Murder of Palestinian teen ratchets up tension in Jerusalem (+video)

The murder of a Palestinian teenager overnight - which his friends and neighbors are convinced was an act of revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens – sparked clashes in East Jerusalem.

By , Staff writer

An angry mob of Arabs took to the streets Wednesday to protest the possible revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager.

Israeli police have yet to declare a motive in the disappearance and murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khudair early this morning, but for those in his East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat it was an obvious revenge killing.

“On this side, we have no doubt,” says a neighbor who did not want to be named.

On Monday, three Israel teenagers who had been kidnapped in the West Bank were found murdered. Their abduction prompted a massive 18-day search operation that involved the arrest of more than 350 Palestinians. Critics say the Israeli authorities’ response in the case of the dead Palestinian teen seems slow in comparison even though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged an expedited investigation into the “abominable murder.”

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“If you look at when the settlers disappeared, it was always like, ‘Oh, we know who it was,’ ” the neighbor says, adding that despite witnesses providing concrete details to the police, “The discourse with this case is, ‘Oh, let’s investigate.'" 

The incident punctuates growing tensions since yesterday's funeral of the three teens, which served as a national moment of mourning and a rallying point for those seeking revenge. Later in the evening hundreds of Israelis reportedly marched through Jerusalem shouting “Death to Arabs.” A Facebook page called “The People of Israel Demand Vengeance” now has than 35,000 likes. Mr. Netanyahu has urged citizens not to take the law into their own hands.

Ronit Sela, who heads the East Jerusalem project for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, points out that the context is somewhat different in the two cases. The Israeli military has free rein in the area of the West Bank where the kidnappings took place, whereas East Jerusalem is under the jurisdiction of the police. 

Palestinian frustration

While that may create different challenges for the investigation, it doesn’t change Palestinian frustration with the police, says Ms. Sela, whose work has focused on East Jerusalem for the past five years.

“There’s a general feeling, and it’s a feeling that stands on firm ground for Palestinians living in Jerusalem, that the police and security forces in general see them as a threat and do not see them as people whose life and well-being is the main goal for the security establishment.”

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld strongly rejects her assessment, noting that the police force includes many Israeli Arabs, including high-ranking officers.

“We respond in the same way as we do with any other citizen, no differentiation whatsoever when an emergency call is received, whether it’s an Israeli Jew, Arab Israeli, or Christian,” he says.

He said he was not familiar with a report from Israel Radio today, in which a relative of Mohammed said a license plate number of the car that took the teen was available to police. However, vastly different descriptions of the car – from a white van to a grey Hyundai – given by relatives to the media cast some doubt on the precision of witness accounts.

While the kidnappings of both the Israeli teens and Mohammed have ratcheted up tensions significantly, nationalist sentiment in Jerusalem has been building for years. A March 2013 report by Ir Amim, an NGO committed to preserving Jerusalem as a city for two peoples, documented a series of Jewish nationalist attacks on Arabs, including the near-lynching of a teen in a popular tourist area of the city in 2012.

And the number of Jewish nationalist hate-crimes against Arab Muslims and Christians spiked 200 percent at the beginning of this year.

Hate crimes

While the police have established a special unit to counter such attacks, they long went unpunished, with only 9 percent of investigations of alleged hate crimes by Israeli settlers between 2005 and 2011 resulting in an indictment, according to a 2013 UN report.

In that context, the murder of the kidnapped teens “provided an excuse to sort of satisfy that hunger for violence and terror and revenge,” says Betty Herschman, director of international relations and advocacy for Ir Amim. 

Alongside the Israeli calls for revenge is deep-seated fear. An Israeli Jewish woman in her 20s working at a florist shop in Jerusalem says that while she has good relations with Arab shopkeepers next door, she is afraid.

“I’m afraid that someone will kill me, especially on days like today,” she says, pointing to a recent SMS on her smartphone about an attempted stabbing of a Jew in downtown Jerusalem. If Jews were indeed behind the murder of Mohammed in Shuafat, they should be taken to court and punished appropriately, she says, while adding that Israel needs to stand up to Arab aggression.

“Netanyahu needs to kill all the Arabs, in Hebron, in Shuafat, in Gaza … we need war in order to teach [Arabs] that Israel can’t be messed with.”

The Arab butchers down the street say they aren’t afraid, and that Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas can prevent an escalation on both sides if they use an iron fist – but they’re not sure either has the political will.

Meanwhile, citizens on both sides – who have weathered numerous conflicts – are pressing on with their daily lives.

“We can’t just sit in our house,” says Eitan Salman, who says that while the situation isn’t comfortable it’s not like Iraq or Syria. “We have to live, we have to laugh.”

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