Jerusalem. Joel Carillet / Getty Images IL

Watching 'Our Boys' Made Me Realize: Jerusalem Can No Longer Be Divided

Israel finds itself in a confused state about the Palestinians residing in East Jerusalem. Budgets are channeled to them, yet they’re denied citizenship. But they’re not waiting for the Israelis to decide – they are deciding for the Israelis



For me it all started on the first day of summer vacation. I was with the children at a pool, when the paper called and asked me to cover the funerals of the three teens in the summer of 2014. That evening, on the way back to Jerusalem from the funerals, in Modi’in, it came to me that the place I needed to be was at the demonstration by the extreme right on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. I took the light-rail train from home, but the tracks were blocked just before Zion Square by demonstrators. Through the train window I photographed Itamar Ben-Gvir and a group of young people entering and leaving a store. I uploaded the photo to Facebook and wrote one word: “Searching.” No one ever asked what or who they were searching for.

During the night I ran after the rioters in central Jerusalem, as they tenaciously hunted down Arabs. I photographed them galloping through the streets and screaming “Death to the Arabs,” around and among café-goers who were watching the World Cup soccer game between Argentina and Switzerland. Next to Cats Square, I witnessed an attack on two Palestinian security guards. One of them had a long club, which he used to help defend himself bravely against a large number of assailants. Right next to me, a police officer seized an ultra-Orthodox youth who was holding a large stone. The policeman told him to drop the stone and beat it. What would have happened if it had been a Palestinian teen?

Itamar Ben-Gvir. "Searching."

The phone began ringing at 7 the following morning. A burnt body in the city. I drove to the Jerusalem Forest but wasn’t allowed to approach. From there I went to the Arab neighborhood of Shoafat, in the northeast of the city, but there, too, I was blocked, because stones were already being thrown and barriers had been erected next to the Abu Khdeir family’s home. So I went to the police station in the Russian Compound, in the city center. In the courtyard, reporters, waiting for a briefing from the police, got into an argument over whether “Jews could do something like that.”

Around midday I met with Hussein Abu Khdeir, the father of Mohammed, the victim, shortly after he was released from a lengthy interrogation, which is depicted very well – and very disturbingly – in the recent HBO miniseries “Our Boys.” In a clip I shot that day on the verandah of his house, I asked him about what had happened.

“Our Boys” does a fine job of showing the efforts made by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police to figure out what model of car the murderers of Mohammed used, making use of blurred images from a security camera and a sketch by a child who had been attacked by the murderers on the evening before the killing. To the best of my knowledge, those scenes in the series are a faithful recapitulation of the investigation. But in the clip I made, hours after the murder, I asked the elder Abu Khdeir about the car. The person next to him replied, correctly: a Honda Civic. At first he said it was a white car but then immediately corrected himself and said it was gray. Sometimes one only need to listen; it took a very long time for the investigators to figure out the color and make of that car.

But what is the importance of all this? And what will remain in the history books about the murder and the events that followed it?

Those events were without a doubt a breaking point between the Jewish and Palestinian communities in Jerusalem. The wave of violence that swept the city in the wake of the murder became a mini-intifada that continued on and off for more than two years. The murder stirred fury and fear, and a desire for vengeance, in the Palestinian neighborhoods, and in the Jewish areas, too. Mental walls of fear erected a decade earlier loomed again, and people from both sides were afraid to cross over into the other side of the city. But time passed and the cracks have mended, more or less.

After a brief boycott, Palestinians resumed buying at the Azriel Mall in Malha, and after two-three winters the racists of the Lehava organization abandoned Zion Square. In the shopping center in the Jewish neighborhood of French Hill, in northern Jerusalem but across the Green Line, Fuad Abidan, a resident of the Ras al-Amud neighborhood of East Jerusalem, opened a terrific hummus place. More recently, he also began managing the neighborhood café.

But as I see it, the murder symbolizes a breaking point, perhaps more important than that between the Palestinians and Israelis, that will ensure that this story has a place in the pages of history. The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the events that followed turned out to be a watershed in shaping the identity of the Palestinians in Jerusalem. It was the moment when they defined themselves as a distinct political community, half-separate from their brethren in the West Bank.

Episode No. 8 of the series contains a short scene in which the members of the extended Abu Khdeir family gather for a discussion and consultation. The topic on the agenda: Should the father of the family, Hussein, attend the trial of the people charged with killing his son?

Ran Mendelsohn / Yes

“If you want to maintain the holiness of your martyr son, do not go to that court,” says one of the participants. Another argues that attending the trial would be an act that affirms normalization and the occupation. “What does the court have to do with the sanctity of the martyr?” asks Mohammed’s brother, Eyad, who is played brilliantly by Shadi Mar’i. “Even if the trial is a sham, my father must be there. Even if only to show presence. What is the meaning of our lives in Jerusalem? Proving that we exist here.”

