Terror's poster child

In the heart of Jerusalem's Jebl Mukaber there is little condemnation and much quiet support for the massacre at Mercaz Harav yeshiva.

Arab village 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Arab village 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Inside a sliding front gate, a long flight of stairs leads down to the spacious hillside balcony of the Abu Dhaim home in Jebl Mukaber. On Monday afternoon, four days after Ala Abu Dhaim waged mass slaughter at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva before being killed by an IDF soldier and police, the succa-like mourning tent that the prosperous Palestinian family has put up around the balcony is hung with a couple of dozen posters of the terrorist. With the golden Dome of the Rock as background, the photo shows him young, clean-cut, smiling. "The Islamic movement of Jebl Mukaber in Al-Kuds [Jerusalem] announces that the shahid [martyr] Ala Abu Dhaim has given his soul in a heroic act," the posters read. The dusty gray roads that wind through the hills and valleys of the village are largely empty of people and heavier than usual with police jeeps. The schools, public organizations and many of the stores in this Muslim village of about 25,000, which at certain points sits very literally a stone's throw from the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv (East Talpiot), are closed in mourning and solidarity with the murderer's family. There are some strange sights: A white horse is trotting down the middle of an empty residential street, a boy leads a few goats across another one. A line of women in black robes and head scarves waits to pass through the IDF checkpoint that divides Jebl Mukaber's Jerusalem side and its West Bank side. Along a ridge of hills at the edge of the village, the high security barrier fortifies a different part of the Jerusalem-West Bank border. Across another hillside stretches the great anomaly of Jebl Mukaber: the sleek, 400-unit, Jewish-owned Nof Zion apartment project, all pink stone and dark glass, all empty. On the Abu Dhaims' balcony, about 25 men, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are sitting on white plastic chairs. As the three of us - a photographer, a local "fixer" and translator for visiting journalists and I - walk past, the men stop talking. Their expressions show mainly suspicion, but also defiance, and under that, fear. As the photographer starts taking pictures, they all immediately turn their faces away. Sitting barefoot against cushions on a row of mattresses is Ibrahim Abu Dhaim, the mukhtar, or elder, of the Abu Dhaim extended family, which numbers many hundreds in the village. In a white headdress and green cloak, the heavy-set mukhtar, 70, puts down his cigarette and hands me a printed statement from the family. It says that "what happened was a sudden shock for the family," that Ala Abu Dhaim had exhibited no "abnormal behavior" prior to the fatal Thursday night, that he was engaged to be married in the summer and that he was a "good person." I ask the mukhtar how he reacted when he heard the news. "It was a shock," he says in Arabic, adding that he knew Ala Abu Dhaim as "a gentleman." One thing that made the act so unexpected, he says, was that the young man was "well-off economically." The extended family owns various businesses in Jebl Mukaber and elsewhere in Arab Jerusalem. I ask why he thinks Abu Dhaim, a 25-year-old minibus driver in a family transport company, did what he did. Pointing upward, the mukhtar says, "It's in God's hands." One doesn't have to be a cynic to know that this is a practiced ritual, that the mukhtar is telling an English-speaking journalist what he thinks will reassure people about the Abu Dhaim family and Jebl Mukaber, and that he's said the same things to any number of other journalists already. His message contradicts the sentiments on the memorial posters hanging over his head. It also contradicts the demonstrative shutdown of public life in the village since Ala Abu Dhaim walked into Mercaz Harav and, with a assault rifle and two handguns, fired more than 500 bullets at the cowering yeshiva boys, killing eight of them and wounding nine. One of the main questions for Israelis now concerns the 250,000 Palestinians of east Jerusalem, a great many of whom work in Jewish Jerusalem's hospitals, hotels, restaurants and construction projects, and nearly all of whom are legal residents of the capital, although not citizens of Israel. Unlike Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinians in east Jerusalem did not hold any public celebrations over the slaughter. East Jerusalem newspapers, which go through the IDF censor, published the denunciations issued by Palestinian Authority leaders. But in the segregated, generally poor Arab villages and neighborhoods of the capital, whose residents have resented Israel's high-handed authority for the last 41 