With deadly attacks on Israelis growing bolder, and authorities demolishing Palestinian homes they deem illegal, a cycle of violence threatens to accelerate.
On the streets of East Jerusalem, Mahmoud Aleiwat, the 13-year-old Palestinian accused of shooting two Israeli Jews, is known as shahid, the martyr.
It matters not that he remains alive. It is those he tried to kill that won him repute: a Jewish father and son he attacked as they strolled through Silwan, his home neighbourhood.
Just behind the house where he lived, two girls in his extended family describe the Palestinian boy, barely a teen, as fearless and strong.
They marvel over his heroism, calling him a mujihadeen, a fighter. Where, they ask, could someone like him have found such a great reservoir of courage?
Jews “are occupiers,” adds a 13-year-old classmate who lives nearby. “They take our houses.”
Mahmoud lived on a ridge with a view across a valley pocked by the rubbled remains of demolished houses, in the shadow of the Old City of Jerusalem and its religious landmarks. The international community considers East Jerusalem occupied territory.
But the Silwan valley, which holds importance to the Jewish community as the historical site of the City of David, has been among the flashpoints that have brought a bloody start to this year.
Earlier this month, CIA director William Burns said the increase in violence is reminiscent of the fraught moments that preceded the second intifada, the violent uprising in 2000 that left thousands dead.
Of the dozens already dead this year, many weren’t yet born in 2000. Earlier this week, a 13-year-old stabbed a border police officer and a 14-year-old stabbed another teen. Their youth underscores a generational cycle of brutality, but also reflects an increased bleakness after Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in Israel with hard-right support.
A January poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found a 10-point decline in support for a two-state solution, the lowest since the survey began in 2016. Sixty per cent of Palestinians and two-thirds of Israeli Jews say they believe another intifada is beginning. “Trust is declining to new low points,” the centre reported.
The hardening of attitudes comes as the Israeli far right assumes unprecedented influence. Late last year, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a nationalistic provocateur who advocates hard-line measures, became the country’s national security minister. After a Bethlehem-born Palestinian man rammed a car into a bus stop last week, killing two elementary school-aged children and a 20-year-old man, Mr. Ben-Gvir came in person to declare he wanted to lock down the entire neighbourhood where the driver had lived. “I am fighting for capital punishment against terrorists,” he said. “I want to search their houses without a warrant.”
During Mr. Ben-Gvir’s visit, protesters chanted demands for stronger measures.
Israeli security forces must be empowered to kill on sight anyone who so much as holds a weapon or Molotov cocktail, argued Arieh King, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the Israel Land Foundation, which advocates for Jews living in East Jerusalem. Such a person “should know that he will be shot. This is the only way they understand, unfortunately,” he said.
Mr. King has been an enthusiastic supporter of demolishing Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, on the grounds that they were illegally built. In Silwan, which Israeli Jews divide into three regions (the King’s Garden, the City of David and the Yemenite Village of Shiloach), 6,580 homes have received demolition orders, roughly 40 per cent of the area’s housing capacity.
Mr. King believes much of Silwan’s residential areas should be remade into park land, in keeping with a belief that the area was once home to Israel’s royal gardens.
He dismisses the valley’s Palestinian homes, many of them handsome multigeneration houses built alongside decrepit public infrastructure, as worse than a slum. Peace is only possible, he said, if Muslims are brought to heel. “The only way is if the non-Muslims are controlling the area and they are responsible for security. Without that, it’s just a matter of time before the Muslims will massacre.”
Authorities accuse Wadi’ Abu Ramuz of being one of those people, saying the 17-year-old launched firebombs and explosives at Israeli officers in Silwan in the last week of January. He died after being shot in the abdomen at close range, his parents say.
But his death, in the midst of a deadly back-and-forth, has raised more questions. “Why would you shoot him in the abdomen?” asked Hadeel Abu Ramuz, his mother. “Shoot him in the leg. Shoot him in the hand. Arrest him. But don’t kill him.”
Initially, Wadi’ survived the shooting and surgeons removed a kidney, his spleen, his liver and part of his intestines. But Ms. Abu Ramuz was not allowed to see him until she hired a lawyer who, she said, asked a judge, “What kind of law prohibits a mother from seeing her child who is dying?” The judge allowed her in.
Wadi’ woke from his anesthetic slumber when she entered his room, greeting her with a thumbs up. She tried to kiss him, “but there were too many hoses connected to his body,” she recalled.
Doctors told Ms. Abu Ramuz that her son should survive. He was shot on a Wednesday. On Thursday, the Israeli army killed nine Palestinians in a refugee camp, including some they identified as terrorists. That Friday, another young Palestinian man, 21-year-old Khairi Alqam, shot and killed seven people near a synagogue in East Jerusalem.
