JERUSALEM — When it opened three years ago, the Jerusalem Light Rail was hailed by city boosters as a symbol of coexistence, a whispery smooth ride across some of the most bitterly contested real estate in history.
The modern, European-style light rail travels from the national cemetery atop Mount Herzl, past the ramparts of the Old City, through the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev — 23 stops, nine miles, 46 minutes, for $1.90 one way.
The Jerusalem Light Rail was meant to unite.
But it has become a magnet for insult, riot and death.
What was once seen as a line that could connect Jews and Muslims in this 5,000-year-old metropolis has become the focus of escalating violence by Palestinians toward the Israeli state. The Jewish and Arab passengers of the light rail — never close — seem further apart than ever.
To ride the trains now, especially at night, is alternately banal and spooky. Armed guards in plain clothes and yarmulkes patrol the carriages. Jewish commuters pour off the train to take buses to avoid passing through Arab neighborhoods, where ticket booths were smashed with hammers and torched with gasoline bombs during protests by Palestinians this summer.
Far fewer Palestinians are riding than six months ago — in part because they burned the ticket dispensers. Along the lines, Palestinian teens pretend to throw rocks, just to get a reaction.
Since the long, hot summer that saw the abduction and murder of three Jewish students by Palestinian militants in the West Bank, and the revenge killing that followed of a Palestinian teenager who was burned alive by Jewish extremists, Jerusalem and its light-rail line have been a lightning rod.
In October, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem named Abd al-Rahman al-Shaludi plowed his car into a crowd of disembarking passengers at the light-rail stop near Ammunition Hill, killing a 3-month-old Jewish girl with U.S. citizenship and a visitor from Ecuador who was converting to Judaism.
Israeli officials called it a terror attack. The driver’s mother said her son must have lost control of his car. After he crashed into a pole, Shaludi leapt from his vehicle and ran, chased down the street by a Jerusalem police officer, who shot and mortally wounded him as he fled.
The incident was only the latest of many. The light-rail carriages are regularly pelted by stones. At some stops in the Palestinian neighborhoods, protesters tried to rip the rails from the ground.
Since July, there have been more than 170 incidents of rock-throwing. The reinforced windows and doors of the trains are crazed with cracks. Ridership dropped 20 percent in the summer, and the line is only now seeing a slow return of passengers.
CityPass, the company that operates the line, reported last month that 15 of its 23 trains have been damaged by stones and firebombs thrown by Palestinians. Nine trains were taken offline for several days for repairs.
Jerusalem can feel like a city of brawlers some days — people quick to complain, everybody with an opinion. The city’s residents are not known as wallflowers. But the train cars are often quiet these days.
When the crowds are light, passengers tend to separate themselves by religion — the ultra-
Orthodox Jewish men huddle together. Palestinian girls and women cluster. Young soldiers sleep, or pretend to, lost in the music coming into their ear buds.
But these days, eye contact between the tribes is kept to a minimum. There seems to be a decision not to touch.
“They need to move the train tracks so that it does not go through Shuafat,” said Natasha Bund, a Jewish Israeli in her 50s, referring to one of three stations in Arab neighborhoods defaced with graffiti that reads “Death to Jews!”
“They don’t want to use the train and we don’t want them on the train, so they should just move it,” she said.
A couple of stations down the line, Aya Khalaf, 29, was traveling with her infant in a stroller. She lives in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, one of the light-rail stops.
“I have noticed recently real tension on the train. Just now when my baby started crying, a man nearby, who heard me speaking Arabic, made awful faces and told me to shut the baby up,” she said.
“If I had a choice,” Khalaf said, “I would not use Israeli transportation.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced last weekthat Israeli security forces planned to launch five aerial reconnaissance balloons over the Arab neighborhoods and their stations on the rail line, similar to those the military uses to keep an eye on the Gaza border. Since the summer, protests and clashes with Israeli police have become commonplace in the city, even in neighborhoods not adjacent to the train line.
“As I have said for months, the situation in Jerusalem is intolerable, and we must act unequivocally against all violence taking place in the city,” the mayor said, calling for a police force surge in the city.
Mohammed al-Natsheh, 30, a Palestinian from Hebron, was riding the light rail to visit a friend who lives in Beit Hanina.
“I am not afraid of riding the train,” he said. “These protests in Jerusalem and the attacks against the train are all for nothing. I am against people making problems — it just makes our life more complicated and helps no one.”
When the light rail was being built, controversy raged among Palestinians because it would connect the settlement of Pisgat Zeev to the Jewish neighborhoods in the west of the city, cutting through the Arab areas in the city’s east, which Palestinians seek as the capital of a future sovereign state.
Abdul Majeed Ramadan, a respected Islamic cleric in East Jerusalem, said he once tried to convince his fellow Palestinians that the train was beneficial for all.
“I said this was the train of peace. I called it the Orient Express that would connect east with west, Jewish and Palestinian, and it was successful until those settlers sent us back to the dark ages,” he said, referring to those who burned alive teen Mohammad Abu Khieder as “settlers” because at least one of the suspects hailed from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Ramadan said, “Now all my dreams are shattered.”
Israeli National Police Chief Yahanan Danino said plans are being discussed to install a network of closed-circuit TV cameras around the city, with special attention on the light rail.
“They are sending small children — 12, 13 years old, not even youths. They are children, and we can’t do anything about them,” Danino said of the rock throwers. He said he thinks the cameras can be used to identify young people throwing stones and then possibly fine their parents.
Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and researcher who advocates for a shared Jerusalem said, “Most Israelis [in Jerusalem] are not aware of what is happening — except for hearing the thuds in the distance.”
“The train was supposed to be the symbol of a false, disingenuous coexistence,” he said.
What the 100,000 passengers a day on the light rail think about Jewish-Muslim relations depends on the day, sometimes the hour.
“I personally have some concerns about riding the train, especially after the attack [in October], but what choice do I have?” said Tomer Ben Shoshan, a Jewish Israeli who lives in French Hill, near the station where the car attack that killed two people took place. “I need to get to work, and I don’t have any wings.”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.