In Jerusalem cleaning up after a suicide bombing is business as usual

Jerusalem became the suicide-terrorism capital of the world on March 17, 2002, when a suicide bomber blew himself up next to a city bus, wounding twenty people and killing himself. With this attack—the twenty-fourth by suicide bombers in the city, according to the comprehensive terroristincident database maintained by Haifa University's National Security Studies Center—the number of incidents recorded in Jerusalem surpassed that in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the scene of frequent Tamil Tiger attacks during the 1990s. As of this writing Jerusalem had suffered thirty-seven suicide attacks, which had killed 242 people and injured 1,631 others—and the city is very likely to remain the top target for suicide terrorism in the foreseeable future. The trauma inflicted by such attacks is impossible to avoid or overestimate, but the city has developed a remarkable ability to quickly restore a semblance of order and dignity.

"This city has it down to a science," a policeman in Jerusalem told me recently. It was 1:30 in the morning, and we were watching a street sweeper, brushes spinning and water spraying, maneuvering along Emek Refaim—the aptly named "Valley of the Ghosts," which is the main thoroughfare of the city's upscale German Colony neighborhood. Less than two hours before, a suicide bomber had blown himself up just inside a packed café there, killing seven and wounding more than fifty.

As frequently happens, the bomber had been unable to get to his primary target, which appears to have been the pizza restaurant next door. A security guard at the entrance refused to admit him, so he simply moved on to the next storefront. Here, too, a security guard attempted to prevent him from entering, but unsuccessfully; the bomber forced his way into the café and detonated his bomb, which he had concealed in a belt beneath his shirt. The force of the blast shattered the café's floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows and created a torrent of lethal shrapnel, augmented by thousands of tiny ball bearings packed in canvas pouches that were sewn onto the bomber's belt.

The first call for help was probably made to 101, the emergency telephone number of the Magen David Adom, Israel's version of the Red Cross, which is responsible for the country's medical-response teams and ambulances. In the event of such calls MDA dispatchers follow a strict procedure. First they alert the ambulance teams, who are summoned by pager. Then, by both radio and pager, they notify the MDA's national headquarters, in Tel Aviv; the police (Israel has a national police force, not individual local forces); and neighboring MDA regions and hospitals. Listening in on these alerts, or receiving notification on their pagers, are the devoutly religious members of ZAKA, a nongovernmental organization whose complete name means "Identification of Disaster Victims" and whose self-proclaimed purpose is to "rescue, save, and be part of the spiritual justice of truth"—that is, to deal with the tiny bits of bone, tissue, teeth, fingernails, and toenails scattered across the pavement and splattered against nearby cars, windows, walls, lampposts, commercial advertisements, and municipal signs.

The police or the MDA crews arrive first, depending on who is closer to the scene when the call comes in. The top priority is to tend to the victims and, simultaneously, to secure the area—to make sure that no other attacker strikes just as medical teams and more police officers arrive, among them counterterrorist, forensics, bomb-disposal, and intelligence squads. For the MDA the highest priority is to follow what Dr. Shmuel Shapira, the deputy director general of Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospitals, calls the "golden ten-minute rule": Get to victims during the critical minutes after an attack, when prompt medical attention—maintaining airways, controlling external hemorrhages—can mean the difference between life and death. Suicide bombings, Shapira notes, are among the most lethal of all terrorist attacks. Ninety percent of those killed in a suicide bombing die at the scene. Most of the survivors are only lightly wounded —and, indeed, more than half of them are discharged from the hospital within twenty-four hours of admittance.

Presented by

Bruce Hoffman is the director of the RAND Corporation's Washington, D.C., office.

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