years, what do they really think of the Mercaz Harav massacre? IT'S VERY HARD to find anyone in Jebl Mukaber who will talk about it frankly, on or off the record, to a journalist for The Jerusalem Post. I ask a man who works for the Jerusalem Municipality about reactions in the village. "They go in different directions," he says. "But people's livelihoods are at stake, so it's better not to talk." The fixer, however, found two residents who would. They are both middle-aged family men, born and raised in the village, college-educated professionals, conversant in English and Hebrew, very well-connected in the village, thoroughly tuned in to Arab media, and both are secular Palestinians who support a two-state solution. I'll call them Jamal and Taher. Sitting in my car, Jamal says that from talking with "dozens and even hundreds" of Jerusalem Arabs in different homes, at work, at cafes, in the street and from reading and hearing comments in the local and foreign Arab media, he finds overwhelming support for Abu Dhaim's atrocity. "Ala has become a hero," he says. "Not just in Jebl Mukaber, but throughout the Palestinian territories and the Arab world." An acquaintance told him of hearing an Arabic radio show in which Arab girls called in and said that if Abu Dhaim had survived, they'd marry him. "I didn't hear that myself, but I believe it," says Jamal. Typically, he says, Arabs see the yeshiva murders as payback for the recent IDF attacks in Gaza, which killed more than 120 Palestinians, including many civilians, in retaliation for rocket attacks on Israel. "People are preoccupied with the idea that Israel committed a massacre, a 'holocaust' - you heard him [Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i] say that? - so they feel this is a kind of reaction. Israel is using tanks and fighter planes and helicopters against people in Gaza, and we're weak, we don't have tanks and planes, so they feel this is our only way." If not for the bloodshed in Gaza, if Palestinians weren't dying in large numbers at the hands of Israel, he says, "you would find some people here in favor of what he did but also people against it, especially since he did it to civilians." But because of Gaza, because Palestinians feel they are being slaughtered by Israel, there are no dissenting voices now, says Jamal, adding that he can't even detect a silent opposition. "Even the people who are against violence will say that while they themselves wouldn't do such a thing, they won't condemn Abu Dhaim for doing it." Most Arabs seem to feel outright pride over Abu Dhaim, Jamal observes. This was the boldest Palestinian attack on Israel in a long time. "Of course they won't say this publicly or on camera, but when they're sitting together, watching the news, you see in their reactions that they're really proud of it. I'm talking about ordinary people, and I'm sure it's the same with Palestinian academics and journalists - if they aren't proud, they aren't opposed, either. "Revenge is very important to them. In Jerusalem I hear people saying, 'Olmert should know: We have someone who can take revenge. You kill our people in Gaza, we can kill your people in Jerusalem.' I hear it on the streets, in cafes, everywhere." I ask how people can justify, even glorify, someone firing 500 bullets at teenage boys hiding under desks, how people can identify with an act of such sustained, face-to-face savagery against helpless adolescents - no matter what their fury and anguish over the deaths in Gaza, no matter what their feelings toward Israel. Jamal replies that the media reports about the special character of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva helped tremendously. Arabs learned that the site of the atrocity is the "heart of Zionism," that it "trains people to steal Palestinian land, kill Palestinians and build settlements," that it is the home of so many "fundamentalist, extremist leaders," he says. "This gave them the excuse to support such an act against civilians. This made it legitimate." TAHER, HOWEVER, disagrees, at least with regard to the people of Jebl Mukaber. Sitting in his living room with three Palestinian guests, he says, "You can't put 25,000 people in the same basket with this murderer. Did you see any celebrations here? Did you see anybody here handing out candy? The expressions of happiness over this act came from other parts of the world." He allows, however, that the public silence of some villagers might be due to "their self-interest. Some people may be happy inside, but they'll keep quiet not because they're Zionists, not because they love Israel, but because they work in Israel and have Israeli friends." For example, says Jamal, the terrorist's father, Hisham Abu Dhaim, is a surveying engineer "who does a lot of work for the Jerusalem Municipality. I know him very well. He has about twice as many Israeli friends as Palestinian friends." The municipality, however, denies