Touring Terror in Jerusalem

The group of 30, mostly Jerusalemites, watch one another self-consciously as they wait in the summer heat for their guide to take them on a tour of terrorist attacks along Jaffa Road, the main drag in West Jerusalem.

Terror isn’t something Jerusalemites talk about any more. We prefer to think that we’ve recovered from the fear and dread that took over our lives from 2000 to 2005, when terror attacks throughout Israel began to subside. The period that Israelis — in a combination of desperation and fatalism referred to as “the situation” — began on Sept. 28, 2000, when the then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Al Aqsa mosque on the holy site in Old Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, setting off the wave of violence that came to be known as the Second Intifada.

From that September day through the beginning of Operation “Cast Lead,” when the Israel Defense Forces invaded Gaza on Dec. 27, 2008, 6,651 people were killed — 5,524 Palestinians, 1,063 Israelis and 64 foreign citizens, according to figures compiled by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. More than 10,000 people were wounded.

Between 2000 and 2005, there were 1,048 suicide attacks against Israel, of which 903 were thwarted by Israeli security forces, according to data compiled by the Jewish Virtual Library. During those years Jerusalemites feared for their lives every day, yet pretended that life could be normal in the abnormal “situation.”

Now that the violence has ebbed, we pretend we’re over it. Our verbal geography still refers to places according to the bombings — as in, “Meet me on the corner by where the No. 14 bus blew up” — but we insist we’re fine. Sure, there might be some scars, we tell ourselves, but the wounds have healed.

Yet when Yossi Attia, a 33-year-old performance artist, offered a series of guided tours, billed from “From Trauma to Fantasy” along Jaffa Road, the tours were quickly oversubscribed.

Attia offered the tours as part of a citywide festival, “Under the Mountain,” sponsored by the municipality and private philanthropic foundations and billed as an attempt “to bring politics and art into the sphere.” He is determined, he says, to peel back the layers of those scars, revealing just how raw the pain underneath still is.

The group meets at “the entrance to the shuk,” the big outdoor market along the western part of Jaffa Road. Jerusalemites understand the code — during the Second Intifada, no one went to the shuk unless they had to because we all avoided crowded places. Today, the shuk is hip, with high-end bars and restaurants next to the vegetable stalls.

Joining the group a few minutes late, sporting a clip-on microphone and an Israeli tour guide’s trademark khaki shorts, Attia makes sure that everyone has water and tells people not to turn off their cellphones. “You might feel anxiety again and you might want to talk to someone,” he says.

For over two hours, he leads the group along Jaffa Road — now closed to traffic in deference to the new light-rail system, and into the narrow alleyways and courtyards on either side. Jaffa Road, he says, has had more suicide bombings than any other street in the world.

Attia, who was in his teens during the Second Intifada, grew up on this street. He says he experienced his first terror attack “twice at the same time — I watched it from my balcony and on TV simultaneously.”

He analyzes each of the dozen of suicide attacks along the road, mapping out the growing dread. At first, we were afraid of public spaces, but not of buses or coffee shops — until buses and coffee shops became targets. In the beginning, we were only afraid of men — until women joined the suicide ranks.

The tour is quirky, amusing and a bit absurd. At one site, Attia holds up photographs of an exploded bus, its roof peeled back like a sardine can, the body bags still lined up. Standing alongside another site, he holds a dry-erase board and draws a chart — the variables include how many people were killed (less than five/between five and a dozen/more than a dozen); where the attack took place (bus/coffee shop/market place). Summing up the variables, he asks if it would be acceptable under each circumstance to go out for a beer or on a first date. “We always went out for beers,” he says. “It was a way of pretending that things were normal. Beer was political then.”

As the walk proceeds, we bring in our own memories. We retell the macabre jokes. We recall how, by mid-2002, TV stations would split their screens, with regular programming on the upper half and live reporting of a bombing below.

We remember the theoretical discussions: Which seats on the bus were the safest? Which supermarket was most likely to be bombed? A cell phone rings, and, as if on cue, we all remember the routine after an explosion when we would all call one another: “Where are you? Have you heard from the kids/mom/dad/your brother?” And we all acknowledge how close to the surface, just under the scar tissue, the pain really is.

Toward the end, Attia talks about causality, saying that terror is a form of warfare. It may be despicable and immoral, but it’s logical and strategic.

I think about the tour’s title, “From Terror to Fantasy.” The terror has fueled vengeful fantasies. The “situation” ate away, like a parasite, at my values and bored into my identity like the shrapnel bored into the bodies of the victims.

I don’t know if I can forgive. I don’t even know if I want to. But I do know that by acknowledging the terror we still feel, we can begin to fantasize about peace.

Eetta Prince-Gibson is a freelance journalist in Jerusalem and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Report.

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