of education told The Times of Israel. “The security guard situated on our rooftop immediately ran over to give assistance. When he returned, he updated us that a terrible attack had taken place.”
El-Hai lives in a guarded Jewish compound called Beit Hatsalam (“the photographer’s home”) purchased in 1989 by Israeli non-profit Ateret Kohanim, which settles Jews in predominantly Arab neighborhoods of the Old City.
On Thursday, El-Hai joined a few dozen young residents of the neighborhood in a makeshift protest tent that was erected on Hagai Street immediately after the attack on the Banita family and Rabbi Nehemia Lavi. The stabbing took place just outside Lavi’s home, in another Jewish compound procured by Ateret Kohanim in 1987. The Wittenberg Compound, named after its original 19th century Russian-Jewish owner, also contains an apartment famously purchased that same year by former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Following a second stabbing attack just meters away on Wednesday, a section of Hagai Street, stretching from Damascus Gate to the Austrian Hospice, was cordoned off with metal police barriers. Armed policemen on either side nervously scanned passersby in one of the Old City’s main pedestrian arteries.
Outside the Wittenberg Compound, Jewish teenagers wearing blue t-shirts proclaiming “Jerusalem is mine” were sitting on plastic chairs, playing darbuka drums and the clarinet. Next to a melted cluster of candles, arranged on the ground to create a Star of David, refreshments for the soldiers and t-shirts for sale sat atop two tables.
“It’s important for me to be here on the street,” El-Hai said, explaining that the protest tent is manned 24 hours a day by local residents. “I don’t want this murder to become mundane.”
That morning, the teens had tough questions for visiting Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who came to express their condolences. The youngsters demanded that local Palestinian shops — where the injured Adele Banita said she pleaded for help but was violently rebuffed — remain shuttered.
“Hey, keep on going!” Yair Dan, a local youth organizer, called out to a veiled Arab teenager who walked past the tent. “She shouted ‘shit’, did you see that?”
Dan, 24, recently moved from the Old City to the settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank. He said he was urgently “called back to duty” following the attack, to keep an eye on the Jewish youth and to make sure they don’t do anything stupid.
“People this age are full of emotion and can get out of control in situations like this. There’s a lot of anger, and my goal is to calm things down,” Dan said. He added that several provocateurs have been identified, mostly from outside the local community. Dan grew up in the Christian Quarter, where he said that approximately 100 Jewish families live — generally peacefully — alongside their Arab neighbors.
“It’s unfortunate that people come from the outside to harm the calm atmosphere that should exist between neighbors,” he said. “We respect our neighbors and want a normal life.”
“The youth understands that by growing up within walled Jerusalem, they are reestablishing Jewish settlement and returning Jewish pride to this place. This does not conflict with our neighbors; they can keep living here and we have no problem with them,” Dan added.
The forced closure of Palestinian shops along the cordoned off section of the street is, in fact, a clear disruption of its commercial life. Outside two locked shops, Jewish protesters placed hand-painted signs reading: “Here were accomplices to murder.”
Dan said he hoped that shop owners who didn’t assist the injured Jews during the attack are penalized by having their businesses permanently shut. He said he’d heard that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested exactly that from the attorney general.
But Abu Muhammad, 40, a Palestinian resident of the Old City standing across from the tent, said he would have been too scared to approach the terrorist, who grabbed Lavi’s gun and opened fire on police, had he witnessed the attack.
“Anyone on the street approaching that young man could have been injured as well,” he told The Times of Israel, declining to reveal his full name. “Secondly, and more importantly, the army, police or settlers could have passed by and shot you immediately, thinking that you’re an accomplice to the crime. People were definitely too scared to come close.”
Abu Muhammad echoed Dan’s interpretation of the source of the recent trouble. “We have no problems with [the Jews] living here,” he said. “Those who come from outside are the ones who harm us. They provoke us, curse us.”
There was another overarching cause for the Palestinian violence, Abu Muhammad opined, and it had to do with the Israeli government’s policy on Temple Mount.
“You’ve already taken all of Palestine,” he said. “The al-Aqsa Mosque is holy to Muslims … All the [previous] violent occurrences happened in al-Aqsa. Hasn’t the government realized this? It should learn the lesson.” Abu Muhammad was either unaware of, or unmoved by, Netanyahu’s repeated promises that Israel has no intention of changing the status quo at the contested Temple Mount compound.
Back at the protest tent, Elichi Wiesel, 23, head of logistics for the operation, said he and his friends knew they would set up the structure on the street “with or without permission.”
“Thank God, the security forces came to their senses and decided to support this tent. They give us protection 24 hours a day.”
Wiesel said that the attack last Saturday took part in a “sector” which is considered more volatile than the apartment complex he lives in, called Neot David, in the heart of the Old City’s Christian Quarter.
“Every morning when I leave my house I say good morning to my Arab neighbor,” Wiesel said. “Relations are very good. If I’m stuck on Shabbat I go downstairs to my Arab neighbor and he turns on the light. Life here is peaceful, until these incidents happen.”