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.