Sunday, Sep 26, 2021

Looking Terror in the Eye

It was Chol Hamoed Pesach in Yerushalayim. Like any other Jew in the world, and especially in the holy city of Yerushalayim, I had a strong desire to visit the Kosel Hamaarovi on Chol Hamoed. Nevertheless, that was no simple task. Driving to the Kosel in a private car on Chol Hamoed is a privilege reserved for a few select individuals, including those who live in the Old City.

The Old City of Yerushalayim, as many of you know, is completely closed to private vehicles on Chol Hamoed. There are no exceptions to this rule. And Chol Hamoed is not the only time when it is difficult to enter the city. About a month ago, I visited the Old City in order to meet with Rav Shalom Cohen, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Porat Yosef and nosi of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah of Shas. I presume that you read about our conversation in the Pesach edition of the Yated. I enjoyed meeting him and spending time in his home, but what is relevant to this report is the way that I got there. I feared that I might not find a parking space in the Old City and would therefore be late for our meeting, so I decided to park my car in Rechavia and to travel to Rav Shalom’s home by taxi. Taxis are considered a form of public transportation in Israel and are therefore permitted to enter the Old City.

That occasion, though, turned out to be an exception. The taxi drove into Mamilla and came to a stop at the traffic light before the left turn leading to Shaar Yaffo. At that point, a policeman approached us and informed us that entry to the Old City was prohibited. “Even to taxis?” we asked.

“Even to taxis!” he snapped back. “Now get out of here!”

The reason, I soon learned, was that a large array of singers and musicians were performing throughout the Jewish Quarter of the Old City as part of the festivities celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of the city’s liberation. For my part, I had lost much more than I had gained from the taxi ride. For one thing, I was forced to make the long trek to the rov’s home on foot, rather than by car. Furthermore, I had to pay for the taxi, and my own car was parked in Rechaviah, rather than in the parking lot in Mamilla. And despite all of my efforts, I was late for my meeting with the rov.

Now, you may be wondering why I didn’t simply make my Chol Hamoed trip to the Kosel and back by bus. Indeed, that would not have been a problem – if only the public transportation system in Israel in general, and in Yerushalayim in particular, operated as it should. But the bus system suffers from many deficiencies throughout the year, and the situation is even worse on Chol Hamoed. The Egged bus to the Kosel, in particular, is simply a disaster. It takes a long time for every bus to arrive, and every bus fills up more and more at each stop. If you board a bus to the Kosel in Geulah on Chol Hamoed, you will find yourself packed into a dense crowd resembling a can of sardines. And the passengers on these buses include the elderly, women with baby carriages, infants, and older women as well. I do not understand why Egged doesn’t assign additional buses to this line on the few days of Chol Hamoed each year.

As for the return trip, the buses do not pick up passengers at the exit of the Kosel plaza on Chol Hamoed. They do not enter Shaar Ha’ashpot and travel the short distance to the entrance to the Kosel. And why not? Presumably, it is due to the heavy volume of pedestrian traffic in the area on Chol Hamoed. For the same reason, the buses transporting passengers to the Kosel do not enter the gate either. Instead, the buses drop off and pick up their passengers at the side of the road running alongside the Old City walls. On every holiday, the bus stop near the Kosel Hamaarovi is the site of a massive hubbub, with large crowds of passengers struggling to board or disembark from the buses. The crowding and activity at the site may well be unsurpassed, except perhaps by the commotion on Lag Ba’omer in Meron. To make a long story short, then, the idea of traveling to the Kosel by Egged’s buses did not exactly appeal to me.

• • • • •

On Chol Hamoed, I was overjoyed to learn that Rav Boruch Weisbecker, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Bais Matisyahu in Bnei Brak, had arrived in Yerushalayim. It was Friday, Erev Shabbos Chol Hamoed, when I received this news. He had come to visit one of the yeshiva’s patrons, and he was pleased to hear that I was willing to join him and to serve as his personal gabbai, so to speak, for a couple of hours. He concluded his affairs very quickly, and I offered to drive him to the Kosel, a suggestion that he was glad to accept. During the course of our journey, of course, I was treated to a number of divrei Torah from the rosh yeshiva. Rav Weisbecker will be happy to share a chiddush on any subject that one might choose to discuss with him. But that is not our topic right now.

