The Twilight Zone

Assaulted for Being Arab

In a Jerusalem hotel, a group of guests from Afula attacked an Arab employee, an education student. They were released quickly. He’s still afraid to leave home.

Alex Levac

Mohammed Azam is so frightened he won’t leave his house. He’s petrified of traveling on a bus, on the light-rail train and even in a taxi. His father drives him everywhere. He’s also apprehensive about going back to the university when the academic year begins next week. He’s ashamed to face other students while he is still bandaged, limping and wracked by pain.

Azam is in this state because he was beaten: According to testimony from witnesses, he was assaulted because he is an Arab.

Azam is studying special education at the Open University in West Jerusalem. For a living, he works as a room attendant at the Rimonim Shalom Hotel in the city’s largely Orthodox Bayit Vegan neighborhood. He himself lives in the Shuafat neighborhood, in the northern part of the city. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the teenager who this summer was kidnapped and murdered – burned alive – was a cousin and a neighbor. Azam was with him the night he was abducted.

Azam’s father, Faisal, a building contractor, is from the Azazma Bedouin tribe in the Negev; his forebears moved to Shuafat over a century ago. Many members of the family serve in the Israeli army.

Azam, a charming, soft-spoken young man of 20, speaks fluent Hebrew.

“There are children who have special needs, and I want to help them,” he explains. “That’s what drew me to the special-ed field.”

Even though his family is relatively affluent, Azam insists on providing for himself, and has been working in hotels for a few years; in the past two months he has been employed at Rimonim Shalom. He likes the work, he says, and especially his current job. During the recent Sukkot festival, when occupancy was very high, he worked almost around the clock.

Azam was working last Friday, October 17: He left home at 6:15 A.M. and reported for work at 7. Donning his light-brown uniform, he began his rounds of cleaning rooms and tidying up on the hotel’s 12th floor. At about 3 P.M. he was asked to go to the eighth floor, to help Afaf Natshe, a chambermaid from the Shuafat refugee camp. She had to finish her rounds by 4, when transportation home was provided.

Arriving on the eighth floor, Azam relates, he saw Natshe surrounded by a group of what he called tough-looking men, who were trying, for unclear reasons, to force her into one of the rooms. Eight rooms on the floor were occupied by members of one family from Afula, in the Jezreel Valley; some of them were harassing the chambermaid.

“I saw the guests messing around with the girl,” says Azam, who asked the guests what the problem was. They said she had refused to clean their room.

According to Azam, about 15 people surrounded the young woman. She told Azam that this particular room was not on her work roster and therefore she couldn’t clean it. He tried to explain this to the guests and suggested that they call the reception desk. But at this stage, he says, he was attacked.

“If you don’t clean the room right now, we’ll kill you,” one of the guests said, whereupon Azam says he became the subject of a flood of curses and blows.

Azam is certain that if he hadn’t been an Arab he would not have been attacked. The guests cursed the prophet Mohammed. Azam, who in recent years has become more devout and now prays five times a day, will not repeat what they said, nor will he mention the curses they uttered against his parents and Arabs in general. He is too embarrassed.

He had no way out, as the group of thugs from Afula stood between Azam and the emergency exit door. He says they hit him with clubs and also with chairs. Another hotel employee who arrived on the scene said he saw them wielding a stick and a toilet brush. They also wound a rope around Azam’s neck, apparently trying to choke him. Red marks on his neck are visible in a photo taken at the hospital.

The incident went on for five minutes, until the arrival of the hotel security man, Amikam Canaan, for whom Azam only has praise. He feels he owes Canaan his life, as he is convinced the guests wanted to make good on their repeated threats to kill him. When Canaan arrived, Azam fled.

In the meantime, the hotel called the police and the Magen David Adom emergency ambulance service. Azam was taken to nearby Shaare Zedek Medical Center, where he spent the night. Two hotel guests, apparently a father and son, were taken into custody by the police, also overnight. The hotel management demanded that the whole family leave.

After he was released from Shaare Zedek, Azam was still in great pain, and his father took him to Hadassah University Hospital, on Mount Scopus, where he spent another night.

Now one arm is bandaged, his neck is in a brace, his face is scratched, his mouth is bruised, and it’s hard for him to sit or move about. The hospital photo shows his hotel uniform stained with blood.

Faisal, his father, is furious: “I teach my children not to harm anyone, Arabs or Jews. If you come to a hotel with clubs, are you there for an outing or to kill? I think they wanted to throw the girl out the window. I wanted to tell the police investigator: ‘If it had been your son and Arabs had attacked him, the Shin Bet [security service] would have been called in immediately and the assailants would have been in custody for a long time.’

“I have a blue ID card, just like Bibi Netanyahu, and we live in the same country. If you want us to be Israelis, you have to treat us the same way. We and people from Eilat are the same. We are not in the territories. I am an Israeli. If my son had beaten up a Jew, he would still be in jail a year from now.”

The Jerusalem District Police, for their part, are suspicious of both sides. A spokesperson offered a laconic response: “The incident involved mutual threats and assault. Both sides were questioned, and the investigation is continuing.” The management of the hotel chain stated: “The Rimonim hotel chain deplores any manifestation of racism or violence. As soon as the hotel staff learned of the event, steps were taken to restore calm. We are in constant touch with the employee and his family, and expect him to return to work within a few days. We hope the Israel Police will bring the assailants to justice.”

Father and son heap praise on the hotel’s management, whose representatives continue to visit and follow his recovery – an attitude that cannot be taken for granted. But Azam is afraid to go back to work.

“I provided a service to those guests,” he says. “I was there to give them what they needed – a towel, soap, shampoo, toilet paper. I provided it all with respect. I didn’t mistreat them. Why did all this happen? Racism. Only racism. I am barely 20 ... I was born in this house, and when I was born there was no intifada and no wars. I only read about them in books.

“I was born into peace,” he continues. “In 1995, it looked like there would be peace. That is why I am studying at the campus in West Jerusalem. I could have gone to the Al-Quds Open University in East Jerusalem, but I believe in peace, so I am going to the Israeli Open University. My teachers are Jews. My friends are Israelis. I have a blue ID card and even wanted to take out an Israeli passport. Now I’m thinking about that again.

“I believe that God loves me. I pray five times a day. Otherwise I would never have come out of there alive.”