Two new symbols risk galvanizing protests over Trump’s Jerusalem decision

The shooting of a double amputee during Gaza border clashes, and a photo of a 16-year-old detained in Hebron by 23 soldiers, could act as a spur for wider Palestinian unrest

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Left: handicapped Palestinian demonstrator Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh during clashes with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City, May 19, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP) Right: 16-year-old Fawzi al-Junaidi is arrested by Israeli soldiers at a protest in Hebron, December 7, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Left: handicapped Palestinian demonstrator Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh during clashes with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City, May 19, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP) Right: 16-year-old Fawzi al-Junaidi is arrested by Israeli soldiers at a protest in Hebron, December 7, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Almost two weeks after US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinian protests, strenuously encouraged by both Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and the Islamist terror group Hamas, have drawn several thousands into the streets of West Bank cities and to the Gaza border fence. But they have not reached a level of violence or mass participation that some feared and others hoped for.

But two recent incidents have created powerful symbols that could galvanize wider Palestinian demonstrations in the days and weeks ahead.

On the first “day of rage” Friday following Trump’s December 6 announcement, 16-year-old Fawzi al-Junaidi was arrested by Israeli soldiers at a protest in Hebron.

While he was being detained, a photographer snapped a visceral image of the teenager. In it, Junaidi appears at the center of 23 well-armed Israeli soldiers, walking in ripped blue-jeans and a gray T-shirt, with a white blindfold on his face and his features anguished and disoriented.

Ten days later, this image is still being shared widely across Palestinian media.

Junaidi’s character has been lionized, with some actually calling him a “lion,” and his likeness has been reimagined on social media in the form of superheroes, such as Spider-Man and the Hulk, and even Jesus on the cross. He is being energetically depicted as a symbol of both strength and struggle.

Junaidi’s family insists that he did not throw stones, and was not participating in the protest. His uncle told Al Jazeera the teenager was getting groceries for the family. As both his parents suffer from injury or illness, Junaidi, his family has told the media, is the main provider.

The Israeli army spokesperson told The Times of Israel in a statement on Sunday that Junaidi was detained for rock-throwing.

“This image does not fully and accurately portray” the situation, the IDF statement said of the photo, adding that “several instigators were arrested” for throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at soldiers.

While Junaidi was reportedly taken to Ofer Prison after his arrest, the IDF said he had been released and there was no open investigation into his actions.

One popular depiction of Junaidi’s arrest is a drawing by the Italian artist, Alessia Pelonzi, who, using animation, extracts Junaidi from the scene in Hebron and morphs him into a metaphorical symbol of the Palestinian struggle, using his clothing and a soldier’s green sleeve to form the national Palestinian colors.

Pelonzi told the Turkish Anadolu Agency that she did not show the faces of the soldiers around Junaidi because “the politicians are to blame, not the soldiers.”

The power of Junaidi’s image has not escaped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is taking a leading role in the global Muslim opposition to Trump’s Jerusalem decision.

On two occasions Erdogan has used the image as a prop when describing Israel as a “terrorist” state.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, on December 13, 2017. (Screenshot YouTube)

The first was at a rally for his Justice and Development (AK) Party. With an image of Junaidi on a screen, he told the thousands of attendees, “Israel is a terrorist state. We will not abandon Jerusalem to the mercy of a child-murderer state.”

Again, at the meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries in Istanbul last week, which was called by Erdogan to rally opposition against the US Jerusalem decision, he put Junaidi’s image on a screen.

“Anyone who is human and has a conscience should take a lesson from this image,” said Erdogan to a crowd of Muslim world leaders.

Killed double-amputee assumes angel status

While Junaidi is being highlighted as a symbol due to a single snapshot, Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh, 29, who was killed in a protest on the Gaza-Israel border on Friday, constitutes a far more potent figure.

Abu Thurayeh was wheelchair-bound, missing both of his legs. His brother told AFP this was the result of an April 2008 incident in which he was hit by a missile from an Israeli helicopter during an IDF battle with Hamas east of the Al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.

A picture taken on December 15, 2017 shows wheelchair-bound Palestinian demonstrator Ibrahim Abu Thurayeh waving a Palestinian flag during a protest along the Gaza-Israel border, as clashes with Israeli security forces against Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital intensified. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

On Friday, Abu Thurayeh was photographed and videotaped throughout the day before being shot to death in the head, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

In these images and videos, he is seen earlier in the day raising a Palestinian flag while in his wheelchair, as well as from atop an electricity pole he managed to climb.

In video footage recorded early on Friday, Abu Thurayeh could be seen carrying the Palestinian flag and waving the victory sign at Israeli soldiers across the border.

“I want to go there,” he says, referring to the other side of the border, as a number of young men surrounding him wave Palestinian flags and others throw stones towards the troop.

“This land is our land, we will not give up. America has to withdraw its decision,” Abu Thurayeh said in another video posted on social media and shared widely.

The IDF said Abu Thurayeh’s death came in the context of a violent riot, in which there were “numerous attempts to destroy the security fence and cross it.” The IDF added that an investigation into his death was underway and the results would be presented in the coming days. Live fire was used only in cases when “forces identify a significant threat to the lives of the soldiers or to critical security systems.” the IDF added.

Whatever the specific events that led to the death of Abu Thurayeh’s death — who was a fisherman before he lost his legs and a car washer after the incident — he has now taken on the image among Palestinians and beyond of an indomitable and pure-hearted man martyred in the defense of Jerusalem.

The most popular manifestation of his character has been as an angel.

In one of his angelic forms, he rises from his wheelchair to meet the founder of the Hamas terror group Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, spiritual patron of Palestinian suicide bombers, who was also confined to a wheelchair and who was assassinated by Israel in a missile strike in 2004. The city of Jerusalem acts as a backdrop to their meeting.

In another popular rendering of Abu Thurayeh, he is depicted at the top of a tree while hoisting the Palestinian flag in front of an Israeli tank that stands on the other side of the security fence — a symbol meant to convey the Palestinians’ steadfast attachment to the land.

Hundreds of neighbors, friends and officials, including Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, have visited a mourning tent erected for Abu Thurayeh in Gaza’s al-Shati refugee camp, which was adorned with photos of him in a wheelchair holding the Palestinian flag and flashing a “victory” sign. In a reflection of how his death has been embraced by a wide swath of Gazan society, posters from the many Palestinian political factions and diverse community organizations lined the walls of the tent.

Haniyeh, who also attended Thurayeh’s funeral and praised him as a hero, has called for days of rage every Friday across Muslim and Arab countries until Trump rescinds his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, has been urging a new intifada to liberate Jerusalem ever since Trump’s speech, and urging Palestinians to confront soldiers and settlers. As the ruling force in Gaza, Israeli officials have said, it is Hamas that has enabled thousands of Gazans to confront Israeli troops at the border fence.

It is also held responsible by Israel for an upsurge in rocket attacks from the Strip on southern Israeli communities, the likes of which have not been seen since right before the 2014 summer war between Hamas and Israel.

The danger of a further escalation remains acute in the wake of Trump’s Jerusalem decision, Israeli officials assess. Those hoping and pushing for it have new symbols to help them.

Agencies contributed to this report. 

Most Popular
read more: