Prelude to a Demolition
Sadness, mistrust, and house demolitions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood that gave birth to two terrorists.
JERUSALEM — The neighborhood of Jabal al-Mukaber sits on a steep hill on the southeastern edge of Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City just two miles away. The gold-capped Dome of the Rock glitters in the distance. On Wednesday, verses of the Quran echoed across the valley and over the four large concrete blocks, each about a meter in size, that had been summarily placed at the main entrance to this mainly Palestinian town in East Jerusalem. They had been placed there by the Jerusalem municipality to block vehicle access to the neighborhood.
Jabal al-Mukaber is home to roughly 14,000 Palestinians, and a small population of devout Israeli settlers living in the settlement of Nof Zion. It was also home to the two men who, on Tuesday, Nov. 18, attacked a synagogue in an ultra-orthodox Jewish West Jerusalem neighborhood, with meat cleavers, knives, and a pistol, killing five Israelis — four worshippers and a policeman. Oday and Ghassan Abu Jamal, the attackers, were shot dead at the scene.
The following day, neighbors and relatives gathered to pay their respects to the Abu Jamal family in gender-segregated tents. Scores of spent teargas canisters, fired during clashes that erupted between young Palestinians and Israeli police hours after the attack, peppered the charred road winding down to the memorial service.
Banners were hung between and mounted atop houses honoring the two men, who were first cousins, for "defending Jerusalem and al-Aqsa." Covering a section of a house just across from the memorial tent was a large poster that showed the two men’s faces against a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock. A police surveillance balloon flew overhead, as Israeli police stopped vehicles and questioned drivers at a traffic circle less than a mile away. The houses where the two attackers lived are scheduled for demolition by the Israeli government.*
Lingering in the air was a toxic stench of teargas, burned tires, and "skunk spray" — a foul-smelling liquid used for riot control, which the Association for Civil Rights in Israel says has been used excessively in East Jerusalem since unrest began over the summer. Stray cats fed on trash strewn across street corners. Etched on the side of a hill nearby, Nof Zion, a gated Israeli settlement marked with terraces, stood in stark contrast: a luxury apartment complex surrounded by paved roads and sidewalks. Trash is nowhere in sight, and street lights are abundant.
The memorial service was muted; rice and mutton were served, followed by unsweetened black coffee. The mothers of the two men did not show up immediately to receive mourners. They remained inside the house, with two EMTs who had been summoned to tend to Ghassan’s wife after she fainted. As soon as the ambulance left, the mothers emerged, visibly distraught and barely able to walk.
"We found out about what happened from the news," said Zakiyyeh Abu Jamal, Ghassan’s mother. "We were surprised, just like everyone else."
Barely an hour after the attack in West Jerusalem, Israeli forces raided and ransacked their house, she said. They took 10 members of the extended family, including her and Ghassan’s wife, to Jerusalem’s central police station for interrogation.
"They questioned me for 13 hours, all the while asking me if I knew my son was going to do this," Zakiyyeh said. "Would I have let my son go if I knew he was going to do this? Of course not. Only he knows why he did what he did."
In recent months, Jerusalem has witnessed a wave of violence, unprecedented since the Second Intifada ended in 2005. Since August, eight hit-and-run or knife attacks have left 11 Israelis dead, most of them in Jerusalem. These included the killing of a soldier in broad daylight in Tel Aviv on Nov. 10. The same day, a settler was also stabbed to death near Hebron. Israel has not been sitting idly by. Since July, at least 17 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Jerusalem by Israeli forces. These included two boys, ages 13 and 14, from different villages near Ramallah.
Tensions began to brew since March over repeated attempts by right-wing Jewish groups, some successful, to pray at the Noble Sanctuary, or Temple Mount as it is known to Jews. Currently, Jews pray at the Western Wall, which is believed to be the last remaining piece of the Jewish Temple of King David and is the holiest site in Judaism. Built directly above it is the Noble Sanctuary, the compound which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, two of the holiest sites in Islam. However, some Jewish zealots are demanding a change in the religious status quo and want to be allowed to pray at the Noble Sanctuary.
In November 2013 the hardline religious Israeli party Habayit Hayehudi began to push for a law allowing Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. The last time a high-profile Israeli politician — the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — made a visit to the compound, it launched the Second Intifada, still known to Palestinians as the al-Aqsa Intifada. As provocations have increased, police have repeatedly denied Muslims entry to the compound, only granting access to women of all ages, and to men over 40 or 50.
Since 1967, when Israel occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem, the city has been essentially divided. Palestinians fare far worse than the Jewish inhabitants, living in poor neighborhoods with decrepit and substandard infrastructure, their homes routinely subject to demolition because of their inability to secure building permits. Because the vast majority of Palestinian Jerusalemites are not citizens of Israel, their permanent status can be revoked at any time. Since the occupation of East Jerusalem began, at least 14,000 Palestinians have lost permission to live in the city.
Pinning the anger and frustration of Palestinian Jerusalemites on any one event is difficult. But tensions had been building since July, when Israeli vigilantes murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from Shuafat, an East Jerusalem neighborhood five miles away from Jabal al-Mukaber, in revenge for the murder of three Jewish teenagers near a West Bank settlement.
