The 1987 uprising began with a falsely reported traffic accident in Gaza. Today, in the seething neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, its latest incarnation can be tied to the disputed suicide of an Arab bus driver
SHUAFAT REFUGEE CAMP, East Jerusalem — At the entrance, a little beyond the Border Police checkpoint, it’s hard to tell which is more overpowering – the tear gas that hits you at the first turn in the road or the smell of burnt trash that follows you across the camp. In almost every corner there are piles of garbage, some of them burnt, some not.
The UNRWA workers look busy trying to clear at least some of the garbage from the streets, without any notable success. A few dozen meters away, above the main street, a huge sign hangs, impossible to miss. The visage of Ibrahim al-Akary, the terrorist who fatally ran over two Israelis on November 5, flutters over the passersby. The text beside him praises the “brave martyr who carried out the ramming attack,” signed, the Hamas military wing, Izz al-Din al-Qassam.
Movement by car is almost impossible. The roads are damaged and crowded. Local youths are trying to direct the cars, and yell at drivers if they hold up the traffic. Next to the Ramoni mini-market, next to the school, traffic is at a standstill. The smell of garbage is especially strong here. Even in the refugee camps of the West Bank, it is hard to match the hardship that hits you in the eye, and nose, here in Shuafat.
Groups of little kids wander all over, walking the streets in the morning, doing nothing much at all. School today? Evidently not. Most arrive eventually at the junction at the camp’s entrance, at the curve in the road opposite the Border Police checkpoint. More and more kids gather around a group of masked figures who are not much older. There are kids between the ages of 6 and 16, with the older ones wearing keffiyehs, and the younger kids looking especially excited to go out to battle.
This refugee camp is different from the other neighborhoods and villages in East Jerusalem. Especially poor and underdeveloped, it is surrounded by gray walls and, outside them, two Jewish neighborhoods, French Hill and Pisgat Ze’ev. A visit makes it clear, at least here, that the “al-Quds intifada,” the Jerusalem intifada, has already begun, and isn’t waiting for commentators to give the official word. For the youths in the camps, the clashes in recent weeks are a matter of daily routine. Despair is seen here in all its glory, and so is the hatred for Israel and Jews. No one here sheds a tear for the five Israelis butchered the day before at the synagogue in Har Nof.
In the meantime, the stone-throwing has picked up again, and someone from over the wall responds with tear gas.
Now, the smell of the gas overcomes that of the burnt garbage.
The First Intifada in December 1987 was triggered by a car accident in the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza between an Israeli truck driver and a car carrying Palestinian workers. Four Palestinians were killed. Immediately after the accident, a false rumor spread that the killing was intentional and that the Israeli driver wanted to avenge the death of a relative killed in a terror attack.
Palestinian media (which then operated under Israeli supervision, not under Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority) kindled the flames and turned the rumor into fact. A huge wave of protests began, and along with it the six-year “intifada of stones.”
On Monday morning, the body of a Palestinian bus driver, Yussef al-Ramouni, was found hanging in his bus in the Har Hotzvim parking lot in northern Jerusalem. Jerusalem District Police insisted it was a suicide and that there was no suspicion of foul play.
Israel was busy that day with news about early elections, and Palestinian claims that Ramouni was murdered didn’t garner much attention. And still, in order to reduce the potential volatility of the incident, the police decided to allow an autopsy at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, with a Palestinian pathologist, Sabr al-Alul, present.
According to Israeli doctors, the autopsy finished with the unequivocal conclusion that Ramouni committed suicide.
What’s more, they said that Alul agreed with their findings. But for reasons that remain unclear, no one demanded that he sign the report. And here things really start to get complicated. Alul, for some reason, leaked to the Palestinian press a conflicting conclusion, that Ramouni died of strangulation, and it was not a suicide. He detailed why and how he reached that conclusion.
The rumor that another Palestinian (after the murder of teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir by Jewish extremists, following the killings of three Jewish teens by a Hamas-linked cell in the summer) had been murdered at the hands of Jews spread like wildfire. It is hard to remember such a consensus among Palestinians, religious and secular, young and old, rich and refugees, like the one that now holds that Jewish settlers had strangled Ramouni. The neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were on fire once again.
But in the al-Quds intifada, unlike the popular uprising in 1987, Palestinians aren’t satisfied with just riots. On Tuesday morning, cousins Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal left their home in Jabel Mukaber in southeast Jerusalem and headed to the Har Nof neighborhood on the opposite edge of the city. They apparently knew the targeted synagogue, and went inside and murdered four innocent worshipers and a Druze traffic cop who tried to stop them.
When I tried to ask East Jerusalem youths how they explain the murderers’ savagery, they said again and again that it was a natural reaction to the murder (that never happened) of the bus driver.
On Wednesday, contrary to statements from the Israeli government, the entrances to East Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods were not blocked, not even in Jabel Mukaber, the home of the two Har Nof killers. Traffic flowed out of the village freely, with no delay or check. The only slowdown was near the mourner’s tent the family of the two terrorists put up.
Dozens of cars belonging to people paying condolence calls and journalists crowded the especially narrow street. Here too, the smell stood out – dozens of tear gas grenades, and possibly also the putrid liquid the police use to disperse riots, left their substantial mark on the village’s air.
On Thursday, there were heavy clashes here between local youths and the police, and they will doubtless start against Friday afternoon.
There were dozens of people in the mourning tent Wednesday. There weren’t especially religious signs or flags of various groups in evidence. Not Hamas, not Islamic Jihad, not even Abbas’s Fatah group.
Uday and Ghassan’s brothers sit with red keffiyehs around their necks, which during the First Intifada, at least, suggested an affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The organization, thought to be strictly secular, hurried to take responsibility for Tuesday’s Har Nof attack, though it is doubtful if anyone there actually gave instructions or even guidance to the terrorists.
One of those in the tent explained to me that “the situation is crap. You allowed religion to take over the conflict. Why did you need the provocations on al-Aqsa? Look at the videos on any cellphone, of women being hit on al-Aqsa. Is this how you behave?”
Next to him sits Nidal Shekeirat, 40 years old. He was one of the few here who did not hesitate to attack Israel openly, and express support for the Har Nof killings. “This attack is a source of pride for every one of the villagers. We praised it, and we are certain that even harsher ones will come. All the villages in East Jerusalem are proud of us now, and we will someday be proud of their sons when they carry out attacks like this. Every youth who becomes a martyr brings honor for us.”
“But they slaughtered innocent civilians,” I said.
“You also slaughtered civilians. You murdered a Palestinian bus driver, you murdered Muhammad Abu Khdeir. You claimed that Abu Khdeir’s killers were crazy instead of imprisoning them for life.” (The suspects are currently facing trial, with the main suspect claiming insanity.)
“You, with the pressure you put on al-Aqsa,” he went on, “created this reality and the harsh feelings among the youth.” (This is a reference to the violence that has swirled around the Temple Mount compound in recent weeks, and the widespread Palestinian claims that Israel plans to change the status quo and allow Jewish prayer at the site. Israel denies this.)
“You are a Jerusalemite, Nidal, you know Israelis, you work for Jews,” I said. “How will this end?”
“The end will be by force. What was taken by force will be freed by force. The Zionists have to give up al-Aqsa and stop the arrests, the violation of women in al-Aqsa. Otherwise, if these things continue, there will be more attacks, and inshallah, they will be bigger.”