The view from a-Tur

Political violence overtakes this pastoral neighborhood on the Mount of Olives once again.

Riots in a-Tur after Ali Abu Ghanem, who tried to stab Border Police, was killed April 25. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Riots in a-Tur after Ali Abu Ghanem, who tried to stab Border Police, was killed April 25.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The neighborhood of a-Tur, which sits on a hill next to the Mount of Olives, is a model of reconciliation, peace and prosperity. It has a relatively positive image, and its residents are politically moderate, for the most part identifying with leftist factions of the PLO and Fatah. A-Tur is much more connected with the modern city than the other villages nearby.
The view from the village is breathtaking – whichever direction you look from, you see the beautiful hills.
There are two old hospitals here: Augusta Victoria and Mokassed. Thousands of tourists from around the world pass through its streets on their way to visit the myriad of tourist attractions in the area, such as the Church of All Nations, the Russian Church and the Mount of Olives.
And although the violence, terrorist attacks and rioting that swept through east Jerusalem this past summer have dissipated for the most part, a-Tur is like a powder keg that is about to ignite.
Let’s start with the most recent incident and work our way back in time. Two Sundays ago, there was rioting in the neighborhood, and youth threw stones at Israeli security forces. The night before, after an entire day of disturbances, a Palestinian ran over and lightly wounded four police officers on the neighborhood’s main road. Apparently, this was a reprisal for the incident that sparked the current round of violence – the death of Ali Abu Ghanem, 16, who died of bullet wounds after being shot by Border Police at the A-Zaim roadblock on April 24. The police claim that Abu Ghanem had tried to stab the police officers with a knife.
That morning, another unusual occurrence took place: A car that was driving on of the streets in a-Tur aroused the suspicion of police who were patrolling the area. The policemen gave chase and, in the end, found a Jewish man from Tel Aviv bound and gagged in the trunk. The two kidnappers, residents of a-Tur, were arrested on the spot. It turns out that it was a criminal incident, but it still raised the level of suspicious activity in the neighborhood.
The turn of events began last summer, when three Jewish teenagers were kidnapped and murdered. In response, Muhammad Abu Khdeir from Shuafat was murdered.
“A-Tur residents became much more active during Operation Brother’s Keeper, Operation Protective Edge and after the Abu Khdeir murder,” says a senior official in the Jerusalem Police.
Since then, calm has not returned to a-Tur. In February, the Shin Bet uncovered a terrorist network with dozens of members. An investigation was opened following an increase in the number of hostile terrorist incidents in a-Tur. A little while later, a local lawyer was arrested on suspicion of transferring funds to Hamas.
In March, a young man from a-Tur was arrested for joining ISIS. And two Sundays ago, a-Tur, which has a population of 30,000, declared a general strike following the death of Abu Ghanem, a member of the second-largest family in the neighborhood. Stores stayed closed, and although teachers went to school, the children didn’t. Even the neighborhood community council – one of the few of its kind in east Jerusalem – canceled most of its activities.
“The police and the IDF say that Abu Ghanem was a terrorist, but that’s not how people in our community perceive the situation. They are demanding to see footage from security cameras. They say the boy was on his way to a wedding, so this has brought out a lot of angry feelings,” says the a-Tur community council director, Busina Aid Othmana.
“The various factions in the neighborhood got together and called for a general strike that encompasses everyone and all institutions. Even the community council, which is a municipal body, was forced to comply and suspend activity for two days because the feeling on the street is so intense,” says Othmana.
Othmana, who has been living in the neighborhood for four years, teaches in the local high school, and Abu Ghanem was a student in her class.
“Everyone in the neighborhood identifies with Abu Ghanem,” Othmana says. “All the students are angry and all the mukhtars, too. I hope there won’t be any more incidents, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are. The atmosphere here in the neighborhood is not very positive. There have been quite a few clashes between the police and people in the street.”
The community council is representative of the political tension that exists in the neighborhood, since it identifies with the PLO and with the Israeli security authorities. Local leaders hold regular meetings with the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Police. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has visited a-Tur more than once.
Recently, leaflets denouncing the a-Tur community council have been floating around the neighborhood.
“Some residents support working together with the Jerusalem Municipality, but others boycott the a-Tur community council because it cooperates with the Israelis,” says Dr. Hillel Cohen, author of the book The Market Square Is Empty: The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem. “This is a microcosm of what’s happening all over east Jerusalem. There are people on both sides. For many years, the majority of the population has supported Fatah and strongly encouraged working together with Israeli security forces.”
A-Tur was founded as a village, but as Jerusalem expanded, it became a neighborhood within the city.
“A-Tur resembles the neighborhoods adjacent to the Old City, such as Sheikh Jarrah, more than it does other villages outside the city,” says Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli, a leading leftist political activist who leads political tours in east Jerusalem. “Many of the residents there are urban types, even though they own and work the land.”
These lands sit at the center of a heated debate that has greatly contributed to the tension between a-Tur residents and the Israeli authorities. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Jerusalem Municipality are planning to construct a national park on open land adjacent to the neighborhood. A-Tur residents, however, are interested in using that land to expand their neighborhood. They estimate that they will need to build another 3,000 housing units within the next decade.