Abu Khdeir’s death prompted a series of demonstrations that have continued since then. Some 1,300 Palestinians from Jerusalem have been detained throughout, according to a Ramallah-based prisoners advocacy group. To heighten stress in the divided city, the devastating war in the Gaza Strip over the summer left tens of thousands homeless and at least 2,000 Palestinians dead, a majority of them civilians. The Gaza war enflamed tensions on the streets of East Jerusalem; the number of anti-Arab hate crimes skyrocketed.
In November, Israeli authorities carried out a spate of home demolitions in Silwan, another East Jerusalem neighborhood less than two miles from Jabal al-Mukaber. The area, just south of the Old City, has been targeted for settlement by far-right Israeli settler groups. When settlers moved into two neighborhood buildings at the end of October, young Palestinian men took to the streets, hurling stones at Israeli forces. The government, believing that Jews have a right to live wherever they please in the "united capital," has facilitated settlement in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods.
Residents of Jabal al-Mukaber have watched as their neighbors to the north in Silwan have come under renewed pressure from increasing settler activity. The upsurge in Jewish settlers in the area has brought with it a constant presence of Israeli forces and private security guards as well as constant surveillance.
Palestinian officials have warned that the intensifying violence — which seems to have been perpetrated by lone-wolf attackers rather than through established militant networks — may give way to a religious war. "In Jerusalem we are seeing beginnings of a deliberate policy of provocation, of sectarianism that’s threatening to unleash a holy war on the whole region," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) member.
Through "the use of unbridled violence against the Palestinians, and by targeting holy sites, Israel is provoking individual responses and reactions," says Ashrawi, a Jerusalemite. "This isn’t an organized move. There isn’t someone standing there orchestrating responses."
These seemingly spontaneous acts have proved harder for Israeli authorities to curb. The Palestinian Authority (PA) security apparatus, which normally shares intelligence on imminent attacks with its counterpart, has no jurisdiction in Jerusalem, where most of the attackers have come from. All the men who carried out attacks in Jerusalem came from the city itself. Two others, from Nablus and Hebron, attacked Israelis in Tel Aviv and a settlement in the southern West Bank. The PA has been unable to aid the Israelis in these cases because of their spontaneity. Security coordination between Israel and the PA is ongoing. The PA passes on intelligence, apprehends fugitives, and regularly imprisons Hamas members. But PA security forces are as much handicapped by the unorganized nature of these attacks as their Israeli counterparts are.
At the Abu Jamal memorial tent, family members talked about how the houses of the two men were slated for demolition. This came a day after Israeli authorities blew up the apartment of Abdel Rahman al-Shaludi, another East Jerusalem resident, who on Oct. 22 rammed his car into a group of pedestrians standing by a light rail stop. Two people, including a three-month-old Israeli baby, were killed. Shaludi was shot at the scene and died of his wounds in a hospital later.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to step up demolitions of the perpetrators’ homes, reinstating a practice that lasted decades before it was halted in 2005, after an internal review committee deemed it an ineffective means of deterrence. The policy was once again reinstated this summer when the homes of two Hebron men, accused of kidnapping and murdering the three Israeli teens, were demolished.
In a statement, Netanyahu said these measures would continue, in an effort to curb the rising violence in the city. "This is a significant and important step and there will be more home demolitions; there will be many more steps. We have nothing against the residents of eastern Jerusalem, but we will not tolerate attacks on our citizens."
But Palestinians here say these are precisely the kind of measures that breed enmity and fuel violence. Like other East Jerusalem neighborhoods, Jabal al-Mukaber has seen its share of home demolitions. The family has already received demolition orders for the houses of Ghassan and Oday’s father. "The pressure on us is tremendous," said Huda Abu Jamal, Oday and Ghassan’s second cousin, sitting in the memorial tent.
Ghassan’s wife, for example, will have to become the sole breadwinner for her family. Her permit to stay in Jerusalem may also be revoked because she holds a West Bank ID. (Israel’s Interior Minister Gilad Erdan said he would act to immediately to have her permit revoked). Huda stressed that her second cousins carried out the attack just a day after a Palestinian man was found hanged in a bus in Jerusalem; Israeli authorities said an autopsy showed the bus driver had committed suicide. A Palestinian pathologist who was present called the death suspicious.
"On Monday, they lynched Yousef [al-Ramouni, the bus driver]," Huda said. "Tomorrow they will lynch my son. Later, they will just mow us all down inside our homes."
Huda’s brother, Jamal, was re-arrested two weeks ago. He is yet to be charged but he had already spent 20 years in jail on charges of stabbing an Israeli soldier and being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the same left-wing Palestinian nationalist group the two men belonged to.**
"Two weeks ago, they detained my brother," Huda said. "They took him barefoot in his pajamas. What do they expect us to do when they forbid us from going into al-Aqsa, and seal our neighborhoods? We pay [property taxes], water, and electric bills. And what do we get in return? Pressure leads to explosions."
*Correction, Nov. 23, 2014: The homes of the two attackers are scheduled for demolition. A previous version of this article said that the homes would be destroyed Sunday. The exact date of the demolition is not clear, though many Israel expect it to come Sunday. (Return to reading.)
**Correction, Nov. 23, 2014: Jamal has not received charges since his arrest two weeks ago. An earlier version of this story said that Jamal was re-arrested on the previous charges for which he already served 20 years in jail. (Return to reading.)