JERUSALEM, October 18, 2015 (JTA) – “No pepper spray, no tear gas, no nightsticks,” sighed Itzhak Mizrahi to three disappointed men, as if it were a mantra he’d recited dozens of times.
The glass-topped display case in Magnum, the central Jerusalem gun shop that Mizrahi has owned for three decades, featured a wide variety of pistols on Thursday. The pepper spray compartment, however, was empty, stormed earlier in the week by nervous Israelis hoping to defend themselves from stabbing attacks.
The country is suffering a nationwide pepper-spray shortage, Mizrahi said. As the men left, Mizrahi told them he hoped to restock his tear gas supply early next week.
Jerusalem’s streets and shops have been desolate for several days, and its atmosphere tense. A string of stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks in the city over the past two weeks have killed seven Israelis and paralyzed the city center, leading its residents to take measures to protect themselves. Many others are staying inside rather than risk getting knifed. In their place are security guards, checkpoints and police vans.
“There’s a lot more stress everywhere,” said Alexandra Benjamin, who emigrated from London to Jerusalem in 2002. “I’m refusing to allow myself to not go out, but I can’t help noticing the streets are much, much quieter.”
For Mizrahi, business is booming. He has sold about twice as many handguns as usual the past two weeks, and he applauds the government’s recent decision to relax Israel’s strict gun laws. Last week, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat urged licensed gun owners to carry their weapons in the street, and was himself photographed toting a firearm.
“We take the guns not to attack, just to defend,” said Mizrahi, a pistol lying by his hand.
Others have looked to more primitive tools to protect themselves. On Thursday, a warm, sunny day, a man walked hurriedly past the central Zion Square holding an umbrella like a spear. A woman carrying shopping bags tucked a mop handle – sans mop – under her right arm. On Tuesday, a man fought off a terrorist with a selfie stick.
Other Jerusalem residents have chosen to say home. Jaffa Street, the city’s central thoroughfare, was almost empty Thursday, as was the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall. Standing outside his cell phone store, Yair Kouhara, 18, said he hadn’t made a sale all morning. But having lived through the second intifada as a child, Kouhara said he was unfazed by the terror. “We’re here not doing anything all day,” Kouhara said. “We grew up in this situation. We’re used to it. It’s always tense.”
The seven Israeli deaths during the past two weeks don’t approach the death tolls of the suicide bombings that hit Jerusalem during the second intifada 15 years ago, in which hundreds died. Even so, some Jerusalem residents said this time is worse.
“If you were careful and you were lucky to live in the right place, you’d be fine,” said Margalit Cohen, 39, referring to the violence that wracked the city from 2000 to 2005. “It doesn’t feel like that now. Now it really feels like anywhere you go, it could be there.”
Cohen, like many other parents, has responded by driving her kids everywhere, a departure from the Israeli tendency to let children run free. And she makes sure her kids play inside or with close supervision.
In the usually tranquil Tel Aviv suburb of Raanana, the Israeli Scouts youth group postponed its events after two stabbings in the city. And with videos of stabbings and shootings flooding social media, parents have grown doubtful about their ability to shield kids from the violence.
“My kids have access to everything,” Cohen said. “I think it’s probably not so good. We’re all completely crazy because we have everything online, and we see everything online the minute it happens. It makes us completely nuts.”
Benjamin, the British immigrant, no longer plays Candy Crush on her phone or checks the news as she walks. She doesn’t wear heels, in case she needs to run. And when she waits for the bus, she stands behind the sheltered bus stop. Some of her friends have taken self-defense classes, a step she thinks is a bit much.
“I just think it’s part of this hysterical panic, and I don’t want to be a part of that,” she said. ”Walking around with pepper spray – that’s not the world I want to live in.”
As the Israeli government has encouraged civilian vigilance, its own response has been military. Hundreds of soldiers and policeman were deployed across Jerusalem last week and stationed along main streets. A soldier holding a rifle guarded one of the city’s light rail stops, while a police officer stood opposite him inside the train.
Security is especially intense inside Jerusalem’s Old City, the site of a number of Palestinian stabbing attacks on Jewish-Israelis. A metal detector was positioned at the Jaffa Gate and the usually bustling nearby market was lined with pairs of soldiers. The light rail station closest to the Western Wall was all but deserted Thursday, a police van standing where the train usually stops.
Arab residents of Jerusalem are also suffering from the tension. On the road to the Arab neighborhood of Silwan, soldiers sat behind a concrete block at a checkpoint, bags of chips scattered among their combat helmets. As a dusty red car approached, they stopped the vehicle for a few minutes of questioning.
“I’m scared they’ll shoot me by mistake,” said Samir Masri, 24, who had taxied to work from the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz in the past week rather than walk. “People aren’t going out. The security situation is terrible.”
Jewish- and Arab-Israelis have tried to ease the stress with humor. One spoof of a self-defense video showed the victim conjuring a fireball with his bare hands to deter an attacker. The lone Arab occupant of a Tel Aviv apartment building became a viral sensation when he posted to Facebook a selfie with a notice inviting residents to discuss the security threat he supposedly represented. The photo was captioned: “I’m coming and I’ll bring muffins!”
Self-defense measures are largely coping mechanisms, too, said Jerusalem shopkeeper Kesem Atedgi, 21. The city, he said, won’t be secured by pepper spray. “If someone comes at you with a knife, this won’t stop him in any case,” Atedgi said, referring to a can. “It’s for a feeling of security.”