JERUSALEM — His school pals call him “the Penguin,” because he is beaky and round. He’s 16 and dressed in the uniform of the Palestinian street warrior — skinny jeans, soccer tee, brand-name sneakers and a balaclava, except he keeps pulling the mask off, complaining it is itchy.
The Penguin is the face of the 2014 Palestinian uprising in Jerusalem, of the rancor and violence that have been roiling the ancient city for the past four months. The Penguin is the victim or the troublemaker, depending in part on which side of Jerusalem — Arab or Jewish — you call home.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that the violence is being propelled by “Islamic radicals” and Palestinian politicians. But the street protesters are mostly teenagers like the Penguin, who do not appear to be taking orders from anyone.
The Penguin and his friends were at the military checkpoint in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of the Shuafat refugee camp a week ago hurling chunks of cement at Israeli soldiers, who returned fire with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The atmosphere felt at once chaotic and scripted, with news photographers sheltering behind tin sheets, shrinking from the plink! poink! of the rubber-tipped bullets hitting metal as the kids flashed “V” for victory signs.
But when it was supper time, the Penguin put down his stones and went home.
He had homework to do.
Israeli police and military intelligence officers say the Jerusalem protests involve not tens of thousands of teens, but hundreds, here and there, in five or six Palestinian neighborhoods around the city.
More than 1,000 Palestinians have been detained in East Jerusalem riots since the end of the Gaza war in August, almost all of them youths, according to Israeli police.
Of the more than 300 who have been charged with throwing rocks, fireworks or gasoline bottles at police, 188, or more than 60 percent, are under age 18.
The age of the demonstrators has led some security analysts to describe the uprising in Jerusalem as a “Children’s Intifada.”
Israel’s police commissioner, Inspector General Yohanan Danino, winced when asked whether there is an intifada brewing in Jerusalem, like the previous uprising in the early 2000s that left thousands dead. It is not an intifada, he said. But he agreed that his antagonists are younger than ever before.
“We are starting to use intelligence information to get to those who are disturbing the peace, but really, in the end, they are sending small children — 12, 13 years old,” he said. “They are not even youths but children, and with children we can’t really do anything to them.”
The demonstrators’ latest weapon is a 20-pack box of fireworks.
It is not all teens, of course. Palestinian adults have launched a series of deadly knife and vehicular attacks against Israelis in and around Jerusalem in recent weeks. Israeli authorities describe the assailants as “lone terrorists.” Many Palestinians have hailed them as “martyrs.” Six Jewish civilians have been killed in the assaults.
But teenagers have consistently been at the heart of Jerusalem’s violence.
The abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers by operatives of the militant Hamas movement in the West Bank in June was followed by the revenge killing of a Palestinian 17-year-old named Mohammad Abu Khieder, who was burned alive by Jewish extremists in a Jerusalem forest.
The latest casualty on the Palestinian side is Saber Mahmoud, 11, who was hit in the face and seriously wounded Thursday morning with a sponge-tipped bullet fired by a member of the Israeli security forces.
Most of the protests occur between 7:30 and 9 a.m. and between 4 and 6 p.m, the hours when high school students are on their way to and from school, Israeli police say.
“They come with their book bags on,” said Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “We are trying to tell their parents, ‘Please, don’t let your son get a criminal record. He won’t get into college. He won’t get a job.’ ”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat spent the past week meeting with high school principals in East Jerusalem, seeking calm. The mayor proposed spending more money to extend the school hours as an antidote to protests.
“These are young kids, who are bored, out of school, socially disadvantaged and live in bad economic conditions. They are the ones who join these protests,” said Riman Barakat, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, a think tank.
Palestinians account for more than a third of the Jerusalem population, but their neighborhoods receive comparatively fewer municipal services.
Netanyahu has singled out Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as inciting violence. Yet many of the young people who throw rocks said in interviews that they think Abbas is an old fool. They don’t think much of his political party, Fatah, and even less of Hamas.
Parental supervision is absent at the demonstrations.
“These kids don’t listen to anybody, not to their parents, politicians, and not to me, nobody,” said Issa Salem Issa, Shuafat’s elderly mukhtar, a recognized authority figure in Palestinian society.
When they take a break from throwing rocks, the Penguin and his friends gulp super-caffeinated Israeli-brand energy drinks and catch their breath.
The Penguin and other rock-throwers interviewed for this article declined to give their full names for fear they would be detained later by authorities.
Rosenfeld, the Israel Police spokesman, said some of the rock-throwers in Jerusalem have learned to avoid being identified.
“They now cover their sneakers in plastic bags, so we can’t identify the brand, and you can see on our cameras, they keep changing their shirts,” he said. “They also wear gloves, so we can’t get a fingerprint.”
Asked why they are clashing with Israelis, the teens shout that they are defending al-Aqsa mosque, the scene of frequent clashes, driven by Jewish activists who want to pray on the raised esplanade known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Muslims decry any change in their rights at the sanctuary.
“It’s a war,” said Hakim, 16. “They just haven’t declared it yet.”
Hakim and his friends were hanging out recently at a street corner in front of the Jerusalem Light Rail station in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat. They said they can travel anywhere they want in Jerusalem — shopping malls, movie theaters — except al-Aqsa mosque, where age restrictions have been enforced in recent weeks for security reasons.
Asked whether they had any Jewish friends, they all answered quickly, “No, no, no.”
“The Jews want to kill us,” one said. “The Jews want to destroy the mosque,” said another.
Israeli officials say the youths are incited by the Palestinian media and by Abbas, who declared last month that a one-day closure of al-Aqsa mosque by Israelis was “a declaration of war.”
Netanyahu announced last week that his government will take tougher measures to deter young people from throwing rocks or bottles of gasoline, including amendments that would fine the parents of minors involved in the disturbances. After meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, which serves as custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, Netanyahu also agreed to ease restrictions and checkpoints around East Jerusalem to calm tensions.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.