On Ben Yehuda, Traces of Blood Are Gone, but the Memories Remain

Standing on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Luntz streets here, Moshe Kupfer turns 360 degrees, his arm and one finger extended.

The 21-year-old University of Pittsburgh student is showing visitors where suicide bombings have taken place near the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in recent months, and it seems like he is pointing in every direction.

“Almost everywhere you walk in the street, there is the stain of blood,” says Kupfer, a Canadian who is spending the summer working for Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the American Red Cross.

Kupfer lived in Jerusalem for two years, beginning in 1998, when the country was in the midst of the Oslo peace process. At the time, Ben Yehuda Street was the main attraction for young visitors from North America, and a frequent nightspot for Israelis, too.

But Ben Yehuda and its neighboring streets now are considered probable targets for terror attacks. Visitors stay away, choosing not to play the odds.

On a recent Saturday night, the “new normal” is marked by caution. The few tourists who still come to Israel, as well as the locals, make their calculations about safety.

Some refuse to ride in buses, where suicide bombers may board and detonate themselves. Others avoid spots that have “risky” concentrations of civilians, such as shopping malls and main pedestrian areas.

While no attacks occurred on this Saturday night, 19 people — the victims included many children on their way to school — were killed three days later when a suicide bomber boarded a bus in southern Jerusalem, near the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.

Tuesday’s attack underscores the constant threat of terror that Jerusalem residents face, and the need to be selective in choosing when to venture outside.

Errands are run en masse instead of individually, and luxuries like a night out on the town largely are avoided. The omnipresent fear makes Ben Yehuda seem like any other block in Jerusalem, not the bustling entertainment center it once was.

On this Saturday, some youngsters gather at the bottom of the street, talking and dancing to music from a boom box, but the crowd is nowhere near as large as it used to be.

Some stores are open for business, selling religious items and food, but many more are closed permanently or temporarily, choosing only to open certain weeks to save money.

“The place where I had my birthday party last year is gone,” Kupfer laments.

The Moshiko Falafel and Shawarma shop, easily identified by its bright yellow awning, is open but empty, except for three staffers.

“On a Saturday night, before, I couldn’t speak to you” at this hour, Youel Sabthe, the store manager, tells a reporter at 11 p.m.

“Before” means pre-September 2000, when the Oslo process crumbled and the Palestinians erupted in violence.

In some sense, “before” even means before Dec. 1, 2001 — a Saturday night when two suicide bombers detonated themselves minutes apart on Ben Yehuda Street.

A third bomb exploded nearby 20 minutes later, timed to kill emergency workers arriving at the scene of the first attacks.

Ten people, mostly young men, were killed, and more than 180 people were injured.

While business was bad before the December attacks, many people see that day as the turning point, when people stopped coming.

Cracked tiles in Sabthe’s shop, one of the few remaining scars from the suicide bombing, are vestiges of the December attack. Israel is quick to sweep away the remnants of attacks and bring the situation back to normal, an act of defiance.

What cannot be washed away are people’s memories.

Four yeshiva students from New York walk from their school to an ice cream shop, order some desserts and sit down, only a few feet from the site of the December attack.

Pausing frequently to admire young female passers-by, they speak of why they are here — not just in Israel, but on Ben Yehuda Street.

“I definitely think that we are walking into a place where we could die,” says Ya’akov Klein, an 18-year old from Brooklyn. “But you can’t live your life stuck in school.”

They don’t come here as often as they used to, choosing to stay on campus most nights instead of venturing out.

“You know in the back of your mind that stuff goes down here, so you find other stuff to do,” says Avi Singer, 19, from Far Rockaway, N.Y.

When he is on the way to Ben Yehuda, he thinks about what could happen, and what has happened in months past, he says. But he chooses to come anyway, in part blaming his decision on his youth.

“It’s not the logical choice to make, but you need to get out once in a while,” Singer says.

Also out tonight are a handful of female police officers, observing the evening’s activities from the top of Ben Yehuda Street’s incline. They carry weapons almost as large as their frames, and say they’re looking for people “who seem strange.”

“It’s very scary to do this,” one young officer admits, but notes that Ben Yehuda Street is a voluntary assignment for women.

On this night, the officers have been placed on specific alert: They are on the lookout for an Arab man whose name and picture they have been given.

That knowledge sends some American visitors back to their hotel, but it doesn’t faze Avi Mizrhy, owner of an ice cream store on Ben Yehuda.

Mizrhy says he was about seven yards from the December attack. He had left his usual spot — observing the nightlife from his store window — to take money from a customer, when the first bomb hit.

“If I was there . . . ” he says, knocking on the concrete wall of his store with his fist. He doesn’t need to finish the sentence.

A high alert means nothing to him, he says; he is always on alert.

“We’re very strong to stay here; we must stay here,” Mizrhy says.

The money is not good, barely enough to feed his family. But he remains defiant, pledging to stay as long as he can put food on the table.

To end a conversation, he says the same thing as the volunteer from Canada, the falafel shop owner, the soldier and the yeshiva students. It has replaced “goodbye” and “shalom” as the customary parting words in the area: “Stay safe.”

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