The looming question that faced us was how to get around the barriers and the police officers stationed at all the entrances to the Old City. Of course, it was the latter that posed the greater problem. I could have easily circumnavigated all of the barriers, but each of them was guarded by two or more policemen. This dilemma actually had a very simple solution: Rav Shmuel Rabinovich, rov of the Kosel. Rav Rabinovich and his staff are always kept busy during the days before Pesach (and Sukkos) processing the many applications for special permits for vehicles to enter the Jewish Quarter. Those permits are highly sought-after, for they afford their holders the right to enter not only the Jewish Quarter, but the parking lot adjacent to the Kosel Hamaarovi as well, which is a major privilege.

Anyone who has driven into the Old City at a different time of year to visit the Kosel is well aware of the terrible shortage of parking spaces. There are several closed parking lots within the Old City, which are designated mainly for the use of the residents of the Jewish Quarter. It is virtually impossible for an ordinary non-resident to find a parking spot within the Old City. A motorist has no choice but to let off his passengers near the entrance to the Kosel and to continue driving downward, toward Shaar Ha’ashpot. He can then choose between making a left turn in the direction of Ihr Dovid, in the hope of finding a parking spot there, or making a right turn and driving almost all the way back to Shaar Yaffo.

The only solution to this quandary is to contact Rav Shmuel Rabinovich. When I called, he was in the middle of his daily chavrusashaft with Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, rov of the Jewish Quarter, and he whispered that I should call one of his aides, Yossi Bloch or Eli Cohen.

Every permit is printed in a way that prevents it from being photocopied and is signed by a police official holding the rank of chief superintendent. The permit specifies the license number of the vehicle, the name of the person for whom it was issued, and the date and specific hours when it is in effect. The permits are divided into specific time periods in order to keep the volume of traffic to a minimum. The parking lot at the Kosel can accommodate only a very limited number of cars, and even the holder of a permit can enter the parking lot only if there is a space available. If you have ever come to the Kosel on Chol Hamoed and have seen cars idling outside the entrance to the Kosel plaza, this is the reason: They are waiting for other cars to leave the parking lot so that they can enter.

In short, any visit to the Kosel on Chol Hamoed is bound to be fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, the joy that one can derive from entering the Kosel plaza by car, rather than contending with a bus trip or a lengthy walk, makes it all worthwhile. There are even some well-connected people who manage to obtain one of those coveted permits and who proceed to drive to the Kosel at the slowest possible pace, with their windows open as far as possible, so that everyone can see that they are among the privileged few. And you can certainly imagine the pleasure felt by a grandson of one of the privileged permit holders when their car passes a friend from yeshiva or cheder as they make their way to the Kosel…

In any event, when I got through to one of Rav Rabinovich’s aides, I got directly to the point. “I am in my car with Rav Weisbecker,” I told him. “We don’t have a permit, but we are on our way to the Kosel. Is there anything you can do for us?”

As it turned out, there was plenty that he could do. “Drive through Shaar Yaffo and I will see to it that the police officers there will allow you into the Old City,” he said.

“And what about when I get to the Kosel itself?” I asked.

“That will be much easier. You will certainly be allowed inside,” he replied. “At the Kosel, Rav Rabinovich’s word is law.” With that, we were on our way.

Rather than driving through Shaar Yaffo as we had been told, though, Waze advised us to drive to Rechov Shmuel Hanovi and to make our way from there to Har Hazeisim, and to access the Kosel via Shaar Ha’ashpot. We presumed that the navigation program was reliable. It also warned us that the drive would take 40 minutes and that caused us to hesitate. On an ordinary day, the trip should take no more than nine minutes. Should we really expend so much time on the journey? But then again, it is worthwhile to do almost anything in order to visit the site of the Bais Hamikdosh. And so we set out on our way.

