In Jerusalem neighborhood, an unlikely center of Palestinian grievance

Like many residents of the prosperous East Jerusalem neighborhood of ­Shuafat, Waleed Abu Khieder lives a life in two cultures: His neighbors are predominantly Arab, but his boss and customers at a popular West Jerusalem bakery are Jewish.

It’s a dualism that has worked for years. But in recent days, the delicate balance has fallen apart.

Since three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered last month, the 51-year-old Palestinian said he has been attacked several times by Israeli extremists wielding pepper spray and eggs.

Then on Wednesday, his nephew disappeared before dawn. The charred body of 16-year-old Mohammad Abu Khieder was later found in Jerusalem Forest, and Shuafat was instantly transformed from a quiet middle-class community to the newest focal point for decades of Palestinian grievance.

In many ways, Shuafat is an unlikely venue for protests that many fear could herald a new intifada, or mass uprising, against the Israeli occupation. Unlike the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where Israelis and Palestinians rarely, if ever, interact, the Palestinian residents of Shuafat have regular contact with Jews living on both sides of the invisible line dividing this city between east and west. Many Palestinian residents go to work across town, in the city’s largely Jewish west, and Hebrew is still widely understood in Shuafat.


On Saturday, protests spread to several predominantly Arab towns in northern Israel — other places where cross-cultural interaction has continued through decades of conflict. The demonstrations included one in Nazareth, the largest majority-Arab city in Israel.

The outpouring of anger in Arab areas that remain deeply intertwined in the fabric of Israel could be a worrying development for Israeli officials because those places are far more difficult to isolate than Gaza and the West Bank, both of which are effectively walled off. Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s overall population, and they represent about a third of the residents of Jerusalem.

Khieder’s relatives, who mourned his death as neighbors attempted to clean up Saturday from days of protests, said that until recent weeks, life had been quiet in Shuafat, their relations with Jewish Israelis unremarkable.

“We live a very normal life here. Jews come shopping here, and we go to the mall in their neighborhood. There is nothing between us and them,” said Suha Abu Khieder, who was still reckoning Saturday with the idea that her son, Mohammad, has become the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s latest martyr.

But Khieder, who sat in the shady courtyard of her family home Saturday behind an enormous mourners’ tent, said life changed June 12 when three Israeli teenagers — 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, 16-year-old Gilad Shaar and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach — were kidnapped. Their bodies were found Monday in a shallow grave near the West Bank city of Hebron, and Israeli officials say the militant Palestinian group Hamas is responsible for the murders.

Palestinians in Shuafat are convinced that Mohammad Abu Khieder was killed in a revenge attack perpetrated by extremist Jews. And they say it’s not the only attack they have faced.

“Since the kidnapping of the three Israeli children, Arabs have faced harassment and beatings,” said Waleed Abu Khieder, Mohammad’s uncle. “Before that, there were random incidents, but over the past few weeks, Arabs, at least where I work, have faced many assaults. . . . The police know about it, but they don’t do much.”

The family of 15-year-old American citizen, Tareq Abu Khudair, said he was beaten by Israeli border police and is now being held in Israeli detention. (Reuters)

After days of clashes between young Palestinians and Israeli security forces, Shuafat has taken on the look of a war zone, with rocks and empty pipe bombs littering the street. Sections of the light-rail track — which normally ferries workers from their homes in Shuafat to their jobs in West Jerusalem — were smoldering Saturday after being set on fire Friday night.

Israeli police reported that 20 people had been arrested during clashes Friday in Shuafat. Palestinians asserted that several of those detained were badly beaten by police. One local hospital reported treating more than 100 people, mostly for minor injuries. Thirteen Israeli policemen were lightly wounded.

Fresh clashes erupted late Saturday after residents were set on edge by reports that 16-year-old Khieder had been burned alive.

Palestinian news services quoted Palestinian Attorney General Abdelghani al-Owaiwi as saying that a preliminary autopsy had discovered soot in the teen’s lungs, indicating he was alive when he was burned. The autopsy also revealed evidence of a head wound, but the fire caused his death, Owaiwi said.

After speaking with Israeli Arab leaders Saturday, Israeli President Shimon Peres called for calm. “We must unite to prevent tragedies and loss of life. Together we can lower the flames and protect the innocent people,” he said.

Khieder’s murder has sparked relatively little popular unrest in Gaza or the West Bank, though rocket fire from Gazan militants continued unabated Saturday. The Israeli military reported that 20 rockets had been fired Saturday toward Israel and that 135 had been launched since the three Israeli teens were abducted. Israel has responded to many of the attacks with airstrikes.

To many Middle East observers, the recent spate of violence was a predictable outcome of the breakdown this spring of U.S.-sponsored peace talks.

“I think what is happening now is that the failure of the peace negotiations has left a vacuum that is unfortunately filled with other kinds of activities,” said Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. “Add to this the Israeli occupation, expansion of Israeli settlements and violence against Palestinians by settlers — it all leads to a very frustrated Palestinian society.”

Revenge is on the minds of many in once-tranquil Shuafat. But not Suha Abu Khieder, who said she just wants police to investigate her son’s killing and arrest the perpetrators.

“All I am asking for is justice,” she said.

Witte reported from London.

Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
Griff Witte is The Post’s London bureau chief. He previously served as the paper’s deputy foreign editor and as the bureau chief in Kabul, Islamabad and Jerusalem.
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