Drowning of 8-year-old Boy in East Jerusalem Sparks Memories of Murder

Security footage was enough for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to be convinced that the disappearance of Qais Abu Ramila was a repeat of Mohammed Abu Khdeir's kidnapping and murder in 2014

Searching for Qais Abu Ramila in Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, January 25, 2020.
Emil Salman

Qais Abu Ramila, an 8-year-old resident of Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood, left his home Friday afternoon and never returned. Early Saturday morning, after hours of searches, he was found dead at the bottom of a rainwater-filled pit in the neighborhood.

Rescue forces found Abu Ramila after pumping out rainwater flooding the pit near his home.

Abu Ramila’s family reported he was missing since 4 P.M. on Friday, Israel Police said. He had been sent on an errand at a nearby grocery store.

The reason for his disappearance and the circumstances that led to his drowning are still unclear. But for both residents of the neighborhood and the security services, the nerve-racking hours they lived through on Friday recalled another traumatic incident from Jerusalem’s past.

Shortly after his family realized that Abu Ramila had disappeared and informed the police, footage from security cameras was published on social media. The blurry clip showed the silhouette of an adult man walking alongside a child whom he was dragging by the hand. And that was enough for Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to be convinced that this was a repeat of Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder in 2014.

Abu Khdeir was kidnapped by Jews from the nearby Shoafat neighborhood and killed shortly thereafter. At the time, police initially refused to believe the family’s claims of a kidnapping, despite concrete evidence.

On Friday, there was no evidence of an abduction, but rumors spread quickly. Nobody in the neighborhood questioned the assertion that “settlers kidnapped the boy.” The collective trauma left by Abu Khdeir’s murder was evident in residents’ reactions, and for a time, there were fears that the entire city would be swept up in violent clashes.

Friday evening, hundreds of Palestinian men gathered in the streets of Beit Hanina. At one point, they began marching toward the neighboring Jewish neighborhood of Neveh Ya’akov, in what seemed like a cross between a search mission and a violent demonstration.

Generally, Beit Hanina residents are good neighbors. But Friday, things looked different, and police stationed large forces at the entrance of Neveh Ya’akov to stop the march.

Clashes soon erupted at the site, with the demonstrators throwing stones and the police shooting sponge-tipped bullets. The Palestinians reported 12 wounded.

At the same time, 500 meters away, police officers, Palestinians, firefighters and employees of Hagihon, Jerusalem’s municipal water and sewage corporation, were working together to pump the water from the large pit near the family’s home to see if Abu Ramila was there. Despite the near-zero temperatures, several Palestinian divers from the neighborhood tried to dive into the murky water, but found nothing.

And despite the clashes taking place at the same time, this unusual cooperative effort significantly eased the tension in the city.

At one point, rumors flew among neighborhood residents that Abu Ramila had fallen into a different pit, over at a construction site. Dozens of Palestinian men went to the site together with a detachment of riot police, better known by their Hebrew acronym Yasam, and together, they assaulted the tin fence around the site to try to break in and check the pit. To anyone familiar with the usual relationship between Yasam and East Jerusalem residents, this was a surreal sight.

After breaking through the fence, the police shot flares to assist the searchers as the Palestinians shouted encouragement to them. One young man stripped and entered the freezing rainwater that had collected in the pit as the police officers called out directions.

But sometime before dawn on Saturday, after hours of pumping, the boy’s body was found at the bottom of the first pit they had searched.

Abu Ramila’s death ought to shine a spotlight on East Jerusalem’s infrastructure and construction problems. After decades of neglected infrastructure, poor planning and the endless red tape that entangled anyone who sought to build legally, East Jerusalem residents embarked on illegal, unsupervised and irresponsible construction. The combination of poor infrastructure and unregulated building created countless dangerous construction sites.

In every East Jerusalem neighborhood, there are sites where construction has been halted due to bureaucratic problems or stop-work orders. As the years passed, the fences around these sites collapsed or were broken, if they ever existed to begin with. And in the absence of parks and sports fields – another aspect of the neglect of these Palestinian neighborhoods – the children of East Jerusalem turned these deserted building sites into their play areas.

The pit where Abu Ramila died was an expansion of an old drainage ditch that residents said was dug by the city and Hagihon last year during work to upgrade a nearby road. Residents said there were no fences or warning signs around the pit, which was located very close to the neighborhood school.

Easily accessible construction sides, poor infrastructure and the heavy rains of the past two weeks all combined to create the death trap in which Abu Ramila met his end.