Severe attack on Palestinian teen spotlights conflict's impact on Israeli youths

Israelis wonder what it says about society that their youths attacked Palestinian teens in Jerusalem last week. In the past, they've often blamed such attacks on extremists and the mentally ill.

When news broke last week that an Arab teenager was in a coma after being beaten by Jewish youths in downtown Jerusalem, initial police reports said it was the result of a “brawl.” But it soon became apparent that the Jewish crowd had set upon three Arab teenagers from East Jerusalem simply because they were overheard speaking Arabic, and the public began calling the disturbing incident a “lynching.”

“I don’t know what to call it, but a fight is when one is hitting the other,” says Nariman Julani, sitting by the hospital bedside of her son Jamal Julani, a 17-year-old high school student, who is recovering after coming out of his coma on Aug. 19.

The Palestinian youths, from Ras el-Amud in East Jerusalem, were out for an evening walk in West Jerusalem’s Zion Square when they heard “Death to the Arabs” and were set upon by a crowd. Julani’s friends escaped, but he fell and was beaten unconscious.

“Even two or three on one, that’s getting beaten up,” says Mrs. Julani. “But 40 on one? That’s a death sentence. It’s a miracle my son is alive.”

The thought that Israeli youths are capable of such violence has unleashed a stream national soul-searching and self-criticism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the attack as “reprehensible,” while President Shimon Peres said that the incident filled him with “shame.”

Most remarkably, no one has tried to excuse it as an aberrant incident perpetrated by extremists or someone who is mentally ill.

There are indications, according to a new study, that children’s exposure to the politically motivated violence of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict makes them more aggressive. The study, completed by a team of American, Israeli, and Palestinian researchers and funded by the US National Institutes of Health, identified a rising trend of violence among children here, finding a correlation between their exposure to political violence and their own violent behavior.

Hours before the beating incident, six members of a Palestinian family living in the West Bank were injured when the car they were driving in was hit by a Molotov cocktail, setting the car on fire and causing it to flip over.  Five of the six family members are still in hospital, recovering from serious burns, including a five-year-old boy. Israeli police yesterday arrested three 12- and 13-year-olds from the Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin as suspects in the attack, fueling further debate about violence among youths.

The two brutal incidents have shocked Israelis and brought the issue of violence into the public consciousness in a new way. Haaretz published an editorial cartoon with a picture of a Ku Klux Klansman saying, “I didn’t know the Klan was here in Israel.” In another, a teenager holds up bloodied hands in an image that resonates for Israelis because of a similar photo from the second intifada, when two of their army reservists who took a wrong turn were killed by a mob of Palestinians in Ramallah.

Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar’el pointed out that while Israeli officials in Netanyahu’s government recently focused on incitement against Jews in Palestinian textbooks, similar attitudes exist in Israel. “There isn’t really a need to list all the recipes for Arab-hatred that have been fed to us, and which we have developed on our own, in order to come up with a defense for those criminals in Jerusalem, whose ‘only crime’ was to do what Israeli pedagogy and the 'Death to Arabs' ethos directed them to do,” he wrote

Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani in the hospital last week and asked for forgiveness – the first and only high-level Israeli official to do so. “I came here to apologize,” Mr. Rivlin told Julani and his parents. “We believed that incidents like this were on the fringes, but that is not the case.”

Arye Rattner, a sociologist at the University of Haifa, says that while there does seem to be more politically motivated violence, there has been an overall drop in violent crime across Israel.

“I think that this brutal act of Jewish kids beating almost to death an Arab kid, or even the 12- and 13-year-old boys arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail on a Palestinian car, these are extremely violent behaviors, these are coming from a different angle from street violence – regular violence in schools [and] homes,” he says. “The picture that has been portrayed in the media is that violent crimes have been escalating tremendously and Israel has become an extremely violent society."

"But police data that we have been analyzing shows exactly he opposite, especially in the last five to six years,” he says.

However, particularly since 1995, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to his land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians, there has been an increase of politically motivated violence, “among the Jewish population, sometimes directed at each other, and sometimes directed at Arabs." 

“Based on surveys we’ve done since then,” Rattner explains, “there’s definitely been more crime based on ideology, especially from the right-wing side of the political map.”

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