For the past year and a half, I have become a student of security issues that relate to preserving the 3,000 year-old holy cemetery of the Mount of Olives. This resulted from my involvement with the International Committee for the Preservation of the Mount of Olives, a broad-based group my brother Avrohom founded. His initiative came following a critical report in May 2010 by Micha Lindenstrauss, Israel’s State Controller, criticizing successive Israeli governments for neglecting the Mount of Olives for 43 years (at the time) since its capture in the Six-Day War of 1967. (I am actually writing this on the yahrzeit of my father Chaim Pinchas Lubinsky zt”l, who is buried on the Mount of Olives along with my mother Pesa o”h).
Despite a dramatic improvement in the past year, including the installment of 80 surveillance cameras, thanks in large measure to the committee, graves are still frequently randomly destroyed and visitors and mourners occasionally stoned, albeit with far less frequency than before the committee swung into action. There are still areas of the legendary mountain that are without cameras, a small mosque near the main entrance of the Mount of Olives (and just several feet from the gravesite of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his wife Aliza) was being significantly expanded despite a Stop Order from the Municipality, police deployment while promised is still sorely lacking, and broad support for a new bill imposing stiff new penalties for violence perpetrated in cemeteries is still elusive. In addition, there is concern for the continued budget allocation specifically designated for the Mount of Olives.
Most of the violence perpetrated on the Mount of Olives emanates from the three Arab neighborhoods that hug the sprawling mountain: Ras al Amud, A-Tor, and Silwan. The struggle to preserve the Jewish character of eastern Jerusalem extends even to the name as the Arabs consider the Mount of Olives, despite its obvious Jewish historic significance, as part of the Ras al Amud neighborhood. The controversial mosque is also known as the Ras al Amud Mosque. Arab vehicles and schoolchildren routinely use the cemetery as a thoroughfare, not to speak of the thriving drug trade in some areas.
While the committee has focused on the sanctity of the Mount of Olives and the kovod hameis (respect for the dead) of the nearly 135,000 people who are buried there, including three Nevi’im (prophets), many see the struggle for the Jewish character of respect for the dead as central to the larger battle of keeping Yerushalayim united under Jewish control, a pronouncement often made by Israeli leaders but not always accompanied by action. It is unconscionable to most Jews that the Mount of Olives should not be accessible to any Jew who wishes to daven (pray) there. How could it be that a state that prides itself in providing access to all religions should tolerate Jews being stoned as they seek access to the holy the Mount of Olives? Shouldn’t Jews in their own homeland at least have the same right as Christians and Muslims.
We already know what happens when the Arabs control our holy sites. The Jordanians, who should never have been awarded part of Jerusalem in the first place, did not allow access to the Mount of Olives or for that matter the Kotel (Western Wall) despite signing the Armistice Agreement of 1948 which explicitly provided access to Jews.
A View from the Lion’s Den
To better understand the security issues that face the Mount of Olives, I accepted an offer from Mati Dan, the chairman of Ateret Kohanim, to tour the nearby Arab neighborhoods, some of it in an armored vehicle, which is a story onto itself. Ateret Kohanim is bent on settling Jews in homes in eastern Yerushalayim, as part of the just Jewish claim to the entire city. The tour of these neighborhoods offered a glimpse into everyday living in the predominantly Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. These neighborhoods are a blend of shabbily built houses, some with red roofs, old stone structures and here and there some magnificent villas (illegally built). There is also what could best be described as low-rise apartment buildings. We toured much of A-Tour and even Ras al Amud in a regular vehicle, but transferred to a beat up white armored vehicle for the trip into Silwan, the scene of many riots in the past few years and the source of much of the disturbances in eastern Jerusalem.
Although Ateret Kohanim bought the vehicle new in 2005, it pretty much carried the history of the rampant violence in the area. Its original green color was replaced by an assortment of colors, the paints thrown on the vehicle by Arab rioters. The glass in front of the armored pane was completely shattered from the many rocks it has received. In short, the totally beat-up vehicle looked much more like one of the remnants of the armored vehicles from the 1948 War of Independence that are displayed along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway than a 6-year old new vehicle.
Ascending the steep hills of Silwan was no easy task as the armored-laden vehicle labored to gain any kind of traction. Tal, my driver, was receiving all kinds of advice from the security guard that had joined us for the trip. In low gear, the engine finally coughed a sigh of life as we negotiated the narrow and hilly terrain, broken roads, strewn garbage and the hostile stares of passersby. It was Friday, a day that is infamous for violence. Our destination was Bet Yonatan, a four-story apartment building in the heart of Silwan that had become home to seven Jewish families. After entering the secure entranceway and the guard station on the ground floor alongside a collection of baby strollers, several residents were working on fixing up what will be the new kollel. On the top floor, another apartment was being renovated. It was not until we reached the roof, or the playground, that I really began to understand the significance of the structure, and frankly the mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) of the young residents with small children.
