Rockets from Gaza aren’t only source of fear in Jerusalem

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 10, 2014 

— The last week has been harrowing for Walid Abu Khdeir, who went to the Jerusalem morgue to identify the charred body of his nephew Muhammad, 16, the victim of an apparent revenge killing by Jews after three Jewish teens were abducted and killed in early June.

Since his nephew’s slaying, Abu Khdeir has been receiving hundreds of guests at the mourning tent set up steps from the scene of the crime _ and arguing with his wife over whether to give their twins, age 10, pocket money for the store a few feet away.

“In the last week, she drove me a little crazy,” he said. “ ‘Where are the kids? Keep them at your side!’ We give them around five or ten shekels every day to go buy sweets. And she is afraid for them to go to the store. If they’re not sitting with her or me, she makes a scene.”

Jerusalem has always been a city of tense coexistence among the three groups that make up its 800,000 residents: secular Israelis, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians. But since the murder last week, Jewish and Palestinian residents of the city are eyeing each other suspiciously. Even before rockets from Gaza triggered citywide air-raid sirens this week, the abduction of Muhammad Abu Khdeir had left a poisoned atmosphere.

His mother, Suha, said she didn’t let her other six children out of her sight. Fatme Abu Khdeir, a cousin, said she wouldn’t go downtown even for medical treatment. American-Palestinian Moira Jilani said her daughter insisted that she pack Mace when she went to west Jerusalem to pay property taxes. Jilani said she was the only covered Muslim woman on the train and she’d spoken English to feel safer.

Among Jewish Israelis, messages circulated on email, Facebook and Whatsapp warning that the police had received word of pending suicide bombings and of “Arabs walking around Jerusalem . . . and trying to open doors and claiming they are police.”

Political scientist Yaron Ezrahi of Hebrew University described “a wave of violent racism.”

“The substance has always been there, but the particular circumstances are letting it out in its fullest ugly face,” Ezrahi said.

Mayor Nir Barkat was quick to condemn the murder of Abu Khdeir as “a horrible and barbaric act,” and he said he was confident the perpetrators would face justice. Six suspects, Jewish extremists from Jerusalem and nearby cities, were arrested, but three were released Thursday. Police wouldn’t comment on the release.

One of the clearest indicators of a breakdown in trust is the Jerusalem light rail. It began running in 2011 after its planners overcame every possible obstacle: Palestinians opposed its route, religious Jews refused to ride the train over ancient graves and archaeologists took months to dig out thousands of years of artifacts underneath the tracks.

Once it opened, the train functioned with barely any incidents for three years. The silver cars gliding past the ancient stones of Jerusalem’s Old City showed a vision for modernity that could move beyond the city’s conflicts. Daily ridership of 140,000 exceeded expectations. But the day Abu Khdeir was abducted just steps from the Shuafat train stop, the light rail became the target of rage.

Dozens of young Palestinians from the neighborhood took to the street. First they broke the security cameras at the station. Then they shattered the glass panels that shield the station benches from wind and rain. A few protesters hacked away at the information screens with pickaxes. Others chipped at the tracks with a circular saw, and still more pried out elegant gray paving stones to hurl at police. Burning tires melted down the rubber lining the rails. After the fires burned out, someone sprayed “death to the Jews” on the skeleton of the station that remained.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the attacks on the train happened too quickly for police to stop them. However, riots continued throughout the week and police clashed with locals as they tried to restore order. Rosenfeld said police had arrested more than 100 people suspected of connections to disturbances in Shuafat.

One Shuafat man who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation explained the logic behind the attacks. The train, he said, was “a symbol of the Zionist enemy. It’s one of the activities done by the Israeli occupation.”

When the train was built, planners laid it out to link the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Zeev with downtown Jerusalem via Shuafat, an upscale residential part of Arab East Jerusalem. That was rare, because residents of East and Jewish West Jerusalem use separate bus systems.

Palestinians said the train was a deplorable tool to cement Israel’s rule of East Jerusalem. But with time the residents of Shuafat began to use it anyway. They could board right in their neighborhood and easily get to Damascus Gate in the Old City and to downtown West Jerusalem. The city celebrated the train as proof that Jerusalem’s coexistence works.

Now, the train doesn’t enter Shuafat or Pisgat Zeev because of the damage to the tracks.

Shuafat residents said that after the murder, they saw the train as a menace bringing Jewish Israelis through the neighborhood. “They are trying to fix the train, and we don’t want it,” said Fatme Abu Khdeir, Muhammad’s cousin. She’s avoided the train for the past week. “The settlers inside (the train) are teasing us.”

On a day earlier this week, Shuafat was quiet. Municipal repairmen righted the downed electric lines, melted torn rubber back into place and dismantled scorched pieces of metal that were once modern, sleek train stops. The repairmen worked under the watchful eye of riot police. Walid Abu Khdeir, the uncle, said the police made him uncomfortable.

“I sent letters to Mayor Nir Barkat not to focus on small things like the train,” he said. “Focus on what we’re feeling. He puts millions every year on how we can live together as Jews and Arabs. The moment Muhammad was kidnapped his dream disappeared.”

Police spokesman Rosenfeld said there had been several incidents between Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem but that most of the victims complaining were Jews. Ezrahi, the Hebrew University professor, said he doubted that claim, mentioning that his Arab colleagues at the university were afraid to take public transport.

“The number of cases of violence, of curses, of terrible language, of pushing, of threatening, the number of cases has gone up fivefold,” Ezrahi said, referring to Palestinian victims. Palestinians intimidate Jews as well, he said, but less often, he claimed.

While residents of Shuafat describe turning inward, in West Jerusalem the feeling is more complex. Air raid sirens signaling rockets launched from Gaza have interrupted life in the capital twice, city spokeswoman Brachie Sprung said. The city has opened about 200 bomb shelters. So far, no rockets have fallen in the city, Sprung said.

One day this week, the train chugging through downtown was full. Ozel Vatik, spokesman for the CityPass group, which runs the train, said he was more concerned with rockets than with sectarian violence. Police say they’ve boosted their forces around the country, including in Jerusalem.

In West Jerusalem’s central open-air market, Machane Yehuda, liquor store cashier Rami Malah said he was selling about a third less than usual; fewer customers were coming to the market on the trains and buses.

Osher Avitan, 18, said his mother had asked him not to take the train to his work selling sweets in the market. He said he’d taken an extra look around him – but had boarded anyway.

Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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