The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An HBO series looks at political violence in Jerusalem. Here’s the reality behind the drama.

We researched the explosive summer that the series portrays.

Co-creators of HBO series “Our Boys,” Hagai Levi, Tawfik Abu Wael and Joseph Cedar, pose during an interview in Tel Aviv on Aug. 11. (Corinna Kern/Reuters)

Last month, HBO premiered “Our Boys,” a 10-episode series exploring violence in Jerusalem in the summer of 2014, co-produced by popular Israeli television station Channel 12. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to boycott the popular channel for airing what he termed an “anti-Semitic” show.

The controversial series begins when Hamas militants from the West Bank kidnapped three Israeli teenage boys — Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah — and continues as Israeli police and military forces try but fail to rescue them. From there, the series follows Israeli public responses — in particular, three Jewish Israelis who kidnapped and burned to death a teenage Palestinian boy from East Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu-Khdeir.

Perhaps the series’ most dramatic scene is one in which Abu-Khdeir’s neighbors in Shuafat learn about his murder and begin rioting, which rapidly spreads across East Jerusalem. In these intense moments, HBO shows its audience some of the most contentious moments of conflict in Jerusalem in recent years. These riots, accompanied by sporadic physical assaults and acts of vandalism by both Jewish and Palestinian residents of the city, eventually escalated into the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.

“Our Boys” thus shows us a moment in which individuals, acting on their own, set off lasting, violent political conflict. Most research into conflict examines violence by political groups. Our research (conducted with Evgeny Finkel, Yon Lupu, Dan Miodownik and Neal Tsur) looks at incidents like those in “Our Boys.” Here’s what we found.

Not just any hate crime

Daily life in Jerusalem involves conflict. But most of East Jerusalem’s daily violence involves government agents — policemen and soldiers — carrying out administrative arrests, demolishing houses and suppressing protests. Two things set Abu-Khdeir’s murder apart: its brutality, and the fact that it was committed by Israelis with no ties to political, ideological or government organizations. The series depicts this event as transforming patterns of intergroup violence in Jerusalem. Does research support this claim?

To test whether the murder of Mohammed Abu-Khdeir reshaped patterns of violence in Jerusalem, we analyzed Israeli police records and reports collected by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), examining granular data on local riots, physical assaults and hate crimes by both Jews and Palestinians. Following Abu-Khdeir’s murder, the number of riots in East Jerusalem immediately spiked. These riots were often led by young Palestinian men. They included direct clashes with police forces, stone throwing and vandalism of local infrastructure including stations of the relatively new light rail. More generally, this immediate increase left a significant impression on Jerusalem for several months. Levels of riots and intergroup physical assaults measured in our data, which extends through December 2015, do not return to similar rates recorded before July 14, 2014, when Abu-Khdeir was murdered.

A closer look at the data

We use a host of statistical approaches to analyze our data, but even a descriptive look at the number of riots that occur before and after Abu-Khdeir’s murder demonstrate the importance of this event. Our analysis of Israeli police data shows that there were a total of 4,590 riot events in Jerusalem during the period of January 2013 through December 2015. Thirty-five percent of them occurred before the murder, from January 2013 through July 14, 2014. Sixty-five percent occurred after the murder, making for a roughly 87 percent increase in riot events in the year and a half after Abu-Khdeir’s murder.

We then compared the effects of the murder of Abu-Khdeir to those of other dramatic conflicts in Jerusalem — for instance, the intense Temple Mount clashes during September 2015, in which Israeli police forces attacked Muslim worshipers. Through such comparisons, and a close examination of events during recent years in Jerusalem, we gain further confidence that indeed there is something unique about Abu-Khdeir’s murder, as other salient events of intergroup conflict in Jerusalem do not seem to alter patterns of violence in the contested city. Other such instances may spark local riots, but these riots decay quickly and fail to change broad patterns of violence in Jerusalem.

A spark for future violence

In HBO’s series, Israeli security personnel worry that Abu-Khdeir’s murder will ignite widespread, long-lasting violence in Jerusalem. Our data confirm that to be true: Abu-Khdeir’s murder, which its perpetrators later called retribution for the murder of the three Jewish boys in the West Bank, did indeed lead to a durable increase in riots and intergroup violence in Jerusalem. Indeed, it is noticeable through our research that patterns of violence do not go back to the lower rates identified before Abu-Khdeir’s murder. Intergroup violence in Jerusalem does indeed stabilize several months after Abu-Khdeir’s murder, but they stabilize on a higher rate of intergroup violence.

Of course, our evidence cannot precisely parse the exact factors that enabled Abu-Khdeir’s murder to mobilize hundreds or perhaps thousands of Jerusalem residents to protest, riot and otherwise join in violence. Based on previous research and our familiarity with patterns of intergroup violence in Jerusalem, we suspect that two factors made Abu-Khdeir’s murder especially influential: the perpetrators’ identities, and their particularly brutal violence. Having three Jewish settlers burn a teenager to death may have been so unusual and shocking, compared with the city’s ordinary patterns of violence, that it pushed previously numbed residents into the streets.

More broadly, the production of “Our Boys” by HBO in collaboration with an Israeli television channel is an interesting precedent in Israel. Rarely is it the case that the personal stories of Palestinians make it to prime-time TV in Israel. More so, many Israelis are generally unacquainted with the political and social challenges East Jerusalem Palestinians confront as residents (and not citizens) of Israel. “Our Boys” provides Israeli viewers with a glimpse of the tragedies and challenges experienced by East Jerusalemites during recent years. Likewise, a better understanding of cycles of contention like the one surrounding Abu-Khdeir’s murder could be an important path to intergroup empathy and reconciliation.

Chagai M. Weiss (@chagai_weiss) is a PhD student in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.