by Ha'aretz News, March 3, 2002

"Focus / Jerusalem's soft underbelly" By Shahar Ilan

"Each large-scale, and not so large-scale, terror attack that has occurred since the start of the intifada 18 months ago has exposed Israel's soft underbelly. Yesterday's strike revealed another part of that underbelly: every synagogue and yeshiva has a gathering of some sort, usually one that is left unguarded. Yesterday's strike was the first directed against a religious institution; it took place at the entrance of the Mahane Yisrael Yeshiva, which serves newly-Orthodox students.

During the High Holy Days, security guards were posted at the entrance to numerous synagogues throughout the country. Practically speaking, however, it is unlikely that the hundreds of synagogues and yeshivas in Jerusalem can be given such protection.

Not far from the site of yesterday's attack, Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef gives his weekly religious lesson to hundreds of followers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai said yesterday that due to the security entourage charged with protecting Yosef and Shas ministers often in attendance, the gathering is protected relatively well.

Now, for the first time, there may be a need to check persons as they enter the facility to hear the Shas leader, Yishai said.

To give a sense of the centrality of yesterday's terror scene, it's worth mentioning it is not far from the Or Hahayim yeshiva, directed by Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, who is a mentor to Shas' Labor and Social Affairs Minister Shlomo Benizri, as well as a yeshiva run by the venerable Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri. Degel Hatorah leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv lives just a few hundred meters away. The Mir Yeshiva, Israel's largest yeshiva which serves some 3,000 students, is also in the neighborhood. Mir doesn't have its own dormitory accommodations; its students rent apartments in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood, living three-to-four in a room.

Beit Yisrael is a low-income neighborhood with old homes and tough living conditions. In the past, the neighborhood was populated by a non-Haredi, traditional Sephardic population. In recent years, Beit Yisrael has been swallowed up by the ultra-Orthodox Mea Sha'arim neighborhood.

No spot in Jerusalem is more vulnerable to terror attacks than Mea Sha'arim. And Beit Yisrael, located near Highway Number 1, is an especially vulnerable part of the soft underbelly.

There is only one reason why there have been no large-scale terror attacks in Jerusalem's Haredi areas before last night - the previous three attempts failed. Two would-be terror strikes in Mea Sha'arim were uncovered and stopped just in time. A car bomb which exploded in Beit Yisrael, close to the site of yesterday's attack, did nothing more than cause light injuries to four persons. As a result, the first terror strike which seriously hurt a Haredi population was December's bus attack near the West Bank settlement of Immanuel.

The Nevot Yisrael seminar is located close to yesterday's terror attack site in Beit Yisrael. MK Nissim Zeev, who heads Shas' right-flank and whose views are close to the Kahane-inspired Kach organization, directs Nevot Yisrael. He said yesterday that Haredim who live in areas close to the Green Line will have no choice but to organize armed patrols. The police, he explained, lack adequate means to defend the ultra-Orthodox populations. In view of the population's ultra-Orthodox complexion, it is not clear that such patrols can be comprised of volunteers; there might be a need to hire private security guards for these patrols, he said.

Zeev said the IDF operation in the two West Bank refugee camps was restrained and soft; he is calling for all-out war on terror. Terrorists should be destroyed, detained or sent to Tunisia in such a campaign, he said.

Yesterday's terror attack is not likely to have a far-reaching impact on political views held by the Haredi population. This sector is, in any case, the country's most right-wing population, so the terror attack can only add to its zeal.

If a peace process were in swing now, the terrible cost of yesterday's attack might have encouraged some rabbis to call for concessions aimed at brining about an end to violence. As things stand, with there being no foreseeable prospect of an end to violence via negotiations, the rabbis will do no more than call for prayer and spiritual reflection.