The large crash sounded like something very big and heavy had fallen, hard – at least for those of us at the front of the bus. One friend at the back had grabbed his girlfriend and gone for cover, the loud bang and shattering glass made him think of a gunshot. Thankfully, we were not under fire. We were, however, under attack.
We were 13 Australian students on a tour through Arab East Jerusalem, there to learn about the situation in which the local population finds itself. Our bus was a clearly marked tour bus (albeit from an Israeli company) of a kind that is hardly rare in one of the world's most popular cities for tourists. We had nothing at all to identify us as anything other than Western tourists and, at that moment, we were between stops and not even paying much attention to our surroundings. What, then, motivated a local youth with an impressive arm to hurtle rocks at us as we drove past?
As we learned on the tour, some (our guide included) would point to the social disadvantage that he faces, especially relative to his Jewish neighbours. They live in planned suburbs with wide roads, modern-looking buildings, parks, playgrounds and solid infrastructure whilst his is run-down and poorly designed, with ad hoc infrastructure, little recreational space and narrow, poorly maintained roads; it is understandable that he feel some anger.
That said, the vast differences in infrastructure can be attributed not to simple discrimination, but rather to municipal politics. Arab voter participation at the last municipal election was 2%, down from 4% the time before, whereas Jews tend to turn out somewhere around the 50% mark. This means that not only are Jewish interest groups vastly over-represented on the council itself, but the only constituent voices that the council hears are from Jewish areas. There is a huge amount of pressure on councillors to fund roads, schools and other projects in the Jewish parts of their divided constituency and virtually none from the Arab side.
The young man on that day had made the decision, like many others, to pick up a rock and not a ballot paper. Make no mistake, this was not just a teenager acting out, this was a violent attack. The perpetrator intended to hurt us, for no crime other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a bus from the wrong country.
It is too common for people in certain circles to dismiss rock-throwing as no more than a harmless display of anguish. In comparison to Israeli M16s rocks may look crude and ineffective, but this does not make them any less lethal. A projectile must have a lot of power to shatter the reinforced-glass windshield of a bus driving away from the thrower; that hitting your head is a terrifying thought. In September last year, a father and his baby son were killed when rocks were thrown through his car windows, causing him to veer off the road. But for the quick reflexes of our driver, who immediately put his foot down and sped away, the story I am writing about could have been far worse.
The mentality that led to this incident was conveyed to our group a few days after the fateful tour, when Aussie ex-pat Arnold Roth described what he experienced during the recent prisoner swap deal. Unlike most Israelis, he did not feel elation at the site of Gilad Shalit walking free. The image that struck him was the smiling face of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal greeting the similarly elated Ahlam Tamimi, the woman who orchestrated a suicide bombing at a pizza restaurant in Jerusalem that killed 15 civilians, including his daughter. Tamimi had been in prison serving 16 consecutive life sentences; not only is she now walking free, but she has explicitly stated that she is proud of the attack and wishes to commit more, asserting that "resistance is the only way to liberate Palestine. Israel understands only the language of arms."
The young man in East Jerusalem would have seen the hero's welcome that Tamimi received in his society and would have heard her sentiments and many like them. He would have been raised with the understanding that the only way to get his point across is by hurting others and that Israel is responsible for everything that is wrong in his life. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the"language of arms" has an unfortunate way of drowning everyone else out – try holding a conversation whilst ducking constant missiles.
Ultimately, the Arabs of Jerusalem are faced with serious but solvable problems – potholes can be filled, garbage can be collected and schools can be built. Sadly, these are addressed mostly by outsiders, people like my tour guide, who belongs to a Jewish-Israeli organisation that lobbies the authorities on the Arabs' behalf. Their advocacy has been somewhat successful (for example, the area we are driving through has had 200 classrooms built in the last decade, as opposed to 80 in the adjacent Jewish area), but the fact remains that these small battles are being fought on behalf of, not by, those that they actually affect.
Unfortunately, Jerusalem's Arab residents have largely been duped by ideologues into trying to fix their "Jewish problem" rather than their roads. The garbage piling up at the end of the street would make people understandably angry, but attacking random tourists will not resolve this situation, it will only make it less likely that outsiders will know about it. Personally, even after the attack, the people living there have my sympathy; but the sympathy of foreigners can only help so much. The best we can do is to ask ourselves this question: "what would it take to show them that while a ballot paper may be less glamorous than a rock, it is far more effective?"