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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

As Israelis grieve, some Palestinians exult, and some fear what’s next


Khalil Abbasi, far left, the uncle of a teenager who shot and wounded two Israelis, with other family members in the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem, Jan. 29, 2023.


By PATRICK KINGSLEY

As grieving Israeli families sat shiva on Sunday for seven civilians killed over the weekend in East Jerusalem, the family of their Palestinian killer felt a different emotion. Pride.


“He’s a legend and hero,” said the killer’s father, Moussa al-Qam, 48, whose own father was stabbed to death in 1998, in what Israeli officials later acknowledged as an act of Jewish terrorism. His son, Khairy, 21, who was named for his grandfather, was killed after waging Friday’s attack outside a synagogue.


“I raised him well,” al-Qam said.


Both al-Qam’s comment and his family history highlighted why the current moment in Israel and the occupied territories feels so hopeless and perilous, after a spasm of violence that has left seven Israelis and at least 14 Palestinians dead since Thursday.


Some Palestinians like al-Qam express little empathy for Israeli civilians and live in an environment where Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians are celebrated and their perpetrators lionized — raising the likelihood of further attacks in the coming days.


Such desire for revenge, coupled with the goals of extremist Israeli ministers in Israel’s new government, has fanned questions about whether the region is on the cusp of another escalation involving either a violent grassroots uprising in the occupied West Bank, another devastating conflict in the Gaza Strip, or both.


The Palestinian Authority, the semiautonomous body that administers parts of the West Bank, scaled back its coordination with Israeli military officials last week, weakening one of the means by which violent surges have been curbed in the past.


The nature of Israel’s response could help decide whether the current surge ebbs or escalates, as could the messages brought by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is set to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank on Monday and Tuesday.


But a Palestinian appetite for a renewed wave of violence may ultimately be the decisive factor in where the current moment goes. And in interviews Sunday with Palestinians across the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, there was widespread anger about their treatment, particularly after the deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians in more than a decade and a half.


In Jerusalem, the families of the seven Israelis killed Friday grieved in cramped, spartan homes, welcoming a steady flow of mourners. Some expressed bewilderment at how their relatives had ended up victims to this cycle of violence. Others voiced anger.


But to Palestinians, such attacks do not happen in a vacuum: They are fueled by Israeli treatment of Palestinians, including the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the creation of a two-tier legal system that distinguishes between Israelis and Palestinians in the territory; the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza; and individual acts of violence such as the killing of al-Qam’s father.


“When Palestinians are being killed daily, they see any attack that kills Israelis as something that redeems their dignity,” said Majd Dandis, 31, a neighbor and friend of the al-Qam family.

“Naturally, people were happy,” Dandis said of Khairy al-Qam’s attack outside the synagogue. “All of Palestinian society was happy, not just this neighborhood.”


Video posted online Friday showed Palestinians in parts of the West Bank and Gaza cheering the news of the attack, distributing sweets in celebration and setting off fireworks.


But Palestinian society is not monolithic, just as Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who once displayed in his home a portrait of an Israeli mass killer, does not reflect the breadth of Israeli opinion.


Among Palestinians, there is also empathy for Israeli civilians, as well as a broader, pragmatic awareness of the toll that an insurgency might unleash not only on Israelis but on Palestinians themselves.


Already, the families of the Palestinian attackers, among them the al-Qams, have been forced from their homes before the buildings’ demolition, a standard Israeli practice that critics call collective punishment. Dozens of their relatives and neighbors have also been arrested and interrogated.


The society-wide cost would also be high. The second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, of the 2000s left about 1,000 Israelis dead, mostly in terrorist attacks, but roughly three times that number of Palestinians died in the Israeli response.


In the al-Qams’ East Jerusalem neighborhood, which was captured by Israel in 1967 from Jordan and which most of the world still considers occupied, the fear of an Israeli crackdown tempered some of the residents’ pride.


While several of al-Qam’s neighbors agreed that his son was a hero, they also tried to prevent journalists from talking to the father to prevent him from saying anything that might bring further problems to the neighborhood.


A mile away, the family of another Palestinian assailant — a 13-year-old who shot and wounded two Israelis on Saturday morning — displayed a similar ambivalence.


They expressed pride in the actions of their 13-year-old relative, who was shot, wounded and arrested after the attack near a Jewish area in East Jerusalem, and indifference to the fates of the wounded Israelis. But they said they feared the consequences the attack would bring on the boy’s family. Already, his parents and two older brothers have been interrogated by the Israeli police and their house sealed for demolition.


“Of course we’re proud of what he did,” said Khalil Abbasi, 31, the boy’s uncle. “But at the same time, we’re upset, because his family didn’t deserve this.”


Among some Palestinians, there is a sense that they have little to lose from an insurgency because the situation is already so fraught.


In Jerusalem neighborhoods like Silwan, where the 13-year-old gunman grew up, many Palestinian residents are under constant threat of eviction or home demolition. About 200 homes are vulnerable because of court cases by Israeli settler groups seeking to cement Israeli control over the city, according to Peace Now, an anti-occupation advocacy group. The group estimates that a further 20,000 Palestinian homes face demolition because their owners built them without getting planning permission.


A study by the United Nations office for humanitarian affairs described such permission as “virtually impossible” for Palestinians to obtain, partly because the city authorities have set aside little land in Palestinian areas for residential development while facilitating large-scale Israeli settlement construction.


A few yards from the home of the 13-year-old arrested in the Saturday attack stand the ruins of another building. It was once the home of his aunt. Authorities destroyed it several years ago because it lacked a permit, the family said.


The al-Qam family home a few miles away is likely to be one of the next to go. On Sunday, it was sealed shut by Israeli security officials, forcing al-Qam to sleep with relatives, and it is expected to be demolished in the coming weeks.


Al-Qam maintained it was a price worth paying.


“Even if I have to sleep outside, I don’t care,” he said. “As long as my son fulfilled his duty, I don’t care.”

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