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New HBO series tackles the anatomy of a Jerusalem hate crime

The father and mother of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir pray at his grave July 2, 2015, in East Jerusalem as they mark the first anniversary of his killing by Israeli Jews who burned him alive. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — When the parents of 16-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Abu Khdeir first reported to Jerusalem police in the early hours of July 2, 2014, that their son had been kidnapped by a group of Jewish settlers, few in authority took it seriously.

For most Israelis, the idea that Jews would go into an Arab neighborhood and kidnap a boy was incomprehensible. In the days that followed, even after Abu Khdeir’s body was found torched and abandoned in the Jerusalem forest, it remained unthinkable that Jews could carry out such a brutal hate crime.

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The realization that Abu Khdeir was murdered by Jews solely because he was an Arab — and the atmosphere of extremism and racism that enabled it to happen — are the central themes explored in a highly charged HBO series that premiered Aug. 12. The creators of “Our Boys” describe its 10 episodes as “the anatomy of a hate crime,” deconstructing the personal, political and social events that took place immediately before and after the killing.

“For me, I already knew about Arab terror, but the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir created more questions than answers. I just couldn’t believe that Jews could do this, and I wanted to know why they did,” said Hagai Levi, who with Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael wrote, directed and produced the show.

“Our Boys,” the first show entirely in Hebrew and Arabic to air on the U.S. cable channel, is a co-production of HBO, Keshet International and produced by Movie Plus. In its dramatized recounting of Abu Khdeir’s death, the show weaves together original reporting with inside information from Israeli police and the Shin Bet internal intelligence agency as well as the reenacted stories of those involved in the episode.

For journalists like me who covered the violent developments of that summer, the most fraught of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in recent years, “Our Boys” is a difficult flashback. 

Watching the show, it is easy to smell again the molotov cocktails and tear gas that burned the air as the Palestinian residents of Shuafat, the neighborhood where Abu Khdeir lived, clashed with Israeli police and ­soldiers.

The days following his death were hard for many in the city, including those of us who spent many hours reporting about his family’s loss and the pain of his entire community. Among many Israelis also, there was a heaviness, a distressing recognition that extreme nationalism had crossed from words to actions.

The summer’s events had been sparked by the June kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by members of a Hamas terrorist cell in the occupied West Bank and culminated in a 51-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Like the journalists who reported the news at the time, the series creators say they are aware they will probably draw fire from all sides here because of the way the events in “Our Boys” are depicted. 

“We’ve prepared ourselves for the backlash,” said Levi, anticipating criticism from the right wing in Israel that an Arab victim from that summer was spotlighted and not a Jewish one; outrage from the left wing that Abu Khdeir’s murderers are given human personas; and possible unhappiness by Palestinians that the show largely glosses over the wider story of Israel’s ongoing occupation. 

“We know showing this side of the conflict will be hard for the Israeli public to accept,” said Cedar, whose previous film “Footnote,” about the strained relationship between an Israeli father and his son, won best screenplay at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. “But I think any backlash will have some value by sparking discussion of a very difficult subject.”

For Abu Wael, who oversaw the Palestinian aspects of the show, the backlash came even before the trio — two Israeli Jews and an Israeli Arab — started filming. 

“I nearly pulled out a month before we started shooting because of all the pressure,” he said. 

Abu Wael, who comes from the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, said he received “tens of phone calls from Palestinian activists telling me not to give legitimization to the Israeli perspective” of this brutal crime. He said he sought advice from Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein, portrayed in the series as an impossibly tragic character trying to do the right thing after the murder of his son. 

“Hussein is so strong and was so calm,” said Abu Wael, who worked closely with the family to portray their son’s murder accurately. “He told me, ‘If your conscience is clear, then do it; if not, don’t do it.’ My conscience is clear. I know this show comes from an Israeli viewpoint, but it also goes deeper into the Israeli society and tells a significant Palestinian story, too.”

Abu Khdeir’s murder, which Israel officially recognized as a terrorist attack, came two days after the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers — Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19 — were found in a field near the Palestinian city of Hebron. They had been missing for 2½ weeks, with a nation hoping and praying they would be found alive. Their deaths whipped up a furious anger.

As summer 2014 wore on, the four murders became eclipsed by the war in Gaza. Israeli military jets destroyed large areas of the Gaza Strip while a steady barrage of rockets were fired from the Palestinian enclave into Israel. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, with 65 killed on the Israeli side.

While the HBO show offers a unique insight into this particularly sensitive period in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it explores as well the wider themes of racism and hatred stoked by nationalism and misguided religious beliefs, also touching on mental illness, the desire for revenge and the bravery of individuals willing to stand up to pressure from their own communities. 

“It is an inquiry,” Levi said. “It is the anatomy of a hate crime, a way for us to understand how such a crime comes to life. What perfect storm is needed? In this story, you see what happens when all the layers — psychological, sociological, elements on the fringes of society, incitement — come together. It is something that happens every day and everywhere.”

Our Boys (one hour) airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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