Why a Palestinian youth's murder lit a fuse in Jerusalem

Israeli police have detained six Jewish suspects in the killing of Muhammed Abu Khudeir after some of the worst street unrest in a decade erupted in East Jerusalem.  

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (3rd, R) leaves after visiting a mourners tent for Mohammed Abu Khudeir in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem July 6, 2014. Israel has arrested six Jewish suspects in the abduction and killing of the teenager.

Violent protests continued Sunday in Jerusalem, part of series of angry demonstrations over the death of Muhammed Abu Khudeir, a Palestinian teen. In recent days, crowds of Palestinians have clashed with security forces in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, throwing stones and other projectiles, while Israeli police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The protests have spread to Arab areas of northern Israel, marking the worst such political unrest in a decade. 

What are the details of the teen's death?

Muhammed Abu Khudeir was abducted in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat just before 4 a.m. on Wednesday, July 2, after going out for pre-dawn prayers. He was found burned in the Jerusalem Forest within a couple of hours. Initial autopsy results indicated he was burned alive, according to the Palestinian attorney general.

From the start Palestinians have accused Jews of perpetrating the abduction and murder after three Israeli teens were found murdered in the West Bank on Monday, June 30, after a massive search effort that lasted 18 days. Their funeral was held the following day. 

Israeli police have yet to definitively assign a sectarian motive to Muhammed’s killing, but the arrest of Jewish suspects today discredit previous claims by Israelis that he was killed for being gay or as part of a family feud.

The alleged Israeli police beating of his Palestinian-American teenage cousin, Tariq Abu Khudeir, has also gained significant attention, particularly after photos of his swollen, bloodied face and a video circulated on social media. Tariq, whom Israeli police say was arrested Thursday with demonstrators who were using slingshots to pelt security forces with rocks, was released from prison to house arrest today. The US State Department said it was “profoundly troubled” by reports of his beating. 

Who are the suspects?

Six Jewish suspects were arrested today and questioned by the domestic Israeli security agency, Shin Bet. Israel’s Channel 2 news reported that the suspects were part of an extremist cell and come from Jerusalem, the West Bank settlement of Adam just north of Jerusalem, and Beit Shemesh.

Israeli legal aid organization Honenu, which often represents settlers and soldiers accused of crimes against Palestinians, said that the Petah Tikva court extended five of the suspects’ detention by eight days, and the other suspect’s detention by five days. The suspects have been denied access to a lawyer, which is legal for up to 21 days in cases of terror-related hate crimes. 

All other details of the investigation remain under a judicial gag order. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent his condolences this evening to the Abu Khudeir family and pledged that the perpetrators of his murder would "face the full weight of the law," and said there was no place in Israel for such murderers. "We condemn them and we put them on trial and we'll put them in prison."

How much unrest has Muhammed’s killing triggered?

After word of Muhammed’s abduction and killing spread on Wednesday morning, protests broke out almost immediately in Shuafat, a middle-class Palestinian neighborhood on the main road from Jerusalem north to Ramallah.

They gathered momentum Thursday in anticipation of his funeral, which was delayed until after Friday prayers because the Israeli authorities had not yet handed over the body. Thousands attended the funeral, some engaging in clashes with Israeli security forces well into the night, causing millions of dollars in damage to Jerusalem’s light-rail line, which runs through the neighborhood.

Many other areas of Jerusalem also saw clashes over the weekend, including the Old City and at least half a dozen Palestinian neighborhoods. In addition, demonstrations turned violent in Arab areas of Israel, including Nazareth and towns on either side of major highways running to and through the Galilee. There were also reports of clashes in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority government is based.

While the clashes have eased as of today, some expect further conflagrations.

Why is it such an inflammatory case?

Muhammed’s abduction and murder tapped into deep-seated frustration with Israeli policies. Palestinians perceive a double standard of Israeli justice for Jews and Arabs and a reluctance by the Israeli government to crack down on Jewish racism and incitement toward Palestinians. 

Muhammed’s murder came just hours after the funeral for the three Israeli teens. Following the funeral, hundreds of Israeli extremists swept through the streets of Jerusalem yelling “Death to Arabs” and other racist slogans, while social media was filled with calls for revenge – some by top Israeli officials and religious leaders.

Many Palestinians blamed Israel for a slow investigation, particularly when it took place on a street with CCTV. They drew comparisons with how quickly Israel was able to identify the suspects in the three Jewish teens’ murder despite fewer witnesses and less immediate evidence.

Could this lead to a third intifada?

The tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere are widely considered the worst since the second intifada, or uprising, trailed off about a decade ago. There is considerable concern that the tensions, coinciding with a significant uptick in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Israeli strikes, could boil into a full-blown conflict.

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