Siege Mentality

While Israel pounds Gaza with bombs, the real battleground of East Jerusalem is ready to boil over.

JERUSALEM — As the sun sets on Shuafat and residents prepare to break the Ramadan fast, the Palestinian neighborhood goes dark and quiet. A once-busy main road is almost empty, littered with rocks and glass; streetlights and traffic signals are broken; and local men anxiously watch a contingent of black-clad border policemen.

The only real signs of life in Shuafat are inside the mourning tent at the Abu Khdeir family home. Their son Mohammed, 16, was abducted early on the morning of July 2 just steps from the house, while he waited for his father to finish praying at the local mosque. His charred body was discovered in a forest hours later; an autopsy found that he was burned alive. A poster of his youthful face hangs from the home, proclaiming him the "martyr of the dawn."

Police have arrested six people and suggested it was a racially motivated murder in response to the killing of three Jewish Israelis, who were kidnapped on June 12 while hitchhiking home from their religious seminary in the occupied West Bank. Their bodies were found in a valley near Hebron last month. Israel has blamed Hamas for the killings.

The bloodshed has helped spark another round of fighting that already threatens to descend into war. Over 200 rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have targeted Israel, according to the Israeli military -- including attempted attacks on the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Israeli military has launched what it has termed "Operation Protective Edge" in an attempt to end the rocket fire, targeting at least 100 sites throughout Gaza with airstrikes and authorizing the army to mobilize 40,000 reservists. The Israeli government has also begun preparations for a possible ground invasion, though the idea still has limited support. At least 25 people have been killed so far in the Israeli bombardment, including several children, according to Palestinian officials.

The wave of incitement and violence in Israel, meanwhile, has created a siege mentality among the 250,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem. Abu Khdeir's murder was by far the most brutal example, but there have been dozens of attacks during the past week -- including an assault on workers in West Jerusalem hours after the bodies of the three Israelis were found, as hundreds of right-wing Jews held a demonstration in the city in which they chanted "death to the Arabs." The streets of Shuafat, Beit Hanina, and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods were eerily quiet on Monday night, with few residents coming out to shop and socialize after iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. 

"People were shocked" by Khdeir's murder, said Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "It shook people very deeply, the idea of a boy, only 16 years old, burned alive."

Groups of local Arab men -- mostly unarmed, but a few carrying knives and sticks -- have formed impromptu neighborhood-watch groups in these neighborhoods. They were on the lookout for "settlers," they said, a word that has come to be shorthand for the ultranationalist Jews accused of Abu Khdeir's murder. 

"Everybody is tense, everybody is on edge. This is not Ramadan," said Mustafa, a resident of Shuafat who was among those gathered on the streets and, like many, asked not to be identified by his last name. "Nobody trusts the Israelis. Nothing has happened in this neighborhood, yet, but nobody trusts that will continue."

There have already been other attempted kidnappings. Police said that the men accused of killing Abu Khdeir tried to abduct another child, just 9 years old, in the same neighborhood one day earlier. And there are daily reports of Palestinians being verbally and physically assaulted on the street, at work, on public transportation -- anywhere they cross paths with Jewish Israelis. 

The violence has exacerbated the differences between East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab Palestinian, and the western parts of the city, which are largely Jewish. "There is no security here," Abu Khdeir's mother, Suha, said in an interview. "We don't have safety in this neighborhood like they do in the Jewish areas."

Many residents of East Jerusalem cross the city each day to work in the west, but since Abu Khdeir's murder their lives have turned inward. Abed Basit, a nurse from Beit Hanina, said most of the women in his family have stopped going to work. He is reluctant to let his children leave the house, fearful that they might be snatched off the streets. "Yesterday it was Mohammed," he said. "Tomorrow it could be my son." 

Police have deployed heavily throughout East Jerusalem after Abu Khdeir's abduction. At first they blocked all traffic, allowing only residents to enter; the restrictions have since been eased, but checkpoints still dot the streets, stopping cars with passengers that do not seem to belong. Policemen ask drivers whether they are "Jewish or Arab."