Shards of beer bottles, some still with a partial label of Heineken were strewn all over the roof, right near the toys. There was also the frightening remains of a Molotov cocktail, all evidence of a violent night that had transpired some 12 hours before I got there. Ironically, the bottles and the Molotov cocktails were thrown from an adjacent modern new building just across the streets. “It took the police 45 minutes to get here,” Tal says. But despite the criticism, Tal actually presents me with some good news.
The level of violence, he pointed out, has declined dramatically in the area, thanks to a new aggressive posture by the relatively new police command in Yerushalayim, headed by Niso Shaham. It is this new changed attitude that perhaps also holds the key to increased security on the Mount of Olives. Police have been arresting perpetrators of crime almost nightly, much of it now possible thanks to the steadily growing number of surveillance cameras throughout eastern Jerusalem as well as classic good police work. In fact, through surveillance tapes, the residents hope that police will be able to pinpoint the apartments which were the source of the violence the night before I visited.
The route we took to return to a “normal” vehicle is the same that the residents of Bet Yonatan take to conduct routine business, such as shopping or even going to a late night wedding in the western part of the city. They travel to a parking lot outside of Silwan in an armored vehicle and then drive in their own vehicles parked there. Along the way, Tal points out some key flash points. He shows me where a woman driver was stopped by Arab youths with pipes in their hands, only to be saved when she revved the engine into high gear dispersing the menacing gang. There was the street where Jewish cars were routinely blocked by garbage and burning tires. But thanks to the more aggressive police stand, says my new friend, this level of violence has dissipated in recent weeks. “After all,” he concludes, “it is because Jewish citizens live here that the police are attentive to what is happening here and why they cannot abandon this sector of our holy city.”
As we drive through some of the neighborhoods, my guide stressed the lawlessness that permeates these neighborhoods. He shows me an Arab that had decided that the parking spaces in front of his house was his own parking lot. Of course, many of the structures are illegally built. The increased police presence has been a shock to many Arabs who for the first time are even ticketed for not wearing seatbelts in their own neighborhood. Unheard of in what many describe as the Wild West of Yerushalayim.
While the committee has achieved enormous success with the installation of the cameras amongst other concrete measures, my own observation is that to date the installation has been uneven. There are cameras every couple of feet in parts of the mountain that are frequented by Christians and much sparser in the areas that are visited by Jews. Officials are promising that as many as 40-60 cameras will be added in the coming months, which should be of enormous benefit. Security officials told me that the cameras must also be added along all the access routes in addition to an eventual police deployment on the Mount of Olives. The monitors themselves, suggest the officials, must be by police officers and not privately hired workers.
The projects by Ateret Kohnaim and the Israel Land Fund, headed by activist Aryeh King, are contributing to a new reality where Israeli flags are now seen atop of buildings in the heart of Arab communities. All of the people I spoke to agreed that the Mount of Olives was the key to securing the entire area. Ironically, I am used to looking at these Arab neighborhoods from atop of the Mount of Olives. For a change, I looked at the Mount of Olives from a vantage point atop the Arab neighborhoods.
Also an eye-opener was our stop at a restricted area, directly in front of the fence (it is really a wall with barbed wire) that towers over the Abu Dis area, which has been suggested as the capital of a Palestinian state. My guide stresses that while the wall has been an effective deterrent against terrorism, it is not a wall that divides Jews and Arabs since so many Arabs live on the Israeli side of the wall. “What it did was to cut the size of the problem,” he adds, “making it harder for them to organize terrorist activity.”
After my visit, I felt a new sense of optimism that we have perhaps turned the corner on the Mount of Olives. The vision that the Mount of Olives would one day be a center of Jewish tourism may not be far away. Perhaps there will be new paths, new fences, tens of cameras, a strong police presence, signage everywhere, regular Egged bus service, and a reconnect to its holy past. Perhaps school children will stand on the mountain and learn about the ashes of the poroh adumah that were prepared here, where the Kohanim (priests) readied for their tasks on the Har Habayit (Temple Mount) just across the mountain, where the new chodesh (month) was proclaimed, where David Hamelech (King David) fled from his son Avsholom, and where so many of our luminaries rest. Let us hope and be mispallel that he is right!
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