How a thirteen-year-old boy in Jerusalem became a Rorschach blot for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By Geraldine Brooks / The New Yorker
May 27, 2017
“Our children don’t have normal childhoods. From the minute they open their eyes they wake into a reality of checkpoints, soldiers, settlers insulting their mom. They see the news from Gaza, children like them, bombed and homeless. They hear about a boy their age, burned alive by Israelis. They are sad and afraid. It’s not a healthy environment.”
Their plans were quite precise: they wouldn’t attack women, or the elderly, or children like themselves. Their targets, they agreed, would be men in their late teens and early twenties — young men of military age. All this was settled between them before they left the house. Hassan Manasra, fifteen, took a carving knife from his mother’s kitchen, but his cousin Ahmed, thirteen, couldn’t find the long, daggerlike knife he’d intended to use for his weapon. It took him a while, but finally he located it, concealed in a cupboard, where his father had hidden it for safekeeping.
The Manasras live in a compound of multifamily homes occupying almost an entire block in the Jerusalem hillside neighborhood of Beit Hanina. In the shared courtyard, half a dozen bicycles of various sizes are propped against a tree or lie in the dirt by the tall entry gate. Ten brothers and their families share the compound, and the children move fluidly through each other’s apartments, which are furnished rather formally: prints of alpine landscapes, velvet-covered sofas, lacy tablecloths. They’re the homes of a modestly prosperous clan whose breadwinners owned a grocery store, or work in trades or in transportation. Until October 12, 2015, Hassan and Ahmed followed the same schedule as all the school-age cousins in the household: go to class, come home, eat, change clothes, and then go play in an area that their uncles had cleared for them on the unused land beneath the highway overpass that separates Beit Hanina from the adjacent neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev. Sometimes the cousins played soccer, but Hassan and Ahmed particularly enjoyed training for parkour; the concrete pylons and grassy embankments under the highway were ideal for practicing vaults and tumbles.
The highway divides two East Jerusalem neighborhoods — the House of Hanina and the Peak of Ze’ev — that face each other across a shallow valley. Both are long-settled places. Beit Hanina was home to a few farming families as early as Canaanite times; in Pisgat Ze’ev, excavations have uncovered ritual baths from the Second Temple period. Both neighborhoods have seen tremendous population growth since 1967, when Israel captured this territory from Jordan in the Six-Day War. Now the busy highway is all that marks the division between the Palestinian neighborhood and the Jewish one. Pisgat Ze’ev is the last stop on the Jerusalem tramline, Beit Hanina the second-to-last. Residents of the two neighborhoods live cheek by jowl, yet they inhabit two different worlds.
Pisgat Ze’ev, named for the Revisionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was one of the new settlements rapidly built on land annexed by Israel after the war, intended to connect and thicken the Jewish areas of East Jerusalem. Although the annexation remains illegal under international law (the United Sates, for one, does not recognize it), Pisgat Ze’ev is now one of Jerusalem’s largest neighborhoods, with some forty-two thousand residents, around five hundred of them Palestinians. Shady trees have grown up, softening the lines of its medium-rise, stone-clad apartment blocks and humming commercial areas.
Beit Hanina has grown organically over time from its village origins. Some thirty-five thousand Palestinians live there, on land Israel has annexed. Another thousand have been severed from their neighbors by the building of the separation barrier a decade ago, after the wave of suicide bombings that characterized the uprising known as the second intifada. The looming concrete wall, which mostly divides annexed land claimed by Israel from occupied land administered by the Israeli military, has huge implications. Those on the Palestinian side may not cross into annexed East Jerusalem — to go to work or school, to visit family, to buy groceries — without a temporary pass issued at the discretion of the Israeli authorities.
On the other side of the barrier, Palestinians have free movement but often face hostility from Jewish hard-liners, whose numbers have grown with Israeli’s tilt to the right in recent years. Residents of Beit Hanina sometimes awake to graffiti messages such as “Death to Arabs” and “Jerusalem for Jews” spray-painted on their homes. Cars have been vandalized and burned, tires slashed. Palestinians put the blame on militants from Pisgat Ze’ev. Pisgat Ze’ev residents can be just as quick to blame Palestinians for crimes in their neighborhood.