Israelis’ New Normal Means Jiu-Jitsu, Pepper Spray


Jerusalem — During the past couple of weeks, as the violence in and around Jerusalem and the West Bank has escalated, Roi Walther, a Jerusalem-based martial arts instructor in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, a form of Brazilian self-defense, has noticed a big uptick in interest in his already popular classes.

“I lead women’s groups, men’s groups and teen groups in self-defense in Jerusalem, and due to the latest incidents many more people are querying me by phone and Facebook,” Walther said. “People want to protect themselves, to feel more self-confident. They’re asking whether fighting off a stabbing is part of the syllabus. Our classes aren’t to train people for competitions. We specialize in self-defense.”

More than a year of sporadic Palestinian attacks against Israelis in east Jerusalem and the West Bank had already left many Israelis feeling vulnerable, but the most recent Palestinian terror attacks have put their fear in overdrive.

The Oct. 1 shooting death of Rabbi Eitam and Naama Henkin, a West Bank couple whose four children watched in horror; and the stabbings of three adults (Aharon Bennett and Nehemia Lavi died) and a toddler in the Old City of Jerusalem have prompted many Israelis to take precautions.

Some no longer travel on Jerusalem’s light rail line, the target of East Jerusalem stone-throwers; others are avoiding East Jerusalem or the city altogether. Shop owners report an increase in the sale of pepper spray, and many people are changing their driving habits.

The violence has prompted Julie Waldman, who lives in a West Bank settlement close to Jerusalem, to drive only when it’s light outside.

“I’m trying not to drive home after dark for now. I’ve heard they are throwing lots of rocks near Beitar, on my way home, and have poured gasoline on the road. I was planning on starting a diet program tonight but will find one to go to during the day when its safer,” Waldman said.

Writing in Haaretz, columnist Nir Hasson said, “there is no way to know whether this is the start of a third intifada, but it seems clear that the violence in Jerusalem will continue. … And we Israelis, like the Palestinians, will have to adapt to it.”

Seth J. Frantzman, a political analyst and op-ed editor of the Jerusalem Post, told The Jewish Week that the current violence doesn’t constitute an intifada — yet.

“What remains to be seen is whether the Palestinian-Israeli clashes in Israeli cities like Jaffa and Nazareth could create a critical mass in the West Bank and inside the Green Line that spirals out of control.”

Frantzman doubts most Palestinians have the will to stage an all-out uprising.

“While many Palestinians I’ve spoken with support a third intifada, they want someone else to carry it out. There is a great inertia against a mass civil uprising, and the Palestinians in the West Bank remain ill-prepared to take on the Israeli security forces. There may be more protests and lone wolf-style terror attacks, but it seems unlikely major sustained violence will break out.”

Daniel Nisman is a political analyst and president of the Levantine Group, a Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy firm.

“Now that the holiday period, which is marked by an increase in the number of Jews who visit the Temple and rumors that Israel is about to change the status quo, is over,” he said, “it will be a test to see whether [Palestinian President] Abbas will be in control. Until now he allowed the violence to happen. Now he’s called on Palestinians to rein in the violence.”

What’s still unknown, Nisman said, is whether the Palestinians’ rage is too deep to dissipate.

“Are the conditions ripe for de-escalation? Is the Palestinian street doing this because there is true boiling anger and hopelessness, or is this more a reaction to events? If it’s something deeper — a reaction to Jewish settler attacks, and there have been many, to perceived Israeli violations at Al Aqsa or [to] the Palestinian police becoming weaker, this is the time to measure how strong the Palestinians’ resolve is.”

Nisman thinks Abbas’ UN speech, where he declared the Oslo Accord dead, was “more a stunt” than a decision to dissolve the Palestinian Authority or end security cooperation with Israel.

“When Yasir Arafat wanted an intifada, he literally ordered attacks against Israelis. He literally orchestrated the uprising. Abbas says one thing, but the same night tells his police to arrest Hamas militants. He has to hold on to the Palestinian street but at the same time not instigate an intifada. He has political and financial interests at stake and does not want a complete destabilization of the West Bank.”

Although the violence is far from the level of the first and second intifadas, when thousands of Israeli troops battled Palestinians, “we’re moving in a bad direction,” Nisman said. “Every single day Palestinians are talking about their holy places being ‘invaded by settlers.’ They think it’s justified when a Jew is killed.”

Nisman said the Israeli media covers attacks on Jews but not the “many Palestinians being admitted to hospitals after being attacked by settlers. The violence is widespread and under-reported in Israel. They see settlers as rampaging monsters. It’s a deeply entrenched narrative.”

That narrative could be heard over and over again in the Arab shuk in the Old City of Jerusalem. Arab shopkeepers there bemoaned the dearth of tourists, which they blamed on the “Israeli takeover” of the Al Aqsa mosque and on the tightened security measures the Israeli government imposed after Saturday night’s fatal stabbings.

“Business is down 90 percent,” said a shopkeeper named Rami, who asked that his last name not be published. “Earlier this morning the police closed the Jaffa Gate,” the most popular entry point for tourists into the Old City, “and there were no tourists. The police told tourists to walk through the Armenian Quarter in order to bypass our businesses.”

The storeowner shook his head when asked whether the stabbing might have scared off some tourists.

Instead he blamed the violence on “settlers” trying to take over Al Aqsa.

“Al Aqsa is for the Muslim people. Jews have their own holy places. Mixing the two will bring on the next intifada.”