Ceasefire declared as two attacks push Jerusalem to brink of general violence


The body of Ultra Orthodox Jew Avraham Walles is shown during his funeral in Jerusalem.


Lior Mizrahi

JERUSALEM — At 1 a.m. local time on Tuesday morning, as Israel and Hamas accepted an Egyptian-sponsored 72-hour ceasefire proposal to go into effect at 8 a.m. local time, Israel's air force was still operating in Gazan skies, rockets were still being lobbed from Gaza into Israel, and all the roads surrouding Jerusalem's Old City were packed with mourners for the victim of an attack that rocked the capital on Monday.

Jerusalem has not seen major violence against civilians in over a decade. But just after four in the afternoon on Monday, Muhammad Naif el-Ja'abis, a 23-year-old East Jerusalemite, commandeered a bulldozer from a construction site and drove it to a major central Jerusalem road. CCTV cameras and numerous cell phones held by passersby caught him ramming it into a number of pedestrians before aiming the machine's long digger at a bus and flipping it over.

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Avrohom Wallis, 29, a rabbi, religious inspector and a father of six, was killed in the attack.

A police officer who was in the vicinity shot Ja'abis dead.

A few miles away and only a few hours after the attack that killed Wallis, a gunman ran up to a soldier standing at a bus stop near the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Mount Scopus campus, shooting him in the stomach before fleeing on a waiting motorbike. The soldier was taken in serious condition to surgery.

The assailant remained at large.

When the police arrived in Jebel Mukaber, a middle class Arab neighborhood, to interrogate Ja'abis's family, a few dozen young men took to the street with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Clashes spread to a few other Jerusalem quarters, including the increasingly combustible Old City, but on the whole, Jerusalem appears to have stepped back from the precipice many pundits have foreseen.

Protests in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Bethlehem seemed similarly contained.

Friends and family of Ja'abis said the young man was completely apolitical, loved Red Bull and cigarettes, and that the mishap with the bulldozer could only have been due to "an accident." Other reports indicated that the home of one of his cousins had been destroyed by Israeli authorities two weeks ago. 

The Israeli police had not issued a formal statement by end of day, but spokesmen said both attacks were being considered "lone wolf" episodes, and not part of a planned, organized effort.

Hamas, the Palestinian faction Israel is at war with in Gaza, welcomed the bulldozer attack but did not take credit for it.

While largely ineffective, bulldozer terror attacks are not new to Jerusalem. In 2008, three women were killed in a similar event.

Monday’s attacks and the protests — occasional shooting was heard in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Silwan and Abu Tor — are all part of a surging wave of violence that started on June 12, with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenaged boys who were found dead after about two weeks of intense searches for them.

About a week later, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Arab Jerusalemite, was kidnapped and burned alive in a revenge attack that set off the most violent riots the city had seen on over a decade.  

Israel accused the Islamist Hamas of being behind the first kidnapping and attacked the organization's West Bank bases. Hamas stepped up its rocket attacks on Israel, launching over 3,000 since the start of hostilities.

The war that ensued has cost close to 2,000 Palestinian lives in Gaza, up to 75 percent of them civilian deaths. On the Israeli side, 61 soldiers have been killed in battle, and three civilians killed by rocket hits.

On Monday, Israel suspended its military operations for a 7-hour humanitarian window, to allow essential products such as food and medicine into Gaza. But in the truce's early hours an air strike in the Shati refugee camp killed an 8-year-old girl, one of twenty people killed in Gaza on Monday.

On Monday night, the funeral procession for Avrohom Wallis was made up of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, all clad in black, clogging Jerusalem's center as they wound their way toward the Mount of Olives where he was to be buried.

Police guarding Walli's funeral procession after midnight gossiped about the possible ceasefire to be announced. Behind their chatter, gunshots and firecrackers from the remnants of anti-Israeli protests could still be heard.

In accepting the temporary ceasefire — which includes provisions for further discussions in Cairo leading toward a permanent ceasefire — Israel was responding, in part, to mounting international pressure, including the British announcement that arms sales were "under review."

Hamas, which entered this conflict in an economic and political shambles, with no regional diplomatic support, signed on hoping to salvage something of its ability to govern the shattered Gaza Strip.

On the late night streets of Jerusalem, the principal question seemed to be, "How long will it last?" Last Friday, an indistinguishable ceasefire lasted for barely two hours.