Mideast ideologies collide on Jerusalem's Jaffa Road


JERUSALEM - Every city has a main street, a thoroughfare that defines a downtown, and this city's is Jaffa Road.

Israelis also know it as the "street of the bombers."

Main streets attract people, and in Jerusalem, people attract gunmen and men with bombs strapped to their chests. That deadly combination has rendered the busiest part of Jaffa Road - the area between the central post office and Manhane Yehuda food market, a distance of six-tenths of a mile - one of the most dangerous areas in Israel.

In the past six years, terrorist attacks there have killed 96 people and wounded many hundreds of others. The most recent attack occurred Tuesday during the evening rush hour, when a Palestinian sprayed a bus stop with bullets. Two women were killed - one an immigrant from Russia, the other a seventh-generation resident who had survived a massacre of Jews in the city of Hebron in 1929.

Menachem Heppner walks Jaffa Road nearly every day as an unarmed auxiliary police officer. Now 78, he fled Nazi Germany with his parents in 1934, grew up in Jerusalem, married here, fathered three children and ran a restaurant. Patrolling the street, he knows just about everybody; he catered their families' bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals.

He recalls going to the old movie theater that once dominated Zion Square and remembers the bomb left under a seat by a woman who walked out midway through the show in 1951 - an explosive discovered by an alert guard before it went off.

"People from outside the country tell you that Israel is a dangerous place," Heppner said as he walked his beat, tipping his visored hat to friends. "People in Israel say that all of Israel is not dangerous, just Jerusalem. People in Jerusalem say that not all of Jerusalem is dangerous, just the downtown. People downtown say not all of downtown is bad, just one street. That street is Jaffa Road."

An ancient route

It began as a dirt path crowded by the homes and shops of people who, beginning in the mid-19th century, left the congested slums of the Old City.

It was the route that connected the Old City's Jaffa Gate, built in 945, to the port of Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast.

It is not a pretty route. Jerusalem is a poor city, and its main street reflects that. Jaffa Road, the route Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany used to enter the Old City in 1898, is lined with dilapidated storefronts shaded by faded awnings. Apartment houses have rusted shutters and balconies draped with laundry.

There are trendy boutiques and cafes, most tucked away on narrow side streets, but lingering over a cappuccino and a pastry has become a dangerous pursuit.

Jaffa Road lacks the gloss of Fifth Avenue in New York or the Bahnhofstrasse of Zurich. Everything is small scale; nothing has gloss.

"It is not a street one dreams about as being the main street of the capital of Israel," said Jerusalem architect David Kroyanker, author of several books on Jerusalem's history. "Such streets in Western cities are dominated by elegant and expensive shops. The purchasing power in Jerusalem is quite low."

The street begins near the crest of a hill overlooking Jaffa Gate. The hill was the staging ground for armies battling over Jerusalem from Old Testament times to 1967, when it marked the border between West Jerusalem, controlled by Israel, and East Jerusalem, controlled by Jordan.

Heading west, the road skirts City Hall. The building's facade is pockmarked by bullets from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. On the opposite side of the street are the blocklong post office and the former Anglo-Palestine Bank, now Bank Leumi - buildings erected in the 1930s that mix the architectures of the Middle East and British colonialism.

The center of attention is Zion Square, a rallying spot for Zionists in the 1930s and a central meeting spot and gateway to the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

Zion Square, almost every day, is crowded with a cross-section of Israeli society - elderly immigrants from Eastern Europe, young soldiers with machine guns draped over their shoulders, ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats and black hats, and teen-age girls in tight jeans and halter tops.

But Jaffa Road never seems polished or at ease. It may be because of the grittiness from the dust and sand of the city. Or because of the wariness of the pedestrians, looking for hints of an imminent attack.

Pedestrians compete with crowded bus stops and become a mass jostling for position. Politeness doesn't get people where they want to go.

Cars fight for limited room as the road narrows from four lanes to three and then expands back to four. Buses, bicycles, cars and trucks are in a constant tangle, and communication is done by long blasts of the horn.

Renovations planned

Kroyanker said the street has lost its allure because most of the buildings are little changed from when they were built in the 1930s, only older and dirtier. But renovations are being considered: Kroyanker is among the consultants studying plans for building a light rail line on Jaffa Road. That would mean banning cars and buses and turning Jaffa Road into a pedestrian promenade.

David Cohen, 65, has been making and selling custom jewelry from a stand on Jaffa Road for 22 years. "Look at this street," he said. "It's still the same. But now there are no people on it. I've made nothing. Nobody comes out when people are shooting. There used to be much more people.

"Before all this stuff with the Palestinians, this road, this city, was different."

The road, from its hangouts for the rock 'n' roll set to the covered outdoor food market, serves as a prime target for Palestinians wanting not only to kill, but to send a message that they can strike in the heart of Jerusalem.

There are no prominent memorials to the dead. A stone monument erected at Zion Square after an attack in December killed 11 Israelis was dismantled within a week.

One at Sbarro's restaurant, bombed in August, is inside the pizzeria.

Israelis rebuild quickly here - the street sweepers and the glass installers follow behind police and ambulance crews, ready to restore life. Life goes on, on Jerusalem's dowdy main street.

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