Siege mentality

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on July 8, 2014.

Jerusalem — As the sun sets on Shuafat and residents prepare to break the Ramadan fast, the Palestinian neighborhood goes dark and quiet. A once-busy main road is almost empty, littered with rocks and glass; streetlights and traffic signals are broken; and local men anxiously watch a contingent of black-clad border policemen.

The only real signs of life in Shuafat are inside the mourning tent at the Abu Khdeir family home. Their son Mohammed, 16, was abducted early on the morning of July 2 just steps from the house, while he waited for his father to finish praying at the local mosque. His charred body was discovered in a forest hours later; an autopsy found that he was burned alive. A poster of his youthful face hangs from the home, proclaiming him the "martyr of the dawn."

Police have arrested six people and suggested it was a racially motivated murder in response to the killing of three Jewish Israelis, who were kidnapped on June 12 while hitchhiking home from their religious seminary in the occupied West Bank. Their bodies were found in a valley near Hebron last month. Israel has blamed Hamas for the killings.

The bloodshed has helped spark another round of fighting that already threatens to descend into war. Over 200 rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip have targeted Israel, according to the Israeli military -- including attempted attacks on the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Israeli military has launched what it has termed "Operation Protective Edge" in an attempt to end the rocket fire, targeting at least 100 sites throughout Gaza with airstrikes and authorizing the army to mobilize 40,000 reservists. The Israeli government has also begun preparations for a possible ground invasion, though the idea still has limited support. At least 25 people have been killed so far in the Israeli bombardment, including several children, according to Palestinian officials.

The wave of incitement and violence in Israel, meanwhile, has created a siege mentality among the 250,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem.

The wave of incitement and violence in Israel, meanwhile, has created a siege mentality among the 250,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem. Abu Khdeir's murder was by far the most brutal example, but there have been dozens of attacks during the past week -- including an assault on workers in West Jerusalem hours after the bodies of the three Israelis were found, as hundreds of right-wing Jews held a demonstration in the city in which they chanted "death to the Arabs." The streets of Shuafat, Beit Hanina, and other East Jerusalem neighborhoods were eerily quiet on Monday night, with few residents coming out to shop and socialize after iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. 

"People were shocked" by Khdeir's murder, said Jamal Zahalka, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. "It shook people very deeply, the idea of a boy, only 16 years old, burned alive."

Groups of local Arab men -- mostly unarmed, but a few carrying knives and sticks -- have formed impromptu neighborhood-watch groups in these neighborhoods. They were on the lookout for "settlers," they said, a word that has come to be shorthand for the ultranationalist Jews accused of Abu Khdeir's murder. 

"Everybody is tense, everybody is on edge. This is not Ramadan," said Mustafa, a resident of Shuafat who was among those gathered on the streets and, like many, asked not to be identified by his last name. "Nobody trusts the Israelis. Nothing has happened in this neighborhood, yet, but nobody trusts that will continue."

There have already been other attempted kidnappings. Police said that the men accused of killing Abu Khdeir tried to abduct another child, just 9 years old, in the same neighborhood one day earlier. And there are daily reports of Palestinians being verbally and physically assaulted on the street, at work, on public transportation -- anywhere they cross paths with Jewish Israelis. 

The violence has exacerbated the differences between East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Arab Palestinian, and the western parts of the city, which are largely Jewish. "There is no security here," Abu Khdeir's mother, Suha, said in an interview. "We don't have safety in this neighborhood like they do in the Jewish areas."

Yesterday it was Mohammed. Tomorrow it could be my son.

Many residents of East Jerusalem cross the city each day to work in the west, but since Abu Khdeir's murder their lives have turned inward. Abed Basit, a nurse from Beit Hanina, said most of the women in his family have stopped going to work. He is reluctant to let his children leave the house, fearful that they might be snatched off the streets. "Yesterday it was Mohammed," he said. "Tomorrow it could be my son."

Police have deployed heavily throughout East Jerusalem after Abu Khdeir's abduction. At first they blocked all traffic, allowing only residents to enter; the restrictions have since been eased, but checkpoints still dot the streets, stopping cars with passengers that do not seem to belong. Policemen ask drivers whether they are "Jewish or Arab."

Heavily armed officers also deployed inside Shuafat, the site of the worst violence. But after a week in which more than 100 people were injured and dozens arrested, residents viewed them as a provocation. Local youth shot firecrackers over their heads, a Ramadan tradition now clearly aimed at harassing the police. "Look at them, in the streets like this. Is this not harassment? Is this not intimidation?" asked one man.

Outsiders have become suspect: On the main commercial strip in Beit Hanina, a group of teenagers flagged down passing cars, addressing their drivers in Arabic. During protests in Shuafat over the past week, demonstrators whispered among themselves aboutmusta'arabin, the Israeli officers who disguise themselves as Palestinians. A news crew from Channel 9, a Russian-language Israeli channel, was told to leave -- residents said it helped to spread a baseless rumor that Abu Khdeir was killed in a family dispute, for being homosexual. 

"In a way, we see the occupation much more directly than the Palestinians in the West Bank," said Samir, another resident of Shuafat. "They at least have the Palestinian police. When we go down in the street, we have to deal with the magav," he said, referring to the border police, an Israeli paramilitary force with a reputation among Palestinians for acting aggressively.

The unrest has often been portrayed in Israeli media as senseless rioting. For Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, however, it was decades in the making. "It's as if a pot of water has been warming over a candle for many years, and Mohammed's death finally brought it to boil," Samir said. 

Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, though most residents elected not to become Israeli citizens. Instead they are treated as "permanent residents," allowed to move and work freely but not to vote in national elections, and are subject to losing their legal status if they move out of the city. Their neighborhoods receive less funding than their counterparts across town, and building permits are expensive and difficult to obtain. As a result, a housing crisis has pushed population density to nearly twice the level of the Jewish western side of the city. Schools are overcrowded, and residents have far less access to health care, government services, and even post offices.

"For 20 years we've heard about the peace process, and we got nothing," said Basit, the nurse. "We're treated like fifth-class citizens in this country, and the Palestinians think we're spoiled, because we have Israeli IDs.... Everyone is against us. So maybe the only way to take action is to come down in the streets."