To spend this Independence Day at the hemorrhaging heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict was to witness, in stark contrast to U.S. independence, the sound and fury of a people still fighting for it.
Of all days, Israeli police decided to give the body of brutally murdered Palestinian boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, an apparent revenge pawn in a war between extremists, back to his family on the afternoon of July 4, 2014 — America's 238th anniversary of being.
Just after 2 p.m. Israel Standard Time, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a double-patriotic "America loves Israel, Israel loves America" speech at the U.S. embassy, and as thousands of Tel Aviv residents and ex-pats held their annual Fourth of July squirt-gun party at Habima Square, an Israeli ambulance transferred Abu Khdeir's skinny body to a Palestinian ambulance (pictured below) at the edge of Shuafat, the Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem where he lived and was kidnapped on July 1. (Abu Khdeir was reportedly burned alive and left to die in the Jerusalem Forest, not far from the city's famed Holocaust Museum.)
The boy's body, wrapped in an oversized Palestinian flag, was then driven down Shuafat Street, the neighborhood's main artery, and handed off to thousands of Palestinian mourners who'd been waiting restlessly for a couple hours.
They closed in on the orange stretcher carrying Abu Khdeir in an instant, reaching their hands toward its underbelly so that it rode the crowd like a leaf on water. Calls of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") cracked through the heat. (Another chant: "With our blood and our spirit, we shall sacrifice for the martyr.") As tears began to run down the faces of the men and women who knew him, the crowd tunneled the boy's body down the small alley that separates the Abu Khdeir family home from Shuafat's central mosque.
"I feel nervous to see him," said Yazzam Nadesheh, a 16-year-old neighbor. "I'm nervous to see someone I know, and he's dead."
This larger-than-life ceremony, representing not only one family's loss but an emotional combustion of tension in the region, had been anticipated for days. Its formalities didn't last long: Abu Khdeir's body was quickly washed and placed in a worn green coffin, and a path cleared for its short trip to the mourner's tent. Complete silence fell over the gathering of thousands for one heavy minute of remembrance. Then the crowd erupted in rally cries once again and emptied out onto the street, waving Palestinian flags and calling for justice for Abu Khdeir and his people.
Israeli officials had yet to announce that "Jewish terrorists" were responsible for the Palestinian teen's murder, but everyone in town had already assumed as much. Many had gathered at the Abu Khdeir house to watch security footage of the abduction before it was released to police and, eventually, leaked to press.
"Here, the people are all related, and if it was a social crime, you would see [the killers] driven out of this village," Mahmoud Odeh, 46, a physical therapist in Shuafat who rents an apartment from the family, had told me the night before the funeral — referring to rumors that Abu Khdeir had been the victim of a family "honor killing."
"He was a nice kid, very good in school, and playing with the dabke team. He was happy all the time," Odeh said of Abu Khdeir. And personally, as a physical therapist, he said, "You're working for four years just to put a smile on their faces, to help them stand up — then you see them killed in a second."
The young men in the funeral procession, community warriors, wrapped their faces in shirts and bandanas to shield them from the coming tear gas and to protect their identities. They charged down Shuafat Street ahead of the women, breaking the wind and throwing stones at a wall of riot police stationed at the intersection with Highway 1.
When police began firing tear gas canisters and plastic bullets back at the procession, most members retreated, leaving a few hundred of the boldest to stage hours of clashes with police — as they did the day before and would do the day after.
"They killed our brother," Muhammed Abu Daoud, 23, said when I asked what he was fighting for. "We're sad, but this makes us proud. We don't need Israel. We need to be victorious for ourselves."
Shuafat residents told me they were upset about Abu Khdeir's brutal murder, but also the circumstances that allowed for his capture. Abu Khdeir's older sister Aya, one of his six siblings, had just made him a pre-dawn meal of bologna and labneh dip ("simple to start his fast" during Ramadan, she said) before he set out on the short, familiar path between his house and the neighborhood mosque last Tuesday. The 16-year-old was on his own stomping grounds. But the extreme right-wing Israelis who pulled up beside him in their car — then took him to a nearby forest to burn him alive — apparently also felt some ownership of the neighborhood.
And many blame the Jerusalem light rail, routed through Shuafat about three years ago, for their audacity. "Since the train started coming, the settlers started coming," said Abeer Abu Khdeir, cousin of the victim's mother. "As a Palestinian, we try not to use that train. When we're inside it, they say bad words and curse at us."
Another of the victim's sisters, 22-year-old Mai, said Jewish passengers often try to pull her headscarf off as she waits for the train.
"They hate us," said Asala Abu Khdeir, 23, the victim's second cousin. "We are not against peace with [Israel] — but not with settlers. We're against occupation. Peace comes when occupation ends."
So demolishing the Jerusalem light rail — along with Israeli traffic lights, and classic-blue Israeli street signs — has become integral to the Shuafat riots. We see images of youth standing atop burned and splintered light-rail stops; of long, unfurled rolls of train tickets blowing in the wind. Along with the tributes to Abu Khdeir, these particular symbols of resistance against the perceived "infrastructure of the occupier" will cement the Shuafat riots in Palestinian history.
Odeh, the physical therapist, explained to me the night before the funeral: "I am occupied. You are not occupied. If you let me live normally, I will live normally next to you. But right now I am living as a dog."
Abu Khdeir's mother Suha had little to say about the light rail when I sat with her on her porch patio, flanked by about a dozen female relatives — some visiting from the U.S. — two nights after her son's death.
Suha was just breaking fast on the fifth night of Ramadan, and even after a whirlwind day of visits from neighbors and interviews with dozens of reporters, she and her family insisted I join them for the meal.
But Suha couldn't eat. When her cousin, a nurse, tried to spoon her some soup, she resisted, saying, "I can't swallow from the pain." And when the cousin insisted she would die from dehydration, Suha answered through tears: "I want to die. I want to follow my son."
Outside, in the men's mourning tent, Oher said: "If European people and Americans and Israel think we raise our kids to be killed, they are making a big mistake. A cat does not allow you to take her son. And we as a people, we value life. This mother sitting here and that mother sitting in Gush Etzion, they lost their sons. It's not political."
For the crowd that rallied and threw stones in Abu Khdeir's memory on the Fourth of July, there was greater justice at stake. "We're defending our families," said a young man with a white shirt wrapped around his head, who did not wish to give his name. He called for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to demolish the homes of Abu Khdeir's suspected murderers, just as soldiers had done to avenge the three Jewish teens, and said: "We are making a Third Intifada."
Also visiting from the U.S. right now is Abu Khdeir's cousin, Tariq, a "fun-loving all-American teen" beaten black-and-blue by Israeli police on July 3 for allegedly taking part in the riots. (Tariq has claimed he was just watching nearby.) Tariq's story has attracted huge media attention from U.S. and international outlets like ABC, CNN and Time, prompting his mom to tell the Washington Post:
"This happens to the Palestinians every single day. He's just one of the Americans who happened to be here, so he got the opportunity for all the media and the whole world to hear him, for once."
For an American, the Palestinian struggle can be hard to internalize; we have our issues, but we've always had our freedom, and our independence. Americans — and Israelis — have the power to say, "This is our country and we will defend it." And on the Fourth of July in Shuafat, the Palestinians, already full of pride for their people and their non-state, wanted no less.
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