The first news about the stabbing spree on the Tel Aviv bus Wednesday morning came in like it always does – in a short message on WhatsApp, trailed by a barrage of follow up questions and replies, sending my phone into seizures.
Just like that, one moment you’re feeding your infant daughter breakfast and the next you’re taking pictures of blood puddles and paramedics, an avalanche of information piling up around you.
Somehow nobody was killed in Wednesday’s attack, but the details were grisly nonetheless – a middle-aged bus driver stabbed repeatedly in the upper body, fighting for his life as his bus swerved down one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. The attacker, a 23-year-old Palestinian from Tul Karm continued to chase and attack passengers after they fled onto the sidewalk, including one woman stabbed in the back in a moment caught on film and aired on every Israeli news site.
Within a matter of minutes it was over, and at least a dozen people were hurt, including 4 seriously. The attacker was “neutralized” according to police, shot in the leg and under arrest, taken for medical treatment and the first of probably a series of interrogations.
The scene bore most of the hallmarks of the last three terror attacks in Tel Aviv.
The junction was roped off by police tape, and photographers wandered in and out, taking pictures until they were forced out by Border Patrolmen. In each case the photographers continued to take pictures, acting surprised and confused, and then retreated like visitors at the Western Wall – facing the scene, not turning their backs, taking pictures as they shuffle away.
Most of the Tel Aviv District Police commanders came to the scene, and gave a series of interviews to the press. The district’s head spokesperson, (Hila, one of the nicest and most professional and helpful in the entire police force) asked photographers to get a pic of District Chief Bentzi Sau at the scene, taking charge of things. After all, a new National Police Chief will be selected soon, and pictures like that can’t hurt.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich also made an appearance, like in terror attacks past. Last time he did this he got heckled by a few bystanders at the site of the stabbing attack at the Hagana Train station (which left a 19-year-old IDF soldier dead). The handful of protesters called on him to resign in the face of a wave of “lone wolf” terror attacks, but they didn’t stay too long. On Wednesday Aharonovich wasn’t booed, and he repeated his call for Israel to take action against shabahim – Palestinian laborers illegally in Israel, like the man who committed Wednesday’s attack.
Typically after a terror attack (or a mafia car bomb or drive-by) crime reporters from the big stations (with the big money) will go to the kiosks and mechanics garages in the area and try to get their hands on surveillance footage of the attack. They’ll pay good money if they need to, and later their outlet will broadcast the video “which came into the hands of our reporter”.
In each case there’s at least one hero of the day, and he/she is swarmed upon relentlessly. On Wednesday it was the officers from an Israel Prison Service “Nachson” unit, which is responsible for transporting inmates from prison to court appearances and back, among other tasks. In a stroke of great luck for anyone in central Tel Aviv at the time, the prison guards were driving in a paddy wagon (“posta” in Hebrew) behind the bus on their way to the Tel Aviv courthouse when the attack occurred. They managed to chase the man down, shoot and wound him, and place him under arrest. It was then time for their moment in the spotlight, a rare and welcome moment for the IPS, probably the bottom rung on the law enforcement ladder in Israel, and an organization plagued by scandal in recent years. (Google “Prisoner X”, “Samuel Sheinbein”, “Dudu Topaz” or just “Israel Prison Service scandal”)
Whenever the TV reporters are doing their stand-ups one can find a highly common and extremely annoying species of bystander – the type which loves to stand behind the reporter, looking directly into the camera. They’ll often be on their phone, calling family or friends, telling them to switch on the TV and do it quick. They come from all walks of life and all ages, and frequent all neighborhoods. It must be said, for all their jaded machismo, Israelis may be some of the world’s most fervent crime scene selfie takers.
Tel Aviv’s attack didn’t have any bystanders chanting “death to the Arabs”, and only one man who lingered around yelling stuff into the camera from behind reporters. His target was the Israel Prison Services guards and while they were being interviewed he yelled out several times “why did you fire in the air first? Shoot to kill! This country is so stupid!”
It may sound cliché, but one remarkable feature is the way it all returns to normal so quickly. The ZAKA volunteers always manage to clean up most of the blood within an hour or so, maybe a little longer, and the streets are cleared and the traffic back at its normal flow in about the same amount of time. The police tend to leave their crime scene tape on the sidewalks along with plastic gloves and forensic stickers (they say “Israel Police” and have a ruler of sorts to place next to blood spots), but other than that, most of the carnage is cleaned up and washed away at a pace that seems almost defiant.
There’s also the randomness, the sudden, blinding speed with which the day is turned upside down. There’s the way lives are lost or horribly traumatized all because of an accident of timing. The way people are sliced, shot, stabbed, blown up and brutalized in all types of ways because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way a sense of safety can be lost so easily for so many people, who have no control over the dangers they face.
All these thoughts go through the mind on days like this, once you have a second to take it all in and before it’s pushed aside for the next tragedy.
Also, when it’s time to leave, like after every other terror attack in Tel Aviv the last couple of years I’ll go home the way I get most places – on the bus, just like the people I wrote about earlier, and at no point will that feel strange.