Israelis live in line of fire


JERUSALEM, Oct. 30 (JTA) – Fresh tank treads etched in the pavement on Ha’anafa Street in Gilo are the latest sign that this southern neighborhood of Jerusalem has been thrust into the front line of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Several tanks, which were stationed here for days, have been moved away.

They were positioned to respond to Palestinian gunmen who have repeatedly shot at Ha’anafa Street from the predominantly Christian village of Beit Jalla, just 800 yards across a picturesque valley.

A wall of concrete blocks erected on a segment of the ridge along the street provides little sense of security.

Replacing the tanks, further down the ridge that overlooks the “tunnel road” linking Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion settlements in the West Bank, an infantry platoon is digging in.

Within the makeshift outpost – behind a protective dirt embankment – about 25 soldiers are building seven sandbag-enforced firing positions for machine guns and a night-vision system, which will be intently trained on the village for many nights to come.

As the army modifies its positions around Gilo, life goes on as normal away from the exposed perimeter, even just one street further inside the neighborhood.

Indeed, what is happening in Gilo, which was established in 1973 in eastern Jerusalem and now has 45,000 residents, is the most tangible sign of what is happening throughout Israel.

Areas in contact with Palestinian territories are quickly turning into battlefields, and Israelis make every attempt to continue with their daily lives as the conflict rages in their backyards.

“It takes a while for the situation to sink in,” says Ruti Vanunu, a 43-year-old housewife who is casually walking her dog and running after a toddler on a tricycle on Margalit Street, parallel to Ha’anafa.

Last Friday night, however, the situation did sink in. Vanunu was taking out the garbage when a burst of automatic fire rang out.

She dropped to the ground instinctively.

“I’m no hero, but I try and stick to my regular daily routine,” she says, after describing that incident. “Maybe when I feel the bullets in my house it will do something to me, but we cannot leave here because of the shooting. That’s what they want us to do.”

On Ha’anafa Street, which has been exposed to much of the fire, it is harder to go on as usual.

Some bullets have landed in living rooms on this street, which has an open view of the valley facing Beit Jalla and the firefights taking place regularly.

Residents know that from the distance the shots are being fired, the chances of being hit are slim. Most have not put any special protection on their windows.

Still, the nights have become terrifying.

Anat Mor, 27, an advertising professional, has lived on the street for one year – and is getting ready to leave.

Her house is a rental so she should have no problem.

Others who own homes will struggle to find a buyer.

“Arafat wants a war and it was clear it would come from somewhere,” Mor says. “By chance it landed on us. The situation is very difficult, but I try not to show my kids any pressure.”

Genis Lev, a 68-year-old immigrant from Ukraine, has lived on another street nearby since arriving in Israel six years ago.

One night, a bullet came through his window.

“Ten minutes later, our friends came in because we were supposed to go to the theater,” he says. “We saw no reason to change our plans.”

Perhaps it is the routine of the shooting that has allowed residents here to go on with their lives.

Nighttime sounds of gunfire and helicopters resonate to other parts of Jerusalem a few miles away, but they inevitably give way to the surrealism of a peaceful morning with no sign of hostilities.

In the morning, the local commercial center is bustling with shoppers, and children attend schools and kindergartens as usual.

At one school, children are not allowed to play outside at recess. At nights most people stay home, anticipating what has become a strangely predictable routine.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a soldier who has served on the hill facing Beit Jalla for a week said there is a regular pattern to the events.

At around 7 p.m., a few bursts of automatic fire are shot from several positions in Beit Jalla. Israeli police with loudspeakers order residents on the Gilo perimeter to turn off their lights.

Then, the tanks that had been positioned on the mountain would hit back with machine guns. Sometimes, when the firing continued, they would fire one or two nonexplosive shells at houses. Attack helicopters have also been brought in to hit the village with missiles.

Despite Israel’s massive deployment of firepower, it is having serious difficulties quelling the gunmen. First, the gunfire from Beit Jalla is being initiated by fighters from the Tanzim, the militia affiliated with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, who enter the village at night and quickly scatter after shooting.

Villagers in Beit Jalla have, for years, been friendly to Israel.

Many do not want the Tanzim to use their village for cover, but are powerless to keep them out.

Yet the Israeli shells that have landed in some living rooms in Bet Jalla – which is under full Palestinian control – have terrified and antagonized some villagers, who say Israel is hitting innocent civilians and not the Tanzim.

A harsher response could provoke them into becoming even more hostile toward Israel. Even in Gilo, many realize that this would be counterproductive.

“We do not want any conflict with the Beit Jalla residents,” says Shimon Cohen, 58, who has come to watch the soldiers dig their outpost just in sight of the elementary school where he is a maintenance manager. “It is a Christian village, and many people work over here. They are harmless, and they are being used.”

Meir Tourjman, chairman of the Gilo community council, agrees that the Beit Jalla residents are not behind the shootings, but wants the army to take more pre-emptive actions against the gunmen. “All I want is quiet, and I hope that at the end of the day the prime minister will realize how serious the situation is and will figure out what must be done,” says Tourjman.

In the meantime, Gilo’s community center is being kept open for free activities, and psychologists have been brought in to deal with people feeling traumatized.

But, according to Tourjman, only a handful have asked to be evacuated.

“People here are pretty scared, but there is a difference between fear and panic,” he says. “There is no panic in Gilo. It may interfere with our routine a little, but this is not what will bring down our neighborhood.”

Recommended from JTA