the connection. "Hisham Abu Dhaim of Jebl Mukaber does not do work for the Jerusalem Municipality. He is a private building contractor," the city maintains. With the possible exception of Beit Safafa, none of the Arab villages of Jerusalem has closer relations with Jewish Jerusalem than Jebl Mukaber, says Taher. "Ever since I was a child I would go to buy eshel [a once-popular Israeli dairy product] at Rafi's grocery store in Armon Hanatziv. I don't know if it's still there." he says. He educates his son at a liberal, secular school. He doesn't even let the boy watch the news so he "won't ask me too many questions that I have no answers for." During the peak of the fighting in Gaza a couple of weeks ago, when Palestinians on Jerusalem's Salah a-Din Street stoned the car of a municipal inspector, he says, "I was there, and I tried to prevent it. Everybody here knows it." As much as the mukhtar's words rang false, Taher's ring true. "Personally, I say that what happened at that school was murder, plain and simple, and there's nothing on Earth that can justify it." IN JEBL MUKABER, as in Israel at large, there's a great deal of uncertainty about the origin of the yeshiva killings, mainly over whether Abu Dhaim acted on his own accord or was recruited by a terrorist organization. There have been news reports that he was arrested a few months ago, but the family says this isn't true, that he was never in jail. The killer's father and several brothers and cousins were arrested the night of the murders, but most were released the following morning. The father reportedly was freed from jail after agreeing to take down the Hamas and Islamic Jihad flags from the mourning tent. At press time, the terrorist's corpse remained in Israeli custody, and authorities say it will not be released for burial until the family agrees to hold a low-key funeral without media coverage. Credit for the attack has been claimed by a Lebanese group calling itself the "Galilee Freedom Battalions," saying it was vengeance for last month's assassination of Hizbullah master terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. Anonymous callers have taken credit in Hamas's name, but Hamas officials say they had nothing to do with the killings, and Israeli intelligence hasn't pinned them on anyone beyond Abu Dhaim. If the mass murderer left a note or video behind, none has been made public. "People here say they believe he acted on his own, but then they'll say, 'But who trained him? And where did he get the guns?'" says Jamal. Guns, though, can be purchased easily in nearby Bethlehem. Since the intifada began in September 2000, there have been very few acts of terror by Jerusalem Arabs; the lone suicide bombing by a Jerusalemite killed nine people at a Hebrew University cafeteria in 2002. Four Jebl Mukaber men in their 20s were arrested in 2003 and later convicted of shooting at a police station and police patrols. (They hit no one.) In a few cases Jerusalem Arabs, whose Israeli ID cards give them freedom of movement, have been recruited by West Bank terrorists as accomplices. Two young Jebl Mukaber men were convicted of driving the Bethlehem suicide bomber who blew up a bus at the city's Patt junction in 2002, killing 19 people. These six Jebl Mukaber gunmen and accomplices were members of Fatah terror cells. "During the second intifada, some of the leaders of the [Fatah] Tanzim in Jerusalem came from the village," says Hillel Cohen, author of The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, 1967-2007. Without mentioning their names, he says a senior Tanzim figure from Jebl Mukaber opposed attacks on civilians, while a less senior member "worked under [jailed Tanzim chief] Marwan Barghouti, who ordered attacks on civilians." In the past, left-wing Palestinian national movements were especially popular in the village, says Cohen, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. But today, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and another Islamic party hold the greatest sway, followed by Fatah, says Jamal. The name Jebl Mukaber means "the hill of the one who says Allahu akbar - God is great," says Cohen. The name comes from the traditional belief that Omar ibn el-Khattab, who conquered Jerusalem for Islam in the seventh century, uttered the words when he first saw Jerusalem from a hill where the village now stands. In times of calm, says Cohen, most Jerusalem Arabs "tend to have reservations" about the use of terror, but these reservations recede and support for terror increases "emotionally if not operationally" when Palestinians are getting killed in large numbers, such as they were in Gaza on the eve of the bloodbath at Mercaz Harav. "In Jebl Mukaber, just like in any part of Arab Jerusalem, anyone who wants to walk around there can do so safely," he says. "But on the other hand, there are also people living there who think they have to make war on the Jews."