A Jerusalem neighborhood takes cover, especially after the sun sets

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, March 15, 2001

JERUSALEM - With winter fast receding and spring imminent, dusk in Jerusalem no longer falls in the afternoon. Soon the clocks will jump forward, further prolonging daylight well into the evening. This year, like never before, residents of the city's southern Gilo neighborhood are especially sensitive to the light outside.

Since last October, when Palestinian gunmen from the neighboring village of Beit Jala began their violent campaign against Gilo, beleaguered residents have greeted the darkness with trepidation as most attacks against them have occurred after nightfall.

By now, after nearly half a year of such attrition, the scenario is depressingly familiar to Gilo residents - and to IDF soldiers stationed there since the shootings began. Every few days - sometimes more often, sometimes less - the war-like ritual unfolds without warning.

As the sun sets, the light of day fades away and a tranquil darkness envelops the hilltop neighborhood, the highest in Jerusalem. Then suddenly, a barrage of bullets pierces the evening sky. From across the small valley separating Gilo from Beit Jala, Palestinian terrorists open fire at apartment buildings barely 200 meters away.

There's no mistaking the staccato crackling from the Kalashnikov guns. Residents dive for cover inside their homes, huddling low to escape bullets buzzing in through windows not blocked by sandbags or steel shutters.

IDF soldiers then swing into action, ordering anyone outside indoors and sometimes calling for a blackout on certain streets for safety. Young conscripts crouched behind sandbags, blast away with automatic weapons and anti-tank missiles at the Palestinian snipers. The IDF retaliation is welcomed by Gilo residents but does little to calm their shattered nerves.

These frequent firefights have taken their toll on Gilo's 40,000 inhabitants, especially those living closest to Beit Jala. In addition to several casualties, they suffer from constant fear and anxiety. The Municipality has sent psychologists to treat schoolchildren traumatized by the crisis and dispatched social workers to help the elderly.

Physically, parts of Gilo look like they're under siege. Authorities erected barricades in the southern part of the neighborhood that faces Beit Jala. The IDF built a 7-foot high cement wall as a barrier to protect people from incoming fire. To lessen the eyesore, which locals likened to the Berlin Wall, artists painted on it colorful, pastoral scenes.

Last month, municipal workers took measurements to fit bulletproof windows in 900 homes. Schools and kindergartens have been already outfitted with such protection. Residents were told the bulletproof glass provided protection against light weapons but would not hold up to tank or machine gun fire.

This, of course, is no way to live but most residents have few alternatives. They can't afford to move given that the prices of their homes have plummeted and people aren't exactly lining up to buy into a residential community that now doubles as a frontline battleground with the Palestinians.

When the firing becomes especially fierce, the IDF deploys heavier weapons, including helicopter gunships and two tanks now stationed next to Gilo. On such nights, my family can hear the sounds of battle from our home. As the crow - or bullet - flies, we live about a mile from Gilo and seemingly under the flight path of IDF helicopters heading for action against terrorists in Beit Jala. The roar of these monster choppers is what rattles my wife and children the most. But at least we're not in the line of fire.

Until last fall, Gilo was barely known outside Israel, let alone outside Jerusalem. Like many Jewish neighborhoods in the city, it was built just over the old 1967 border with Jordan. It was always a quiet, working class community rarely in the news. But as a resulted of the unexpected attacks from Palestinians, Gilo has been frequently invaded by local and foreign journalists and become a place of pilgrimage for Jewish groups from abroad wanting to show their solidarity with the embattled community.

Established in 1973, Gilo has never known a winter like the one it just experienced. Sadly, even if the past two weeks have been relatively quiet, there's little to indicate that the spring will offer residents reason to take down the sandbags and open their windows that face Beit Jala.

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