It’s not that Samer Mahfouz was unaware of the nationalistic tension plaguing Jerusalem since the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers on June 12.
But when the 20-year-old water heater technician joined his friend Amir Shweiki at the northern neighborhood of Neve Yaakov on July 25 to search for Shweiki’s lost employee card, the last thing he expected was to be brutally assaulted just for being an Arab.
Seated on a wheelchair outside the neurosurgery department at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, a dark scab still visible on his forehead, Mahfouz told The Times of Israel what had transpired that Friday night.
They had despaired of finding the lost card, and were sitting on a bench not far from their neighborhood of Beit Hanina, sipping water after the long Ramadan fast.
“Around nine thirty a tall man with long hair approached us and asked Amir in Hebrew if he had a lighter and a cigarette. Amir said he didn’t. The man left, and came back about ten minutes later with eight or nine guys, Jews.”
“They didn’t speak to us at all, all we heard them say was Aravim, Aravim (Arabs, Arabs). They didn’t even give us a chance to speak, they just started beating us all at once.”
Mahfouz said he and Shweiki were attacked with baseball bats, metal bars and pepper spray.
“Amir fell down, and they continued hitting him while he was on the ground,” he continued. “I also fell, and they hit us for a long time. We couldn’t do anything. I think Amir must have imagined he is about to die, and so did I.”
Mahfouz began to scream, alerting an Arab neighbor who came outside in his shorts and slippers to see what was happening. “Windows started opening and neighbors were coming down,” he said. The assailants, realizing they were noticed, fled.
The police soon arrived and began investigating Shweiki and Mahfouz, who were lying bloody on the ground. Here narratives diverge; Mahfouz says he had asked for an ambulance which the policemen refused to call. Jerusalem police claim that an ambulance was summoned, but the youths’ families refused to wait and evacuated them independently to an East Jerusalem clinic, and then to Al-Maqased hospital. Having suffered severe blows to the head, they were subsequently moved to Hadassah Hospital.
On Wednesday, three suspects were arrested by police for involvement in the attack. A fourth was apprehended on Thursday. Their detention has been extended until Sunday.
Mahfouz’s story is extreme, but not surprising to those following tensions rise in Jerusalem over the past weeks and months.
Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for Israel police, told the Times of Israel that the suspects are being investigated to discover whether their motives in the attack were nationalistic or criminal. He noted, however, that violence between Jews and Arabs has spiked over the past weeks in Jerusalem. Most of the fights are “local”, he said, but reflect a rise in political tension across the city.
In parallel, since the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2 likely by Jewish extremists, sporadic disturbances from Arab residents have peaked in the Old City and outlying neighborhoods. Dozens of Palestinians have been arrested for rioting, stone throwing, and even shooting.
The apparently nationalistic murder of Abu Khdeir came on the heals of the funerals of three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, kidnapped and executed by two Hamas terrorists from Hebron who are still at large, Israel has charged.
On July 26, Israeli border police arrested a 20-year-old Palestinian woman in Jerusalem’s Old City who tried to carry out a stabbing attack. “I wanted to stab a solider or policeman over the situation in Gaza,” she said. Another Palestinian youth was arrested on Jerusalem’s tram July 13 with a pocket knife.
Following recurrent cases of Palestinian stone throwing at the tram, the Jerusalem municipality attached a small flying robot to the tram; filming its vicinity and broadcasting the footage to a control center. Service was stopped to the Arab neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina during rioting that followed Abu Khdeir’s murder which damaged train tracks and stops, but resumed two weeks later.
Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, for their part, spoke to The Times of Israel of a heightened sense of hostility in the city. Cab drivers told of Jews stepping out of the vehicle when learning they were Arab, or encouraging others not to travel with them. Other told of right-wing activists singling out Arabs downtown and verbally harassing them.
Fadi, a 30-year-old accountant from East Jerusalem who works in a mixed Arab-Jewish office in the western city, said members of his family have started avoiding shopping malls in Jewish areas for fear of unpleasant friction, opting to remain in Arab sections of Jerusalem. Following reports of verbal and even physical abuse against Arabs, he is considering purchasing tear gas for self defense.
“This decision followed reports of people being beaten up, people having stones thrown at them, women who had their hijabs (traditional head covering) pulled off their heads.”
“It’s not that I’m scared in Jerusalem, but I feel as though racism is on the rise,” he told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, for fear of police harassment. “Even when the war in Gaza ends, our internal war will continue.”
The Arab residents’ urge to purchase means of self defense stems from a deep sense of mistrust toward the police, which is viewed as ineffective and disinterested in tackling Jewish hate crime, Fadi said. Arab Jerusalemites — the majority of whom carry municipal residency cards but are not full Israeli citizens — are disliked by West Bank Palestinians, by Israeli Jews, and by Israeli Arabs, who are increasingly filling the ranks of Jerusalem’s police force, he noted somberly.
“If the trend I see isn’t stopped immediately with an iron fist, I think ten years from now we will have a domestic war worse than the one in Gaza,” he concluded.
Meanwhile, at the bedside of Amir Shweiki at Hadassah, his brother Kayed was disappointed. His face bruised and head bandaged, Shweiki was still only semi-conscious, having undergone surgery twice to drain blood from his skull. Yet no government called or paid a visit, though the mayor’s office inquired about his well-being.
“It hurts because we live here in the country,” Kayed Shweiki told The Times of Israel. “I’m not for hatred or racism. I’m sure the police will deal with this according to the law, after all we’re cousins.”