The main Muslim quarter thoroughfare connecting the Western Wall to Damascus Gate was more empty than usual. A day before, Amr Abu-Assab, a 16-year-old Arab from Issawiya, stabbed two Israeli border police officers on this very thoroughfare; a Rabbi in the nearby Ateret Cohanim yeshiva, shot and killed the young terrorist.
At the entrance of the Iron Gate, a Muslim-only portal to the Temple Mount, two border police officers and a soldier stood guard. They told me that the officers from the previous day’s attack were doing fine. I said I would pray for them as I made a left turn towards the Kotel HaKatan, a small section of the Western Wall, closer to the Holy of Holies than the busy Western Wall plaza.
As I left the Kotel HaKatan, I asked one of the police officers, Elaa, why terrorists target police officers specifically, especially if many officers are Arabs themselves.
Elaa carried a pistol, baton and a considerable amount of tear gas. Yet the Arab officer knew full-well that his gear could not protect him from a teenager holding a kitchen knife. With a blank stare, Elaa answered without emotion, “I guess it is just what they prefer.”
“But why? Don’t they have a better chance of living if they target a civilian?”
Elaa shrugged his shoulders. The other officer spoke up, “Ask them for yourself.”
So, that is what I went to do.
Arab children were playing tag and soccer up the road and a Jewish father pushed a stroller into his home. Abed, 28, and Omar, 33, walked down the road speaking with one another and checking their phones.
“Did you hear about the attack last night?” I asked them in Hebrew.
“What do you think about it?”
“What do you really think about it? I’m just a blogger.”
“I’ll tell you the truth, I’m not happy about what happened last night. The officers are people. The Quran tells us that we may not kill any people – Jew, Muslim, Christian – it doesn’t matter whom,” Amar, a Shu’afat resident, answered.
Abed nodded in agreement and Omar continued, “But you have to understand what the Arab teenager was thinking. When he sees a cop, he thinks about the hours long wait at checkpoints, the security checks, the way the cops interact with him, yell at him, push him. He remembers how the cops hit his mother, beat his sister and razed down his friend’s house. And more than that, he remembers Al-Aqsa, the holy site for Muslims, and cannot understand why Israelis make a ‘balagan’ by his holy mosque while he would never do the same to their holy Kotel. If the cops do not treat him well, can you really expect him to treat the cops well?”
Later that day, I found Shadi, 30, and Abu-Issa, 50, sitting by a restaurant in the Christian quarter. They invited me to sit with them and told me what they thought of the assault.
“It is not right that the child was killed. He was only 16! Why did they have to shoot him dead? They could have neutralized him in another way,” Abu-Issa insisted.
Regarding the actual offense committed, Shadi refused to label it as a political issue. “You can’t know what was going on in his head. He was such a young kid, who knows what type of messed up thoughts led him to do this?”
I decided to answer Shadi’s question by going to those who would know best: Arab children.
A pensive child named Ali, 11, and an energetic Mahmud, 12, were playing parkour on the rooftops of the Arab shuk – jumping from ledge to ledge and performing 360˚ twirls – when I approached them.
After introducing myself in Arabic I opened Google translate on my phone.
“What do you think of Israel?” I asked.
I held out my phone to Ali, and he typed his response.
“انا سأكون صريح معك,” Ali began. (“I will be frank with you.”)
The 5th grader paused to think about his answer. He had a couple scars on his face; I wondered what caused them. Was it from an interaction with the Israeli police; maybe it was the tough Palestinian culture in his household that caused it; or did he simply have a hard landing while doing a jump in parkour?
Ali finished typing his answer. “انا لا أحب اسرائيل لأنها احتلت الأراضي الفلسطينية إدعت انها اراضيهم.” (“I do not like Israel because it occupied Palestinian lands [that] they claimed to be their lands.”)
I spoke through Google translate for about twenty minutes with the children. Israelis and Arabs alike gave us puzzled and quizzical looks as they saw a man with a kippah interact with two Arab kids. Throughout the conversation, Ali was quiet and thoughtful. Mahmud, on the other hand, could not stop giggling, no matter how serious the topic.
Mahmud took my phone and smiled as he told me what he knew about Israel’s view on Palestinian youth: “اسرءلين قتلو اطفال فلسطين.” (“Israelis killed Palestinian children.”)
Regarding the attack itself, Ali wrote on his own phone that the teenager did the correct thing because he was defending Palestinian land.
At the end of our talk, I told them that I was Israeli and asked what they thought of me.
Mahmud heard my question and his bubbliness turned to a dumbfounded smile. I imagine he was conflicted: on the one hand, we just had a nice time together, on the other hand, in his eyes, I killed Palestinian children.
Sticking to his principles, Mahmud wrote that he “hates me because I am his enemy.” At that moment, an Arab brother and sister from Beit Hanina, who looked to be about 16 years old, passed us and saw Mahmud’s response. The girl started laughing and cried out, in Hebrew, “It’s not true! We like you!” She then asked to take a picture of me talking to the two boys for her Snapchat streak.
What will stop Arab teenagers from attacking Israeli officers and civilians? Can giving away Israeli land to their so-called Palestinian owners do the trick? I don’t think we can meet Mahmud’s demand to erase Israel completely.
If we broaden our perspectives, we will realize that just as there are many Israeli opinions on Arabs, there are many Arab opinions on Israelis. Abed and Omar from Shu’afat, Shadi and Abu-Issa of the Christian quarter, Ali and Mahmud from the Muslim quarter, the siblings from Beit Hanina, and Amr Abu-Assab, the terrorist from Issawiya. What led them to different outlooks? Is it the frequency and severity of their interaction with Israeli police? For the adults, I believe that such political tensions can be part of the answer. But for kids, I think the educational curriculum in Arab schools make the biggest impact on the headspace of our neighbors of the next generation. For peace to be realistic, the Palestinian Authority must put an educational reform into place in their schools and Israel must ensure that such anti-Israel rhetoric not be taught in their Arab-Israeli schools.