A middle-aged woman in a green and tan floor-length dress and headcovering held a green hose aloft as she sprayed water over young men just returning from throwing stones. In the baking sun, with temperatures over 30 degrees centigrade, the men had been going back and forth from throwing stones at a police roadblock on Shuafat Road, the main road leading from central Jerusalem to Ramallah that bisects the Beit Hanina and Shuafat neighborhoods.
The woman offered the men water to quench their thirst, but many refused; it is Ramadan and observant men didn’t want to break the fast.
The rumors of the murder of 17-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir passed among many residents of Beit Hanina and Shuafat this morning according to people in the neighborhoods.
Areen Ashhab lives a few minutes drive from Abu Khdeir’s family house.
“I heard he went in the morning to pray for Ramadan. He was going to pray and eat before the sun came up and people said that they saw a Hyundai taking him. And they killed him and burned him and put him near Ramat Eshkol [a Jewish neighborhood].”
People looked online for more information.
“When I opened Facebook, I found all these messages about it and people sent me messages. And I read about it and saw the news,” she added.
Residents believed as fact a specific narrative about his murder.
“We know Jewish settlers killed him, it is obvious; there are cameras that recorded it,” explained another woman.
In the morning rioters torched the train stop that is just across the road from the family’s house. A large mosque dominates the area and many worshipers congregated there. The Abu Khdeir family is very large and, according to residents, owns many houses in the area.
The stone-throwing was concentrated outside the house where the mourners gathered. Police set up road blocks along the light rail line and sealed off the area to nonresidents.
In mid-afternoon, MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) came to pay respects and give several short speeches to media that had gathered. In a black suit and with a small entourage, he stood in the median near the firebombed train station and spoke briefly in Arabic before descending to the family’s house.
As he walked men and boys shouted a rousing chorus of “Allahu akhbar.” Some of them evidently thought he might lead a large group toward the police gathered in the distance. Instead he went into the family home and listened to relatives grieve.
One relative said, “From early this morning we were looking for the boy; we did not want him to return dead.”
In comments to reporters Tibi declared that “Muhammad was kidnapped and killed, he was shahid [“martyr”]; it is a crime of the occupation.”
He accused incitement from Bayit Yehudi head MK Naftali Bennett and settlers for the crime.
Many of the Arabs in the neighborhood who work outside Shuafat in east Jerusalem or the West Bank were aware that rumors in Israeli media said that Abu Khdeir was killed for being homosexual or as part of a family feud. One 25-year-old woman named Sawsan, wearing a black shirt with “Free Palestine” on it who works in Jericho, gave it a “20-percent chance” that it was due to a feud.
Areen rejected the idea outright, saying, “I don’t believe it. I never heard stories like that or that someone would be killed on Ramadan for being gay. They don’t kill for this.”
Some people had also heard that it might have been due to a family feud.
One resident agreed, “If there are problems [between families] it could happen. Before a few months, I heard a story in E-Ram [near Ramallah], a 20-year-old was murdered; so it could happen to a teenager also.”
Sawsan disagreed, “It happens a lot that some Arabs have a fight and they kill each other. Why this time it is about settlers? They think it is about the settlers, because the night before a boy was about to be kidnapped and his mother was driving. They tried to pull him out of the car; that story made the base for this story [about Abu Khdeir being kidnapped by Jews]. This was at the last [light rail] train stop [before Pisgat Ze’ev].”
The story that many residents are familiar with is that on Tuesday, in the wake of a violent anti-Arab march by several hundred Jews in central Jerusalem, “settlers” tried to kidnap a young Arab boy driving with his mother near the light rail stop in Beit Hanina.
Areen recalls what she heard and saw online, where there were pictures of the boy with cuts on his neck: “They tried to take him in front of his mother... the mother came and took the kid back and told him to run... and the settlers left... and that was just a day ago and that was in Shuafat. And before one month there were some price tag attacks in Beit Hanina.”
The context of the riot that broke out on Wednesday, and the feeling that it was obvious the boy had been murdered by Jews, was that residents saw a pattern. Price-tag attacks followed by a near riot on Tuesday, an attempted kidnapping in “revenge” for the deaths of three Israeli teens and then a successful kidnapping and murder.
“We are weak and powerless” said Sawsan. “The Arabs here don’t have anything to defend themselves.”
But she wished that the situation would not get worse. “For me, I almost wish it were true that he is gay; because if not then it will be a huge fight. We can’t defend ourselves; the settlers are stronger than us. When I went to work, I saw these settlers who have two huge police cars protecting them,” she said.
By mid-afternoon about 20 youths were still throwing stones on Shuafat Road.
Young men wearing ski masks and keffiyehs wrapped around their heads took turns taking buckets of rocks from a nearby construction site. They would go up to a makeshift barricade, throw a few rocks and then run back, as the border police fired stun grenades or other ordinance at them.
The standoff was interesting for the fact that just up the street in the other direction, men sat relaxing on the steps of their closed stores. Many had closed them in solidarity with the mourning family. One of the only places open was a Clalit Health Services clinic, where business went on as usual. A doctor watched the riots on a large flatscreen TV hanging from the ceiling, with riots taking place a minute away.
Tibi spoke to the press again and then his entourage left the area. Arabs returning from Ramallah reported that there were no troubles in Kalandiya, but the police were keeping people who were not residents away. At the Old City of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate men were unpacking sweets, kubbeh and bread in preparation for breaking the fast at sunset. No one was talking about the riots.
Areen, who was going home to sit with her family for Ramadan, hoped that the police would investigate.
“In this situation because of the settlers, people believe that it is revenge. All the media is now saying it is revenge, so now everyone is angry.”
Others felt that camera footage from the nearby train or mosque would provide answers. And they agreed: “We don’t trust the police.”