That soul-searching over the question of whether to be present in the courtroom of the occupation authorities does not exist in the West Bank, where Palestinians will typically refuse to cooperate with an Israeli military investigation or trial. A decade ago, showing up in court would not have happened in Jerusalem, either. But something has happened in the city. Something big.

Walls and barriers

The murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir occurred about a decade after the completion of the separation barrier between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Until its construction, East Jerusalem was the effective capital of the nonexistent Palestinian political entity. The national theater operated in Jerusalem, the important newspapers were published in the city – even the Palestinian police had a foothold in East Jerusalem. Foreign ambassadors and ministers from their countries met with Faisal Husseini (the Palestinian minister of Jerusalem affairs) at the Orient House, hospitals in the eastern part of the city were filled with patients from the West Bank, and Al-Aqsa Mosque was packed with worshippers from there.

But then the second intifada erupted, Faisal Husseini died abroad and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the closure of Orient House and the other Palestinian institutions in the city. But most important: Israel erected a wall between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Concurrently, the Israeli government erected a legal barrier as well, in the form of an emergency order (which has been in effect for the past 18 years) that prohibits family unification between Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Palestinians who are Israeli citizens or permanent residents, from Jerusalem. In one fell swoop, East Jerusalem was cut off from its West Bank hinterland.

In the first stage, a deep crisis struck the eastern part of the city. The poverty rate surged, hospitals faced bankruptcy, thousands of families fell apart or found themselves in a legal limbo. But in the second stage, the Palestinian population in Jerusalem realized that its situation was not about to change – so they would have to be the ones to change. That was the moment when many Palestinian high-school students started to take the Israeli matriculation exams, Palestinian students enrolled in Israeli colleges and eventually in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the labor market underwent an upheaval: Palestinian workers moved from jobs behind the scenes in the kitchen to become waiters, construction workers became small-time contractors and salespeople in fashion stores became shift managers. Jews suddenly found themselves working shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians. Mixed and almost equal spaces sprang up out of nowhere – in the light-rail train, in stores and in the hospitals. In fact, just before Abu Khdeir’s murder, Jerusalem was united as never before.

Make no mistake: This was not a transformation of identity. The Jerusalem Palestinians did not become less Palestinian. Just the opposite, apparently. Just as the Israeli Palestinians did not become less Palestinian in the wake of their ongoing integration into Israeli society. Thus, this complexity came to a head in the Abu Khdeir case for one instant, in which one person had to decide whether to enter an Israeli courtroom and look at the faces of his son’s murderers. What is the meaning of life in Jerusalem, Eyad asks in the television series. To demonstrate that we live here.

“We live here”: That is the essence of the Jerusalem Palestinian ethos in the post-wall era. And if living here entails having to be in court, we will go to court. If it entails learning Hebrew, or working as cleaners or salespeople in the Malha Mall, then we will learn Hebrew and work in the Malha Mall. If to that end we have to put up with the humiliating lines in the Interior Ministry branch in the Wadi Joz neighborhood, or undergo body searches by the Border Police in Bab al-Amud, we will endure that, too.

Emil Salman

But “We live here” is also the Palestinians’ greatest victory. There is no other Palestinian group – not in the West Bank, not in the Gaza Strip, not in the Triangle area in central Israel and not in the refugee camps in Lebanon – that poses a challenge to Israel of the magnitude of the simple sentence uttered by the character of Eyad. Israel has succeeded in breaking up the Palestinian people into groups. For each group a suit was tailor-made that would ensure continued Israeli control and Palestinian dichotomy. The West Bank was chopped up into enclaves, the Gaza Strip was made to vanish behind a fence, and the Arabs in Israel are gradually being assimilated even as the gaps between them and the rest of the Palestinians widen.

Israel has turned divide-and-rule into an art; it has the ability to dangle a different basket of sticks and carrots before each Palestinian group. For the Gaza Strip, Israel can offer more diesel fuel for electricity or money from Qatar; for West Bank Arabs, more work permits or fewer checkpoints; for the Arabs of Israel, more budgets for roads or schools. As for sticks, no elaboration is needed.

There’s only one thing to which Israel has no answer: Eyad’s assertion that “We live here.” Only one Palestinian group poses a challenge to Israel for which the latter has no response: What to do with the 330,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, out of an overall population of 901,000? On the one hand, Israel wants them because they are part of “united” Jerusalem; on the other, Israel doesn’t want them, because they are Palestinians. So we’ll allocate some money, we’ll build schools – but we won’t give them citizenship, and we’ll reduce their living space as much as possible. 

Emil Salman

True, they don’t participate in municipal elections, but otherwise, they are not waiting for Israel to decide. They have decided for Israel. Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s parents, Hussein and Suha, attended the trial, sat in the courtroom day after day, looking at the faces of the murderers.

The Palestinians in Jerusalem have decided for everyone who lives between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. “We live here” means that we the Palestinians live in Jerusalem, the whole of Jerusalem – the western part, too. Their steadfast determination to obtain their rights in the city, as well as to retain their Palestinian identity, makes it clear to all of us that this city can no longer be divided.

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