Wadi’ died that day, Jan. 27. His mother learned of her son’s death through the media. The family has not yet been given the body to bury. They have, however, received significant attention from authorities. On three occasions, security forces shot tear gas into the family’s courtyard after mourners gathered there. Authorities ordered them to take down a Palestinian flag and remove pictures of their son. “They don’t want people to honour martyrs,” Ms. Abu Ramuz said. Wadi’’s father, Aziz, also lost his job at a kitchen that served Orthodox Jews.
Clashes are common in Silwan.
But local leaders say recent violence has a different complexion, a series of seemingly uncoordinated acts committed by individuals with no evident connection to each other.
Mahmoud Aleiwat, the 13-year-old, “acted not based on a leadership, not based on any instruction. His was an individual act. And that’s the new trend,” said Fakhri Abu-Diab, a respected Palestinian community advocate in Silwan, who regularly meets ambassadors and visiting dignitaries.
For years, he has begged them to do more to raise the economic circumstances of Palestinians. Lately, his pleas have become more urgent.
“If no political solution is on the table, I expect the situation to become worse and more dangerous than now,” Mr. Abu-Diab said. If nothing changes, “then intifada is coming. And this one will be a hard one,” he says. “I feel it.”
People, he added, “have nothing to lose.”
But recent violence defies easy explanation. Khairi Alqam, the man who killed seven outside the synagogue before he was himself killed, had a great deal to lose. He owned a car, ran a business as an electrician with several employees and was nearing marriage. “We had prepared his gold for him” as a wedding dowry, said Ali Alqam, his uncle, who had also offered his nephew his flat after he was married.
“We thought he had hope. But more importantly, we had hope in him. He was our hope,” Ali said. Now, Khairi’s father is disconsolate, Ali said. “He has become like a crazy person talking to himself. He keeps asking the same question: ‘Why did he do it? We gave him everything. We loved him. Why did he do it?’”
Ali points to his surroundings as an explanation. Garbage and broken glass litter the ground in the shadow of the Mount of Olives, in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood that does not enjoy many of the public services available elsewhere in the city. A loud bang echoes when a car drives into a road sinkhole next to a large demolition site, bursting a tire.
“When people are oppressing you, then you stop being afraid of death,” Ali said.
Khairi was named after his grandfather, who was stabbed to death in 1998 while he was walking through an Orthodox area. When the man who stabbed him was released from prison in 2010, he was embraced by Mr. Ben-Gvir, who belonged to the same far-right movement.
The cycle of violence “is an unsolvable thing,” Ali said. “It started a long long time ago and it will continue until the oppressive measures stop.”
Jewish groups say young Palestinians are seduced by textbooks and authorities that glorify killing Jews. It is a culture of violence, said Daniel Luria, pointing to the cheers that emanate from some mosques and Islamic associations after attacks on Jews.
Mr. Luria leads Ateret Cohanim, which has led efforts to bring Jewish settlers to Silwan. The Jewish father shot by Mahmoud is his friend. The two were out for a Sabbath walk when they were attacked, Mr. Luria said. The friend’s son took a bullet to the chest and is now in a coma, with suspected brain damage.
“The world needs to understand who and what we are dealing with here,” he said. His group now counts more than 130 Jewish families in Silwan, another 150 on the Mount of Olives and 1,000 Jewish residents in the Muslim Quarter. He describes it as the Zionist dream, a “revitalization of Jewish life in the heart of Jerusalem.”
He does not believe it is fair to accuse authorities of brutality for demolishing homes that Israeli authorities consider illegal.
“There’s no shortage of Arab countries. And if someone doesn’t like to live in a Jewish state for Jewish people,” he said, “they can find somewhere else to live.”
It’s an idea that makes little allowance for the lives established in Silwan, where virtually all efforts to legalize Palestinian homes have been in vain. Sami Rajabi, 55, has spent nearly $115,000 to secure permits for the large home that once housed 35 people in a part of Silwan whose name means “spring of the almond garden.”
He failed, and when bulldozers came last May to raze it, he was charged another $60,000 in demolition fees. He then received a $25,000 tax bill for his home, even after his family moved into a hastily-arranged temporary structure.
Today, they prepare za’atar on a bed and stuff a shirt into the ceiling to soak up leaking water.
Mr. Rajabi opens a wallet to show the 200 shekel bill – $75 – he has left. He hasn’t worked since experiencing a heart attack after the demolition. One of his children is in jail after protesting the demolition. Six grandchildren now share a room in their makeshift home.
The outlook for today’s youth has grown dimmer than for generations past, Mr. Rajabi said.
When he was a child, “I had hope,” Mr. Rajabi said. “These children have no hope whatsoever.”
The Globe and Mail, February 16, 2023