Sunday, March 9, 2008

Jabel Mukhaber

Thursday night, just at the news hour, a young gunman attacked Yeshivat Mercaz Harav. He entered the library and opened fire on teenage boys studying Talmud, for God’s sake. The toll, if that’s the word for it (or as if that’s the end of it), was eight dead and as many seriously injured.

My wife Sidra and I watched, glued to the screen: ambulances flashing, their benches filling with bloodied youths, then driving off—actually, one ambulance and one youth, for the images played in a continuous loop, the way TV newsrooms provide the illusion of real time reporting these days; so we watched, again and again, the peculiar gait and luminous orange vest of one emergency worker, as he rushed to catch up to the same stretcher, walking the same twenty yards, over and over, while the voices of reporters speculated about numbers of terrorists, numbers of dead, numbers of minutes and bullets it took to kill the terrorist—an urgent chatter delivered with the slightly melodramatic tone of fetching young news anchors who, you sense, believed such misfortune must be convincingly felt, but who do not really believe it could ever really happen to stars such as themselves.

FINALLY, SOME FACTS came in. There was one gunman, not two. There was no longer an imminent threat of collateral attacks in Jerusalem. The gunman had not worn an exploding vest. He had come, not from Gaza or Nablus, but from Jabel Mukhaber in East Jerusalem—a “citizen of Israel,” the anchor said laconically.

Sidra and I could only look at one another, the words Jabel Mukhaber numbing us like Novocain. For we had been to the town several times during the past few years, as part of a citizens’ group supporting its residents’ petition to change the route of the security wall—a wall now cutting through the town, pinching off and isolating one of its neighborhoods, Sheik Sa’ad.

We have been hosted by Jabel Mukhaber’s families and community leaders, who had warmly fed us and expressed their gratitude. We had collected signatures, neighbors for neighbors, on Emeq Refaim, the main commercial street near our home, perhaps a seven minute drive from Jabel Mukhaber. Just a month ago, we had been at a session of Israel’s High Court, as the lawyer for the town, Giath Nasir, had presented the case against the route of the fence once again. (My rather fuzzy pictures from the court are what you see here.)

In January 2005, moreover, I wrote about the town in Harper’s:

While [Ariel] Sharon is being depicted by the zealots he once coddled as caving in to Palestinians, the route of his fence is already responsible for the migration of thousands of them. It is creating Palestinian enclaves separated from Jerusalem and from one another—enclaves surrounded by Jewish settlements that are linked by exclusive highways and bypass roads. It leaves hinterland towns separated from metropolitan centers, a rupture that denies any Palestinian business the prospect of viability. About two miles from my home is the neighborhood of Jabel Mukhaber. The fence is cutting it off from its sister village, Sheik Sa'ad, whose 2,000 residents are themselves cut off from the rest of the West Bank by steep cliffs. They are in danger of being “strangled.” One leader of Jabel Mukhaber told me that a third of those people—their own family members—have left, while the remaining villagers are living off the gifts of family abroad.


FOR THE RECORD, the residents of Jabel Mukhaber, as residents of East Jerusalem, living inside the wall, are not citizens of Israel. They hold blue identity cards, which the Israeli TV anchors casually assumed Palestinians covet, and which supposedly made them Israeli by some kind of historical inertia. These Palestinians do have certain privileges: the residents of Jabel Mukhaber (though not, ironically, the residents of Sheik Sa’ad, which the wall is supposed to impede, and from which the murderer did not come) have unrestricted access to Israel.

East Jerusalem residents
qualify for social security, health care, and so forth, so most neighboring Palestinians do covet the blue card, which hardly makes them Israelis or grateful to Israel. They also inhabit a kind of legal twilight zone. They may vote in municipal elections, which most boycott. They feel trapped. Jabel Mukhaber is a scar on the map, a world away from adjoining Talpiot, and mostly neglected by the Jerusalem municipality, whose area Israel’s government haphazardly quadrupled after 1967.

What I remember most about the time I spent in the town was one conversation I had with an older man, who told me sadly that much of his family has abandoned it, but also told me with pride that one son, in his early 20s, was now studying in New York. A picture stood behind him; the young man was formally posed, but was wearing, oddly, an Islanders hockey sweater. The murderer, Alaa Abu Dheim, was himself barely 20 years old, and had been arrested by Israeli authorities four months ago, then released two months later. He had been a driver for Mercaz Harav. He had become, in his way, “very religious” and had not been sleeping, his family said. His family hung out Hamas flags yesterday, as a sign of mourning, which the police immediately took down.

ALAA ABU DHEIM’S act was sociopathic. That is obvious enough. Directed, or even just rationalized, by Hamas leaders, it was a crime against humanity—I mean the humanity of this benighted young man, as well as that of the young students he killed. Nothing Hamas has said—that Mercaz Harav is a center of settler ideology, that the Israeli army had killed civilians in going after missile launchers in Gaza the week before—can justify, or even explain, really, how a young man throws away his life in an ecstasy of violence, murdering people he might well have driven around in recent months.

It brings to mind, in a kind of horrible symmetry, the influence of settler leaders on a depressed, fanatic youth by the name of Eden Natan-Zada who—during the week before the Gaza disengagement, having drawn close to followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane on the settlement of Tapuach—boarded a bus in the Israeli Arab town of Shfaram and opened fire with an automatic rifle, killing four people, and injuring twelve, before he was himself beaten to death by the mob that surrounded the bus. The founders of Tapuach and the current bosses of Gaza are true brothers.

And I confess to feeling remorseful that I supported Giath Nasir’s claim that Jabel Mukhaber’s residents, having never participated in violence, did not constitute a security threat. For I never really believed an attack like this was impossible, nor could any seasoned observer be surprised by it. It was Jabel Mukhaber I was thinking of when I wrote in Slate in 2004 that the conditions of young people in East Jerusalem were a kind of Miracle-Gro for random sociopathic behavior, that Israel's security fence would eventually encourage more atrocities than it foils.

Some imagine the wall a hedge against peace talks failing—or, indeed, an alternative to negotiating seriously at all. It is actually trapping over 250,000 Arab residents of Jerusalem in a nether world they will not accept. “The problem with the government's logic,” I quoted Middle East scholar Menachem Klein, “is that entrapped Palestinians will fight—they have nowhere to go.”

And now we know what fighting means: that one (then two, then three) in a hundred young men will spurn the New York Islanders and seek, instead, an ecstatic death. Friday morning my barber told me—vindicated, he thought—that the attack only proves what is wrong with the ninety-nine who did not attack. “They teach their children to kill us from birth,” he said. This morning Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli radio that the attack proves Israel has nobody to deal with, that where the IDF vacates, Hamas will come, and talk of peace really means missiles from the West Bank.

And what of Israeli Arabs, if things continue in this way?, he was asked. Netanyahu continued answering in a confident tone, and I can't for the life of me remember what he said.