Jerusalem on the brink?

Rioting struck the capital particularly hard this week in Shuafat, severely damaging the light rail line as residents violently protested the murder of a local teen.

A poster of Muhammad Abu Khdeir hangs from the family home in Shuafat where mourners gathered after his burned body was found on July 2. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A poster of Muhammad Abu Khdeir hangs from the family home in Shuafat where mourners gathered after his burned body was found on July 2.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The two soldiers at the Beit Hanina light rail station looked suspiciously at our press passes. They waved over a policeman holding a giant binder. “Are you Jewish? You are not permitted to enter,” he explained authoritatively, only to reverse his decision a few minutes later upon receiving guidance from superiors. It was Sunday, July 6, the fourth night of serious rioting in Shuafat, and police had cordoned off the neighborhood, checking cars and IDs of those entering either from French hill along the Shuafat Road or from the direction of Ramallah and Pisgat Ze’ev.
The disturbances began on July 2 when Palestinians in Shuafat awoke to rumors that 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir had been kidnapped and murdered by Jewish “settlers,” as most residents described the perpetrators.
The Abu Khdeirs are a large and well-known family whose house dominates a street across from the main mosque in Shuafat. It is also directly across from the Shuafat light rail station, which was firebombed on July 2.
Tensions had already been running high after rumors, now suspected to be true, that the same Jewish gang had attempted to kidnap another boy on July 1, in the wake of a raucous protest on Jaffa Road in which “Kahane was right” stickers and racist slogans featured prominently.
When I first went to Shuafat, on July 3, the police had already cordoned off the area near the Abu Khdeir home. MK Ahmed Tibi had arrived with an entourage and gave a short speech about how “incitement by government officials is to blame; this boy is a martyr of the occupation.” Several journalists had been harmed as well; one was hit in the head by a rubber bullet. An Arab journalist had been attacked and accused of being an undercover policeman. Palestinian friends warned me, “don’t go there, it is dangerous.”
On July 4 a procession of several hundred followed the body to a local cemetery. Many of the young men waved flags of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a worldwide Islamist movement that supports a caliphate, similar to the extremist Islamic State in Syria and Iraq movement (ISIS). Khaled Nawawi, who now lives in Ramallah but went to school in Shuafat, thought that the presence of the flags pointed to a clear political agenda on the part of “rowdy Shuafat guys who in the past were usually only violent against Palestinian Authority officials in Jerusalem.”
The political aspect was interesting because by Saturday the rioting had spread to other areas of Jerusalem such as Abu Tor, and clashes were reported in Wadi Ara and elsewhere in Israel. Large banners with the face of Abu Khdeir were put up in the neighborhood, and the black flag of Hizb ut-Tahrir flew from the family home alongside Palestinian flags. Yet, even though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with the family many in Jerusalem felt the PA had abandoned them.
When I went there Saturday afternoon the police roadblocks had increased at all entrances from Jewish areas to Shuafat or Beit Hanina and the police had pulled back so that the area was basically lawless. Men set upon the light rail station with saws and blowtorches, hoping to destroy it. Electrical boxes were burned, dumpsters put in the road. The rioting set into a pattern, so that after the Ramadan Iftar dinners at around nine in the evening all the young men would go into the streets and wait for trouble.
At one solitary house in Beit Hanina owned by a Jewish family riot police had to be deployed, even though the family evidently wasn’t there. Residents noted that “usually Jews from Pisgat Ze’ev come here to go shopping on Shabbat or after Shabbat, but now the whole neighborhood is quiet.” Many businesses closed up shop in solidarity.
I sat with a family for Iftar dinner. At home they thought it was a shame to see the destruction, saying, “We use the light rail to get to work, it was a symbol of a modern part of the city. The good part of the city.” They also expressed fear over the “settlers” who they thought now could come to the neighborhood with impunity and commit murder, and the police, whose heavy-handed tactics they blamed for the beating of Tarek Abu Khdeir, a cousin of the murder victim.
By Sunday more damage had been done. The A-Sahel light rail stop, which is closer to French Hill, was burned.
“Death to the Jews” was written in red Hebrew letters and “Palestine” in Arabic. In a reverse of the racist Jewish protesters from the week before on Jaffa Road who had pasted over Arabic portions of street signs, the Hebrew on signs was spray-painted over or burned. Looters emptied the light rail ticket machines of coins. Pamphlets and posters of various Palestinian parties, such as Fatah and the PFLP, were strewn about.
On Monday some Israeli politicians, such as Shelly Yacimovich, visited the mourners’ tent outside the Abu Khdeir home. A delegation of three Natorei Karta members, wearing Palestinian flag scarves, came as well. Some Palestinians were especially incredulous at this, expressing support for “Jews who reject Zionism and racism” on Facebook. Others were less conciliatory, making meme graphics showing a boy being burned to death by a menora with the hashtag “Don’t burn our boys.”
By Tuesday it seemed much had returned to normal in Beit Hanina. But the scars of the rioting and the murder of Abu Khdeir are still very much a part of neighboring Shuafat. The light rail is still not running beyond Ammunition Hill and the stations will not be repaired anytime soon. It remains to be seen if relations between Jews and Arabs in the capital can be repaired.