A Palestinian driver plowed his car into passengers on a light rail platform line in East Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, killing a three-month-old baby and wounding eight others – the latest violent incident in what has been more than three months of unrest centered in Palestinian neighborhoods of the contested city.
Video footage of the attack broadcast on Israel’s Channel 1 news showed a compact sedan suddenly veer from the roadway onto the rail line, ramming into a line of pedestrians. Security officials identified the man as Abdel al-Rahman Shaloudi, a resident of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan who had been jailed in the past by police.
“The people had just gotten off the train … There was a couple with the baby,’’ said Bella Refel, a witness who spoke with Channel 1. “He drove onto the rail line, and then went up on the sidewalk, and ran over everyone in front of him.”
Ever since the kidnap and killing of Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem last July, there’s been unrest in Arab neighborhoods unprecedented in more than 20 years, ranging from rioting, to rock throwing, to clashes centered around the Temple Mount in the Old City.
Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested, but Israel police have so far failed to restore calm. The attack on Wednesday came just hours after Police Chief Yohanan Danino visited a Palestinian neighborhood near the spot of the abduction and spoke of a new police campaign to re-establish order.
The light rail line has been a main flashpoint through it all. Before Wednesday’s attack, the July riots sparked by the Abu Khdeir killing destroyed ticketing kiosks, and ongoing rock throwing has taken 40 percent of the trains out of commission. Linking Palestinian and Israeli neighborhoods, the light rail has been one of the few places that brings together Arab and Jewish residents.
The clashes around Jerusalem – which some say have been fanned by efforts by Jewish settlers to assert sovereignty on the Temple Mount and in Palestinian neighborhoods nearby like Silwan – ratcheted up political rhetoric on both sides. In response to the attack on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of incendiary remarks.
The violence, which has been contained to Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, has been concentrated at meeting points between Jews and Arabs, says Daniel Seidemann, a Jerusalem lawyer and peace activist who monitors East Jerusalem. In the north of the city, the light rail starts in outlying neighborhoods considered Israeli settlements by the international community, runs through the Palestinian Shuafat neighborhood, passes roughly along the old border between East and West Jerusalem when Jordan controlled part of the city from 1949 to 1967, and then by the Old City.
“The light rail has been a lightning rod,’’ says Seidemann. “This paradigm of coexistence in Jerusalem was always a little disingenuous – with the image of the Palestinian in a keffiyeh, sitting next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, sitting next to a soldier with an M-16. It was all kumbaya. Whoever is doing this is saying: We’re not going to be extras in your fantasy world.”
Meanwhile, in an unrelated incident, two Israeli soldiers patrolling the southern border with Egypt were wounded and evacuated to a hospital after an attack on their jeep from Egyptian territory. Initial reports suggested the attack was the work of militants, but the Israeli Army later said it was actually carried out by drug smugglers, who were armed with guns and anti-tank missiles.