As East Jerusalem seethes, Palestinian elders go unheeded

Rioting erupted last week in East Jerusalem over the murder of a Palestinian teenager. Local leaders who used to discipline angry youth are struggling to be heard.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Palestinians pray as Israeli policemen stand guard (rear) during prayers on the second Friday of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, Friday, July 11, 2014.

For 24 years, Sheikh Darwish Darwish has been the point man between Israeli officials and his neighborhood on everything from sewage to home demolitions to local unrest.

But since the kidnapping and brutal murder of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khudeir set off clashes across Jerusalem, he doesn't dare intervene. 

“They [Israelis] are asking us to calm down our children – how can we do this when they are burning our children alive?” says the dignified Sheikh Darwish, who has been the village mukhtar, or local leader, since 1990 when the first intifada (uprising) was in full swing. 

The role of the mukhtar has diminished since then, leaving Israel without an effective Palestinian partner to keep a lid on the violent protests that broke out last week over Muhammed's murder by Israeli Jews – outrage that could well intensify with Israel's bombardment of Gaza. 

“A long time ago, when our parents rebelled, they had a say, but not now,” says a young man sitting outside the village mosque, who was just released after a year in prison for throwing stones. “Now if a mukhtar interferes … we mask ourselves, stop him in the street, and tell him not to interfere.”

Many Palestinians blame Israel, saying it has tried to co-opt or marginalize local Palestinian leaders for decades, leaving them either suspect or weakened in the eyes of their own people. But even younger Palestinian leaders with serious street cred say they're powerless to step in. 

“No leadership can stop the Palestinian uprising now, which was not the case before,” says Mohammed Abu Hummus, a former resistance fighter turned civil activist in Issawiya.

Why the role of mukhtar is weaker now

Unlike Palestinians in Israeli Arab towns or the West Bank, those living in East Jerusalem are not represented on a local or national level by Palestinians.

Since Israel conquered East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, all Palestinian Jerusalemites have the right to obtain Israeli citizenship; even non-citizens can vote and run in Jerusalem municipal elections. But Palestinians have largely shunned the municipal council on principle, and many eschew Israeli citizenship.

Local leaders like Darwish have long worked with municipal officials to improve services in underserved Palestinian neighborhoods, running the risk of being labelled as collaborators. A rising tide of “anti-normalization” – a Palestinian movement that rejects cooperation with Israelis – has shut down even soccer matches and meetings between peace activists on either side.

In the early 1980s, Israel established local committees made up of Palestinians to help govern their neighborhoods. Darwish says that undermined the role of many mukhtars, though their degree of influence today varies considerably from one neighborhood to the next. 

“Israel made them either collaborators or nothing,” says Abu Mohammed, an elder from Muhammed Abu Khudeir’s family in Shuafat, just a couple of miles from Issawiya. “The whole concept of mukhtar is done now because a mukhtar, if he is to have any effect, he will have effect only to serve Israel and no one agrees to be a mukhtar under that label.”

Teens from Shuafat and Beit Hanina who had gathered Monday at the Abu Khudeir mourning tent to create a graffiti tribute to Muhammed said they didn’t even know there was a mukhtar in their neighborhoods.

Even more influential mukhtars struggle today to project any control over frustrated, corralled youth. 

“I’m above 20 years old, why should I even listen to anyone?” says the recently released prisoner in Issawiya. 

Security needed on both sides

Walid Abu Khudeir, a cousin of Muhammed, says a climate of fear sown by the Israeli occupation is driving the youth protests.

“Nobody can stop the people in the streets because all of the children are afraid and when they’re afraid, they attack,” he says. “Israel needs to realize that have to provide security for [us] in order to have security for themselves.”

Perhaps few have felt that insecurity as acutely as Rami Zalum, whose young son, Musa, narrowly escaped a kidnapping the night before Muhammed was taken. The kidnappers, reportedly the same Jews who returned to abduct Muhammed, gripped the child’s neck before his mother’s punches and screaming drove them off.

Mr. Zalum says no Palestinian leader visited his family or offered support, and he has never sought help from the mukhtar.

“What can he do, the mukhtar?” he asks. “He doesn’t have tanks, he doesn’t have anything.”

But despite the lack of leadership, Zalum says his own principles prevent him from taking to the streets like other angry youth – whether out of a sense of helplessness in the face of Israel's military superiority or a shred of hope.

“Despite what happened to my child,” he says, “I will continue to support the peaceful track.”

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