Heavily armed officers also deployed inside Shuafat, the site of the worst violence. But after a week in which more than 100 people were injured and dozens arrested, residents viewed them as a provocation. Local youth shot firecrackers over their heads, a Ramadan tradition now clearly aimed at harassing the police. "Look at them, in the streets like this. Is this not harassment? Is this not intimidation?" asked one man.

Outsiders have become suspect: On the main commercial strip in Beit Hanina, a group of teenagers flagged down passing cars, addressing their drivers in Arabic. During protests in Shuafat over the past week, demonstrators whispered among themselves about musta'arabin, the Israeli officers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. A news crew from Channel 9, a Russian-language Israeli channel, was told to leave -- residents said it helped to spread a baseless rumor that Abu Khdeir was killed in a family dispute, for being homosexual. 

"In a way, we see the occupation much more directly than the Palestinians in the West Bank," said Samir, another resident of Shuafat. "They at least have the Palestinian police. When we go down in the street, we have to deal with the magav," he said, referring to the border police, an Israeli paramilitary force with a reputation among Palestinians for acting aggressively.

The unrest has often been portrayed in Israeli media as senseless rioting. For Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, however, it was decades in the making. "It's as if a pot of water has been warming over a candle for many years, and Mohammed's death finally brought it to boil," Samir said. 

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, though most residents elected not to become Israeli citizens. Instead they are treated as "permanent residents," allowed to move and work freely but not to vote in national elections, and are subject to losing their legal status if they move out of the city. Their neighborhoods receive less funding than their counterparts across town, and building permits are expensive and difficult to obtain. As a result, a housing crisis has pushed population density to nearly twice the level of the Jewish western side of the city. Schools are overcrowded, and residents have far less access to health care, government services, and even post offices.

"For 20 years we've heard about the peace process, and we got nothing," said Basit, the nurse. "We're treated like fifth-class citizens in this country, and the Palestinians think we're spoiled, because we have Israeli IDs.... Everyone is against us. So maybe the only way to take action is to come down in the streets."



The Teenagers’ Revolt

Angry Israeli and Palestinian youths are steering the course of events in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

SHUAFAT, East Jerusalem — The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine dropped hundreds of incendiary leaflets on Shuafat Road on Friday, July 4, calling for renewed conflict with Israel. The hard-line Palestinian organization's fliers were scattered amid the rocks, rubble, and spent tear-gas canisters from the clashes that have occurred daily with Israeli border guards since the gruesome murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2.

The Palestinian teenager was reportedly burned alive, and Israeli police were scrambling to determine the culprits responsible for the crime. Jerusalem municipality officials with close contacts to the police told me on Friday that authorities thought that the killing might have been the result of an internecine feud or other foul play within the Shuafat community. But on Sunday, the news broke that six Jewish extremists had been arrested for the crime.

The accused are, of course, innocent until proven guilty in Israel's judicial system. But the murder appears to be a crime of vengeance in response to the abduction and murder of three Jewish teens in the West Bank in June -- an act Israel says was carried out by the terrorist group Hamas.

The news of the triple murder enraged Israelis of all stripes, but it was the settler community in the West Bank that was particularly infuriated. The killings, in fact, had triggered acts of vandalism (even before Abu Khdeir's murder) from a shadowy network of clandestine cells known as Price Tag, whose actions are guided by the notion that a price must be exacted from the Palestinians for any attack against settlers' interests.

Price Tag is more a network than a group, because its cadres -- religious, teenage Jews living in the settlements and in Israel alike -- operate informally, leave no electronic trail of their activities, and seem to know how to elude detection from authorities. They are so elusive, in fact, that Israel's vaunted internal security services has made only a handful of arrests since the acts of vandalism, usually marked by graffiti bearing the words "price tag" in Hebrew, began in 2008.

Some, including Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have called Price Tag a terrorist movement. This is debatable, because its activities have been limited to acts of vandalism and destruction of property. But Israeli officials I spoke to this week began to speculate that if the network was responsible for the murder of Abu Khdeir, it would have graduated into the realm of terrorism.