At the turnoff leading to Ihr Dovid, near Yad Avshalom, two frenzied-looking police officers, one of whom was an Arab, were shouting at all the motorists, refusing to allow a single car to pass. I tried to talk to them, but they refused to listen to me. It wasn’t that I had anything particularly convincing to say, but I wanted to tell them that we had been promised that we would be allowed to pass. Yossi, Rav Rabinovich’s aide, was surprised to hear about the situation, and he told me to tell them that the official responsible for the area was waiting for us at Shaar Ha’ashpot. We relayed the message and they displayed respect for their superior, but they remained insistent. “There has been a terror attack!” they shouted. “No one is allowed through!”

A terror attack? This was the first that we had heard of it. A terror attack in the Old City? It was a few minutes after 1:00 in the afternoon. We turned on the radio to listen to the 1:00 news and there wasn’t a word about it. Apparently, even the newscaster hadn’t been updated on the situation. We decided to return to our original plan and to try to drive to the Kosel via Shaar Yaffo, which was the route Yossi had told us to take anyway. I made a U-turn and entered the new destination into Waze. The program promptly informed us that the trip would take half an hour. Why? There was no clear explanation. And instead of directing us to drive through Har Hazeisim and the Shmuel Hanovi neighborhood, the program instructed us to travel alongside the walls of the Old City.

We followed its directions, passing a Catholic cemetery and making a left turn onto Rechov Sultan Suleiman. I have almost never driven down that road, since I always travel through Rechavia and Rechov Agron to get to Mamilla and Shaar Yaffo. The walls of the Old City were on our left, and the Arab market was on our right. There were stalls where fruits and vegetables were being sold, and other stalls where the merchants were selling large, fresh-baked pretzels, with Arab customers taking large bites out of the baked goods. We made a left turn and passed Shaar Haperachim. We were just a few minutes away from the end of Rechov Haneviim and City Hall, at Kikar Hatzanchanim. That is an intersection at which several roads meet: one leading to the location of City Hall, another to the traffic lights at King Dovid, a third to Shaar Yaffo, and a fourth to Rechov Sultan Suleiman, where we were waiting. It had been only ten minutes since we had left Ihr Dovid, and we were certain that we would arrive at Shaar Yaffo within minutes and would then be admitted to the Old City.

That was when we learned that a terror attack had indeed taken place. In fact, it had occurred at Kikar Hatzanchanim itself. By this time, the incident had been reported on the radio, and the newscaster added that the streets surrounding the site of the attack had been closed off, as had the Old City itself. The terror attack had occurred just a few meters from the spot where we were sitting. I deduced that it had occurred at the very minute that we had reached the turnoff to Ihr Dovid. The police officers at the junction had been informed of it at the moment it had taken place. We were now mired in the huge traffic jam that had engulfed the area, and we watched as the emergency vehicles raced past with their sirens blaring. One after another, a series of vehicles threaded their way through the sea of cars at a standstill: police cars carrying senior officials in the police force, ordinary-looking cars with flashing lights that indicated that they belonged to Shin Bet officials, and various ambulances and motorcycles from United Hatzolah. The deafening cacophony of sirens was frightening enough on its own. We felt as if we had been thrust into the middle of an inferno, and, in a sense, that was true. Just thirty meters ahead of us, a tourist had been stabbed several minutes earlier.

Rav Weisbecker was immersed in thought throughout the incident. He did not utter a word.

We could have gotten out of the car, as many other people did, to watch the efforts that were being made to revive the victims – and the terrorist. The latter was lying on the ground, being restrained by several police officers. We later learned that he was a mentally disturbed Arab. At that moment, though, Rav Weisbecker decided that we should leave the area. We had seen enough. We understood that the traffic jam would not clear up for at least an hour or two, and there was no reason to waste our time. We drove away from the scene, in the direction of Meah Shearim and the exit from the city.

The official police report, which I read later, said the following: “Today, Friday, at 12:49, near Kikar Tzahal in Yerushalayim, large numbers of police officers were summoned due to reports of a stabbing attack. The initial investigation indicates that the terrorist boarded a light rail train at the Shaar Shechem station while holding a bag, and he traveled on the train for several minutes until it drew near Kikar Tzahal. When he noticed a young lady standing next to him, he bent down and withdrew a knife from the bag he was carrying, and he stabbed her several times in her upper body. An off-duty police officer, who was traveling on the same train with his family, quickly realized what was taking place, pulled the emergency brake to stop the train, and neutralized the terrorist, throwing the knife out of his reach. Another passenger on the train helped subdue the terrorist as well.

