JERUSALEM – The elevator doors were just about to close when the young man squeezed in.
He was wearing a motorcycle helmet, but the open visor revealed a pleasant face and a nice smile.
“Excuse me,” he said in Hebrew.
“No problem,” I replied, assuming that he was apologizing for delaying my ascent.
“It’s just that people are very afraid these days,” he continued.
And I realized that he was apologizing for being a young stranger, invading my personal space at a time when random stabbings and other violent attacks on Israeli civilians were the latest face of terror.
I have no idea if he was a Jew or an Arab. But, as the elevator ascended, I had a few seconds of panic. Should I be afraid to ride in an elevator with a stranger? Would someone about to stab me be this polite?
We got off at the same floor, and went in different directions. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the experience.
This was my Jerusalem, the city where I have had so many glorious, life-changing moments since my first visit in 2003 – which was the only other time I had ever been nervous about being alone on the streets or fearful of strangers.
The friend whose office I was visiting had his gun tucked in the waistband of his trousers, even when walking around the office. As I walked outside with him and another friend, I got a crash course in how to look out for my safety in the new Jerusalem.
Don’t listen to music or talk on the phone. Stay away from really crowded areas – and really deserted areas. Look closely at the other pedestrians. If you see someone who won’t make eye contact, or whose hands are shoved into his pockets, cross the street or change direction.
At time of writing, 27 Israelis have been murdered and 279 wounded – 25 of them seriously – since these “lone wolf” attacks started in September. Dozens of Palestinians, including most of the terrorists, have died during this time.
According to a report commissioned by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (http://tinyurl.com/hkh8uds), most of the terrorists have been male, between 17 and 19, unmarried, unknown to police and not affiliated with any terrorist organization.
Most of the attackers have been Palestinians living in East Jerusalem or the Hebron area. Although many of these terrorists have lived secular lives, they have been deeply influenced by the Palestinian media’s glorification of terrorists who died while murdering Israelis, and they are willing to be martyrs for the cause of Palestinian statehood.
The only major difference in this pattern was the January 1 attack in Tel Aviv, when a smiling terrorist opened fire at a crowded bar.
The suspect, 29-year-old Nashat Milhem, was an Israeli Arab from the Wadi Ara. Unlike most of the previous attackers in what some are calling the “Knife Intifada,” Milhem was not interested in martyrdom and escaped into the busy streets. [He was killed by an Israeli police SWAT team on January 8 following a week-long manhunt.]
The rate of lone wolf attacks is slowing down. And, like every wave of terror experienced by Israel, it will eventually pass – partly because of crackdowns by Israeli security forces, but mainly because the terrorists, and the leaders who inspire them, will soon realize that Israelis will not stop living their lives to the fullest, even if they have to take more precautions.
But the intriguing question is what will happen after the current wave of terror abates. It certainly hasn’t helped what’s left of the peace process – especially since the self-styled moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been first in line to fan the flames of hatred.
It would be a shame to think that these attacks might fuel mistrust between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, the majority of whom define themselves as Israelis and accept Israel as a Jewish state.
“This wave of terror will pass – it always does,” says Giora Saltz, chair of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, part of a region in which Jews make up only a quarter of the population but live in relative harmony with their Christian, Muslim and Druze neighbours.
“What I am worried about is what will happen afterwards. I want to be sure that all of the people who really want to be here and make their lives here – whatever their ethnicity – will still be able to do so.”
And I look forward to getting into an elevator and walking the streets of Jerusalem without fearing the stranger beside me.