Every time the residents submitted their plan for extending the neighborhood, the municipality rejected it and, in the end, announced their plan to build a national park on the land for political reasons.
A-Tur residents feel that the Israelis robbed them of their land, Arieli says.
“According to their maps, all the land between a-Tur and Ma’aleh Adumim belongs to the village. They say this is the only direction in which they can expand,” he explains.
According to the Ir Amim NGO, most of the village’s land was expropriated by Israel after the Six Day War. Of its original 2,200 acres, the village currently sits on only 750 acres. Similar figures reflect the reality in most east Jerusalem neighborhoods. For example, there is only one children’s health center for the entire neighborhood, and the local school has room for only 60 percent of the children living there.
Thousands need to travel daily to schools outside the neighborhood. Another event that greatly influenced the mood of moderates in a-Tur took place this past summer. During a night of disturbances, the Israel Police used “skunk” trucks – which spray putrid-smelling water to disperse violent protests – to spray the local schools.
Many residents with whom I spoke indicated that the spraying of the schools with the foul-smelling liquid was their breaking point.
“Lately, there’s been a general feeling of conflict in the neighborhood,” says Cohen. He also points out that a-Tur residents have carried out violent demonstrations in the past. “If you walk along the road near the Augusta Victoria Hospital, you can see marks from tires that protesters burned in the 1990s. This is part of the history of the neighborhood. They are no strangers to violence.”
Over the last few years, Jews have been quietly moving into the neighborhood and even built a yeshiva called Beit Orot in a-Tur, which happens to be right where the Israeli police officers were run over a couple of weeks ago.
City council member Arieh King, who helps Jewish families move into Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, argues, however, that “after Silwan, a-Tur has the highest rate of violent incidents. The main road running through the village is the most dangerous route for Jews to take in all of east Jerusalem.”
King postulates that this violent awakening began more than three years ago.
“This used to be a quiet, pastoral neighborhood,” King says. “Many Christians lived here. But after they built the West Bank security fence, many Arabs began moving here from Abu Dis and A-Zaim, and with them came the extremism.”
A-Tur is close to the center of east Jerusalem and overlooks Al-Aksa Mosque, which is an extremely significant factor for the Muslim community. You wake up in the morning, and the first thing you see is Al-Aksa Mosque,” Cohen says. “Now that settlers have moved into the neighborhood and Israeli security forces patrol here, it’s only natural that more rocks will be thrown and more arrests will be made.”
Incidentally, because this is a road that is heavy with Israeli traffic, a-Tur has turned into a magnet for drug trafficking. “A-Tur is one of the neighborhoods with the heaviest drug trafficking in the city which, of course, brings with it criminal violence,” says Cohen.
Othmana says, “The PLO is still strong in a-Tur and is still influential – not Hamas and not ISIS. But there is anger among the people, who are acting spontaneously. It’s not something organized.”
“There are still many families who are loyal to the Jordanians, and I don’t see any change in their views,” says Arieli, who visits the neighborhood at least twice a week. “I don’t see an escalation in violence, although the situation I described is certainly enough reason to incite lone terrorists to action.”
Othmana brings up another point: “From a socioeconomic point of view, a-Tur is considered a weak community. I’m not sure I’d say that the neighborhood is deteriorating, but maybe it was stronger in the 1990s. The violence in the street is a byproduct of anger, it’s not that the situation has deteriorated.”
The village’s identity as a rural community has also influenced social conditions. One a-Tur resident explains that “There are all kinds of socioeconomic complexities among families that are much more serious than other parts of east Jerusalem, such as marriage within families.”
“A-Tur was always a hotbed of activity,” says a senior policeman responsible for a-Tur. “You need to pass through the neighborhood to reach the Mount of Olives, so there’s always been an issue of stone throwing here. There are also a few Jewish families who live here, and tourist traffic on the road is also extremely heavy. As a result, we’re heavily invested in keeping the peace here.”
“After the summer, we began to dialogue with residents, and since then we’ve seen a decrease in the number of incidents,” says Jerusalem District Police Chief Superintendent Assi Aharoni. “Now the attacker came from that neighborhood, which has reignited anger. I assume that things will soon go back to normal.”
In response to complaints from residents, the Israel Police responded, saying, “The suspect arrived on the scene with a butcher knife and another knife and attempted to stab Israeli soldiers. He was shot by soldiers only after warning shots were shot in the air and the soldiers yelled out to him in both Hebrew and Arabic.”
“This area is one of the top tourist attractions in the country, but the Israeli government doesn’t want us Arabs to benefit economically from tourism,” says Mofil Abu Ghanem, a relative of the boy who was shot.
“The high number of Israeli security forces patrolling the neighborhood is choking the livelihood of local residents. People just want to live their lives – to go to school and to work – but the police and the municipality give tickets and parking fines on purpose.”
He continues, “Today, only about four people support Hamas in A-Tur. But if the situation stays like this and our youth see that no peace has come out of negotiations, I’m afraid they might side with Hamas. That’s our fear.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.