JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Drive cautiously and if pulled over do not argue with the police. Dress lightly, even in cold weather. Never whip your cellphone out of your pocket. And think twice before blurting out in Arabic the phrase “God is Greater”.
For Palestinians trying to avoid being suspected of involvement in a months-long wave of deadly attacks against Israelis, small changes in behavior might mean the difference between life and death.
Since October last year, 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens have been stabbed, shot or run over and killed in a campaign of violence across the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel. Most of the attackers are not members of Palestinian militant groups but ordinary men and women, most aged under 25.
As a result, Israeli security forces - whether the army, the police or the paramilitary border police, all of whom have been targeted - are on high alert for an attack from just about anyone, especially in tense areas around Jerusalem’s Old City.
Since the violence began, 184 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces or armed citizens, including 124 that Israel has identified as attackers or potential attackers.
While Israelis are on edge, many Palestinians are too. They do not want to be mistaken for an attacker.
“Police are everywhere. They write up tickets here and there and no one can argue,” said a Palestinian who gave his name only as Sami. “Whoever argues could end up getting shot.”
Israeli forces say they only act when they have reason to. But either way, Palestinians are changing their habits.
“If my phone rings when I‘m walking past Israeli soldiers, I don’t pick it up,” said Sami. “I‘m afraid they could say I was trying to pull a knife out of my pocket.”
Some say they now carry their cellphones in their shirt pockets, in full view. Others do without bulky clothes to avoid drawing the gaze of Israeli police searching the crowds for hidden weapons. People steer clear of the border police.
“There is a great deal of caution, because at the end of the day your life matters more than anything,” said 36-year-old Mohammed, a vendor at Damascus Gate in the Old City, the scene of frequent knife and gun attacks on Israelis.
“Even if it is very cold, you do not wear a lot of clothes because once they stop you they will make you strip off in front of people and before cameras,” he said.
Many Palestinians also stand apart from Israelis on cross-walks.
Palestinian leaders accuse Israeli forces of excessive force - a charge denied by Israel - but violence by Jews against Arabs has on occasions followed attacks. An Eritrean bystander was shot and beaten to death by a crowd of Israelis after a deadly attack at a bus station.
“We are afraid of being targeted by Jews in hate crimes, just because we are Arabs,” said Hamdi, a businessman from Gaza who occasionally travels to Jerusalem.
Some Palestinian assailants have been thwarted by Israeli civilians wielding whatever comes to hand - including umbrellas, selfie-sticks and a guitar - a testament to the unpredictability of the violence. In some cases, border police have been stabbed by teenagers who looked like they were pulling out IDs.
Potential misidentification or motive lurks even in words.
Israa Jaabees, a 31-year-old Palestinian, is accused by Israel of igniting a gas canister bomb in her car after police stopped her in the West Bank in October.
The indictment against her is partly based on a policeman’s account of Jaabees shouting “Allahu Akbar”, or “God is greater”, before the explosion that injured both him and her.
The phrase is central to daily Muslim prayer and is used by many Arabs as an innocent colloquial exclamation. It can also be a rallying cry for religiously fueled violence.
Jaabees acknowledges lighting the gas, but says it was a spontaneous suicide attempt after the policeman pulled her over for driving in the wrong lane. “Allahu Akbar” was just a way of cursing the policeman, she said through her lawyer.
Writing by Dan Williams