As attacks subside, Jerusalem tries to return to normal

One of Jerusalem's most popular Palestinian hummus joints, Lina, used to serve about 100 Israeli diners a day — the majority of its clientele. But after the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence last fall, the place saw business drop to about three or four Israeli diners a day, and even many Palestinians abandoned the landmark Old City establishment.

"It's been hard," said Ghaleb Zahadeh, Lina's manager. "It's getting better a little bit." But not by much — over the last two weeks, he said he served about 10 Israeli customers a day, all of them longtime regulars.

Although the seven-month wave of violence appears to be subsiding, many Arabs and Jews still avoid each other's areas. Fewer Palestinians picnic in parks on the Jewish side of town, and both groups are largely avoiding trips to the Old City, home to Jerusalem's holy sites, where many attacks have occurred.

"People are still not leaving their safe zones," said researcher Marik Shtern of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, who recently conducted focus groups with Israelis and Palestinians in the city. "The geography of fear is still very dominant."

Overall, the atmosphere has improved since the tense days of last fall. Posters advertising pepper spray and self-defense classes have been papered over with ads for concerts. Bars are abuzz. Some 25,000 runners streamed through the city in last month's marathon.

Police say Palestinian attacks in Jerusalem have ebbed in recent weeks, and city officials are trying to dispel fears that visitors could fall victim to sudden stabbings in the streets.

"Jerusalem is one of the safest cities in the world," Mayor Nir Barkat recently told reporters, citing a lower crime rate than in New York or Chicago.

Those who appear to need the most convincing are Israelis themselves. Many Israelis, especially those from the cosmopolitan Tel Aviv area, who used to take day or weekend trips to explore Jerusalem's historic sites and culinary offerings, have been avoiding the city, hotel and restaurant operators say.

The number of Israelis booking Jerusalem hotel rooms has dropped by 10 to 20 percent since the violence erupted in mid-September, according to Omer Yaniv, another researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

The city's eateries have suffered losses of up to 40 percent, according to the Jerusalem Restaurants Association. Four landmark restaurants — the French inspired Eldad Vezehoo and Cavalier, Italian restaurant Topoleone and the boisterous Georgian restaurant Racha — closed down or relocated, blaming their empty tables on diners' fears.

"The attacks murdered us," said Lily Ben Shalom, the owner of Racha. Nearly everyone who booked tables between October and December canceled their reservations, so she moved her restaurant to Tel Aviv. "I am hurting for Jerusalem," she said.

Initially, the violence was connected to tensions surrounding a sacred hilltop site known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound to Muslims and the Temple Mount to Jews. Hundreds of nationalist Jewish activists visited the site on the eve of the Jewish New Year, and Israel placed age restrictions on visits by Muslims, sparking rumors among Palestinians that Israel was planning to disrupt the status quo that deems the site a Muslim place of worship and prevents Jewish prayer.

Israel denied the accusations. But there were Palestinian calls to defend the site, sparking "lone wolf" attacks. Stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks on Israeli civilians and security forces in Jerusalem spread to the West Bank and parts of Israel.

According to Israel's Shin Bet security agency, the majority of the attackers were young Palestinians acting out of personal or financial distress, with only some motivated by ideological reasons.

So far, Palestinian attacks have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans, and at least 188 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire. Israel says most of the Palestinians killed were attackers while the rest died in clashes with Israeli security forces.

Jewish activists are again encouraging pilgrimages to the holy site for Passover this month, raising fears of renewed violence. Activist leader Yehuda Glick, who survived a Palestinian attack and was banned from visiting the site for a year and a half, resumed visits last month despite continued threats against him.

"All it takes is for someone to light a match," said Hagai Amnon Snir, the Israeli director of the Jerusalem Intercultural Center, which promotes co-existence.

The Muslim authority that administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque is closely coordinating with the Israeli police and does not expect violence for Passover, according to a Muslim official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal assessment.

While Israeli leaders frequently refer to Jerusalem as the country's eternal and undivided capital, the city feels deeply divided. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed the area in a move that is not internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, home to the city's more than 200,000 Palestinians, as their capital.

Palestinians have expressed frustration with their treatment by Israel. Last fall, Israel erected temporary police checkpoints in Arab neighborhoods to prevent attacks. Palestinians say increased police profiling of them in Jewish areas of the city, and subpar municipal services in their own neighborhoods, make them feel unwanted.

Despair is so high that a group of prominent former Israeli security figures have endorsed a once-unthinkable proposal that would re-divide Jerusalem and cut off annexed Arab neighborhoods from the rest of the city. Israel's opposition Labor Party recently endorsed this vision, though the nationalist government continues to oppose it, as do the Palestinians.

Even Israelis and Palestinians who share close ties have taken precautions.

Danny Seidemann, an Israeli expert on Jerusalem affairs and an advocate of Palestinian rights, says he stopped allowing his 25-year-old daughter to go to a favorite hole-in-the-wall eatery in an Arab part of Jerusalem's Old City.

Fuad Abu Hamed, a Palestinian medical clinic owner and social activist in Jerusalem, said he convinced his son to delay this semester of studies at the Open University in a Jewish part of town. He was afraid Israeli police would deem him suspicious just because he is Palestinian.

Abu Hamed compared the current situation in Jerusalem to an improperly treated wound.

"On the outside, it starts looking like normal. But from the inside, if it's not treated well, it's scary," he said.