“At that point, the train stopped, the doors opened, and many policemen, who had been deployed in the context of the heightened security preparedness in the city, entered the train, arrested the terrorist, and evacuated the other passengers. The victim was transported to the hospital in critical condition and later died from her wounds. Initial reports indicate that the terrorist, a mentally disturbed 57-year-old resident of Ras-al-Amud, was on his way from the north to Yerushalayim, where he was being treated for his mental health. The terrorist was taken for questioning by the police in Yerushalayim. In the course of the investigation, the interrogators also took testimonies from his four children.”

Yoram Halevi, the district commander of the police in Yerushalayim, who directed the operations at the site of the attack, praised the police officer who arrested the terrorist for his brave, professional response. “The officers of the police force in Yerushalayim are prepared to respond immediately at any time to any incident, especially an act of terror,” he declared. “The immediate, professional neutralization of the terrorist while he was still on board the train was a result of their putting the operational guidelines for activities in the field into action. This prevented further harm to the innocent passengers who were on the train at that time. When the attack took place, the train was filled with people who were in the vicinity of the perpetrator, and a member of the Yerushalayim police force heard the screams, overpowered the terrorist, and ended the incident. I hope that there will not be further incidents like this one, but if there are, we will stop them as we have in the past.”

Several hours later, the identity of the murder victim was released. Her name was Hannah Bladon. She was a Christian student from England, who had been studying in Israel in the context of a student exchange program with Birmingham University. Her family released a statement in which they declared, “The family is devastated by the senseless, tragic attack in which Hannah was murdered. She was sensitive, caring, and full of compassion… Her death leaves so much promise unfulfilled.”

• • • • •

It was a shocking experience for me – not only the tragedy that took the life of the young British student, but the sense that all of our lives may be hanging by a thread. It was shocking to see how easy it is for an Arab to murder someone in the heart of Yerushalayim. And then there was the fact that we ourselves were sitting in the middle of a traffic jam, surrounded by hordes of Arabs. On our left, they were walking on the sidewalk outside the walls of the Old City. On our right, they filled the outdoor market and the stores that run the length of the street. The market was filled with Arabs. For them, it was yet another ordinary Friday to go shopping. And we were stuck in the middle of that crowd, without the ability to move. If one of the Arabs had decided to attack the occupants of any of the cars stuck in the traffic there, his victims would have had nowhere to run, and their car would have remained motionless in the middle of the traffic jam. I did not feel fear at the time of the incident, but now that I am remembering it, I have begun to recognize how terrifying the situation is.

Of course, it pained me to see pure chometz being sold in Yerushalayim on Pesach, but they are Arabs and it was an Arab area. It also pained me to observe the Arabs’ indifference to the terror attack that had occurred in their vicinity. By this time, everyone knew about the attack, and the ambulances and police vehicles converging on the scene left no question as to what had taken place. The incident was being reported on the news as well, yet the Arabs were apathetic, and some of them were even jubilant. In the past, they would have fled for their lives after such an incident, and their streets would have been empty and deserted. Today, though, they do not run away. Instead, they continue going about their ordinary, cheerful routines.

Rav Rabinovich’s aide called us to apologize, but I reassured him that the situation wasn’t his fault. Even if we had had an official, valid permit to enter the Old City, we would not have been able to make the trip anyway, as all the entrances to the city had been closed as a result of the terror attack. Since we were at the mercy of the police official who was supposed to instruct the officers at the checkpoints to let us through, there certainly wasn’t the slightest chance that we would be able to make our way to the Kosel. I explained to him that in light of the circumstances, we had decided to forgo the opportunity to visit the sacred site, albeit with great sorrow. I would be returning to Givat Shaul, and Rav Weisbecker would be making his way back to Bnei Brak.

I returned home to celebrate the Yom Tov despite of the events of the day. On Motzoei Shabbos, a messenger came to my door and presented me with a permit to enter the Old City, issued in Rav Weisbecker’s name. It was not restricted to any particular date or time. We made use of the permit together, and our visit to the Kosel finally took place on the last day of Chol Hamoed.

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