33-year-old Mohammad Abu Khdeir stood outside the Shuafat girls secondary school where the commemoration of the kidnapping and murder of his teenage cousin (who had the same name) was taking place. Down the street was one of several heavily armed Israeli Border Police units strategically placed throughout the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat.
“It has always been about intimidation,” Abu Khdeir told me.
The Israeli Border Police – a paramilitary unit tasked with enforcing occupation – were stationed near the light rail stop close to the illegal Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, and appeared ready to launch a full-scale military operation. One unit was deploying an aerostat surveillance balloon. Among several military and police vehicles, a skunk truck idled, ready to blast the neighborhood with its putrid mix that smells of decaying flesh and feces. Overhead, an Apache attack helicopter passed by. Locals said it had been making rounds all day.
“It was the same thing a year ago,” Mohammad Abu Khdeir continued. “Instead of going to look for my cousin, Mohammed, they stayed in Shuafat taking cameras and harrassing us. They brought a big show of force instead of going to look for him. We still believe that they may have had a chance to find him if they had gone to look for him instead of harassing us here. When we found out that he [Mohammed] was dead, all hell broke loose. But that’s how it is out here. That’s how it is with them. They want to show you that they’re in charge and it doesn’t matter if we are right or wrong. It’s their house. It’s the way they want to do it.”
July 2nd marked one year since the brutal murder of 16-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir at the hands of three Israeli settlers. As the rail thin boy sat on his steps in front his home, he was forced into a car, bludgeoned, forced to drink gasoline and burned alive. Israeli police planted a rumor that Mohammed was murdered by his family in an honor killing, and brought family members in for questioning and demanded they take responsibility. Hours later, Mohammed’s charred corpse was found in a forest a few miles away.
While the trial drags on, the Abu Khdeir family fears that Yosef Chaim Ben David, the 30-year-old former eyeglass shop owner who led the attack, will be declared insane and unfit for trial.
Meanwhile, the pain of Mohammed’s brutal murder has not subsided. I recently visited the boy’s grieving parents, Hussein, 50, and Suha Abu Khdeir, 45. “They burned Mohammed once, but we burn every day,” Hussein Abu Khdeir told me as he watched CCTV recording of the kidnapping on his iphone. He scrolled through Facebook, showing me a screenshot from the latest gruesome ISIS video. “I was at the funeral for the Jordanian pilot they burned alive,” he said. “There’s no difference between these killers and my son’s.”
A couple of meters away from the steps where Mohammed sat when he was kidnapped, an estimated 300 Palestinians gathered. Holding signs, they chanted demands of justice for Mohammed. As their calls echoed throughout Shuafat, the light rail passed by, shuttling bewildered Israelis back to their Jewish-only settlements that have strategically limited the growth of the indigenous neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.
Four boys sat on the railing in front of the Abu Khdeir’s house. Like most Palestinians in Shuafat, they boys did not want to identify themselves for fear of Israeli Border Police reprisal attacks. One boy was a 12-year-old cousin of Mohammed. “We are very scared in the morning during Fajr prayers,” he said, referring to the Ramadan morning prayer during which Mohammed was kidnapped. “We expect there to be confrontations with Israeli soldiers,” the boy explained, wearing a shirt with an image of his dead cousin. His friend, 15, sat next to him on the wall. “I was arrested and forced to stay in my house for one month,” he said.
The families are scared, but they kids are brave,” 28-year-old Ansam Abu Khdeir remarked to me.
This would make sense as the attacks on the Abu Khdeir family a year ago were vicious. 15-year-old Palestinian-American Tariq Abu Khdeir was handcuffed and nearly beaten to death by three Israeli police on film, and denied proper medical treatment, leaving him unrecognizable to his mother. Throughout the next several months, dozens of boys from the neighborhood were rounded up as the Israeli Border Police launched raids and collectively punished the neighborhood. Local youth vented their frustration by destroying Israeli infrastructure in the neighborhood which remain in disrepair. The Israeli police attacks on the Abu Khdeir family was so egregious that the U.S. government told the Israeli government to refrain from targeting the Abu Khdeir family.
After the crowd gathered, they marched down the main arterial road and along the light rail’s path, before heading up a hill to the secondary school. The family led the procession and held banners bearing their dead son’s image, while a marching band featuring horns, drums and bagpipes played the Palestinian national anthem. Inside the courtyard, large banners were hung on the walls. “They kidnapped, tortured and burned you” and “Story of burning childhood,” they read. Hundreds of people filed in and sat down.
Local leaders spoke including, including Atallah Hanna, Archbishop of Sebastia from the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and a leading figure of Palestinian Christians. “Religion will not divide the Palestinians. We all have one cause,” he boomed.
“Our children’s lives are not owned by the occupation,” Hussein Abu Khdeir declared to the cheering crowd.
Aside from a few journalists, the support that the Abu Khdeir family saw immediately after the murder from the margins of Israeli society had disappeared. The only Knesset member to attend the memorial was Osama Saadi from the Joint List.
A traditional dance troupe did a macabre and moving performance. Young women swayed over a representation of the boy’s corpse, some of them unable to hold back their tears as they performed. Their male counterparts picked up the body and the females joined in as family members burst into tears.
After the speeches and performance, the Abu Khdeir family had spent tens of thousands of dollars on an Iftar dinner for the hundreds of people who came to the memorial. In a last minute move, Fatah political representatives attempted to pay for the dinner. However, the Abu Khdeir family rejected the move, dismissing it as an attempt to save face and make political gains.
During the procession went on, a small explosion was heard outside the school courtyard, sounding similar to the flash bangs the Israeli Border Police typically use during attacks. Young men and boys jumped out of their seats and rushed out, but it was a false alarm.
Down the hill, Israeli forces were stationed on the corner. There, 65-year-old Mohammad Abu Khdeir, was frustrated with the Border Police presence. “Thanks for coming! See you later,” he sarcastically shouted at them as one vehicle drove away. “They are instigators!”
Abu Khdeir pointed to a group of boys on the corner. “These little kids grow up on their brutality and aggression. You look at me? I look at you with ten eyes. You push me? I kick your ass!”
Born in Shuafat, Mohammad Abu Khdeir now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. I asked him how the racism he witnesses in Baltimore compares to his experience in his native Jerusalem. “Even with the white and black racism, this is worse,” he shouted. “This is Zionism!”
Aware that Border Police were waiting for pretext to attack the neighborhood, Abu Khdeir instructed the local youth to go home. “They is exactly what’s happening with these kids. Just leave them alone! If you go to the Israeli areas there are places to play soccer and ping-pong. These kids have nothing. They play soccer in the streets. Why don’t they [Israelis] do something equal? You treat me [right], I treat you [right]. But to treat Israelis different than the Palestinians? This is a no-no!”
Visibly upset, Abu Khdeir’s family members asked him to leave the area. “I say, ‘No justice no peace,’” he shouted as he walked away.