Price Tag, at least so far, has not been linked to the murder. But amid the unrest that is now spreading across East Jerusalem, the Arab areas in Israel's northern "triangle," and parts of the West Bank, it is clear that the network poses dangers to Israeli security. Future acts of vandalism against Palestinians could escalate tensions beyond their current, already dangerous levels. At the very least, they could create additional challenges for Israeli diplomacy and public relations, which is unquestionably at a low point.

In a sense, the security situation may now be in the hands of the youth on both extremes: the No'ar HaGva'ot (Hilltop Youth) of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, on the one hand, and the shabaab of Arab-Israeli and Palestinian towns now throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers who have been deployed to contain this crisis. The rise of these angry Palestinian youths was almost inevitable. They were young children when the Second Intifada erupted, and now having come of age, they are ready to fulfill what is perceived as their "duty to resist," as one protest onlooker told me in Shuafat.

It also doesn't help that this unrest comes in the wake of another failed, if not misguided, American attempt to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. The failure to achieve a final status agreement in 2000, during another bout of U.S.-brokered negotiations, was one of the contributing factors to the eruption of the Second Intifada. It's quite possible that the recent heightened expectations followed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's failed attempt at peacemaking have once again opened old wounds.

What's particularly striking about this most recent round of clashes, however, is that the epicenter has been in East Jerusalem. The Israelis have made significant efforts in recent years to ensure further coexistence with this disenfranchised segment of Israeli society. Jerusalem's new light-rail line, for example, serviced Shuafat. Protesters from this neighborhood, however, destroyed the stations during the clashes last week, making the commute to other parts of Jerusalem more difficult for Israeli Arabs. At one of the stations, just outside the mosque where Abu Khdeir's body was prepared for burial, the burned-out station bears graffiti in Hebrew reading, "Death to Israel."

Other Israeli Arab towns across the "triangle" have taken their cue from Shuafat and other Jerusalem neighborhoods that have erupted violently in recent days. So have towns across the West Bank. And, of course, Hamas is once again firing rockets from the Gaza Strip. More than 80 rockets hit southern Israel on Monday, and Israel responded with airstrikes against Hamas positions in Gaza. Senior Israeli officials said Monday that the Gaza-based terrorist group is clearly trying to goad Israel into a full-blown conflict.

Among the figures preventing the region from heading into the abyss may be Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Having recently signed a reconciliation agreement and then presiding over a unity government that included Hamas, it appeared that Abbas was flirting with disaster. But since the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens in June, the aging Palestinian leader has maintained security cooperation with the Israelis, kept largely silent in response to Israeli arrests of Palestinians, and refused to embrace calls for a new uprising. As a result, figures from within his own power structures are challenging him rather openly.

Abbas (through a rather incendiary press release) has, however, placed the blame for Abu Khdeir's murder squarely on the shoulders of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Israeli premier should also get credit for so far helping to prevent total crisis: Following the discovery of the bodies of the Israeli teens in the West Bank, the right-wing ministers in his coalition -- Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- were calling for a robust reprisal on Hamas in Gaza.

Netanyahu has wisely stopped short of this -- even amid an escalation of Hamas rockets out of Gaza -- conducting what Jordanian officials described as "surgical strikes against Hamas assets." The Israeli military has also arrested a number of Hamas operatives, seized weapons caches, and shut down a handful of Hamas charities.

Hamas, meanwhile, is threatening a third intifada. A multitude of other Palestinian factions are doing the same. Some pundits are openly musing whether a new uprising has already started. It certainly doesn't help that the hashtag in Arabic al-intifada al-thalitha -- "the third intifada" -- is growing on Twitter, thanks to the concerted efforts of Palestinian activists both in the territories and beyond.

Israelis were hoping that the arrests of Abu Khdeir's murderers, as painful as they were to acknowledge, might help restore calm. But, judging from the spreading unrest across this embattled corner of the Middle East, it clearly doesn't matter. The teenager from Shuafat has become a battle cry for the Palestinian cause. It's just too soon to know whether this battle will become a war.

Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images