Portraits of Palestinian knife attackers
It was not politics, but the pressures of a life under occupation that drove Palestinian attackers, families say.
Occupied East Jerusalem – It is men’s time in the red-and-blue cloth mourning tent that has been erected on the outdoor patio of Daoud Abu Jamal’s house, and uncles, cousins, and sons are chatting over weak coffee and cigarettes as friends and relatives come to pay their respects.
The mood is sombre. Most of the visitors express quiet disbelief or sorrow. Some find comfort in the divine.
Daoud’s face is tinged with yellow. He suffered a heart attack a few days after the death of his son – 33-year-old Alaa Abu Jamal – and still struggles to understand what has befallen his family.
“He was a polite, popular person,” he says of the father of three young sons. “Everyone liked him. I would see him most days, [I’d] spend time with [him] and his wife and children. We would go for dinners in Jerusalem. He wasn’t motivated by events at Al-Aqsa Mosque. He wasn’t political either.”
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But for Alaa, the political turned deeply personal, with repercussions that reached far into his life and the lives of his family. Two of his cousins, Oday and Ghassan, carried out a knife attack in a Jerusalem synagogue in November 2014, killing six civilians and a police officer. The two young men were shot and killed.
In the aftermath, Alaa gave an interview to the Israeli news website Ynet, in which he praised the attack and attributed it to “pressure on the Palestinian people in and from the occupying forces in East Jerusalem”.
That pressure was about to get even worse for the Abu Jamal family.
The extended family lives in a cluster of limestone houses at the end of a valley in east Jerusalem’s Jabal Mukaber neighbourhood. Their three- and four-storey homes ascend the hillside, overlooking olive groves, with each individual family typically taking one floor of the house.
Alaa lived on the ground floor of one home, with his wife and three sons.
“We’ve been here for 300 years,” Daoud says. “There have been seven generations of us in Jabal Mukaber, on this land.”
But today, the neighbourhood is harder to reach than usual. Four men from Jabal Mukaber have carried out attacks on Israeli civilians in recent weeks, and Israel has imposed a lockdown. A series of concrete roadblocks prevent access from all but one route, which houses a new military checkpoint. Not far from the Abu Jamal home, a stretch of new wall has been erected where Jabal Mukaber meets the Jewish settlement of HaNatziv.
“The Abu Jamal family has been under collective punishment since 2014,” explains one of Alaa’s cousins, 43-year-old Muawiah Abu Jamal, from inside the mourning tent. “When Oday and Ghassan were killed by the Israelis, they kept their bodies for 40 days. They gave us the bodies and told us to bury them outside of Jerusalem. Ghassan’s family was evicted to the West Bank. And the last collective punishment against our family was destroying our houses.”
In the early hours of October 6, Alaa was alerted to the arrival of Israeli soldiers in the neighbourhood. They had come to demolish Ghassan’s apartment and ordered all of the families living nearby, Alaa’s included, to leave their homes while the demolition took place.
In order to access Ghassan’s house, which was on the highest floor, the soldiers had to pass through the home of his father, Mohammed.
Seventy-one-year-old Mohammed Abu Jamal explains what happened next: “They just invaded my house and began breaking things with their guns.”
He leaves the tent to lead a small tour of his nearby property. The lock on the front door has been busted and the plaster on his living room walls is pocked with what look like rifle-butt-shaped holes.
“They broke all the shelves and threw eggs on our clothes,” he says, showing the collapsed insides of his wardrobe.
As explosives were wired in Ghassan’s house, Alaa was confronted by an Israeli soldier outside his own home. According to Muawiah, who witnessed the event, he was told to raise his arms in the air.
“Alaa raised his hands up, but they wanted him to raise them higher. Because he refused, they started to beat him in front of his wife and his children.”
Back in the tent, Muawiah produces a doctor’s report from the same day as the demolition. It states that Alaa was beaten by Israeli soldiers and had bruising on his face and upper body.
“We found the report by coincidence,” Muawiah explains. “He didn’t tell anyone that he went to see a doctor.”
A family man
Thirty-four-year-old Rami was a distant cousin and a close friend of Alaa’s. The two were also neighbours. “I spent most of my time with Alaa, I saw him more than his wife actually,” he recalls. “He was like a brother.”
The two men both had young children and would spend three afternoons a week at the local pool, where the kids were learning to swim. Sometimes, the families would go on weekend trips to the desert near Jericho in the West Bank, or to the Jaffa seaside. They had made plans for a joint family holiday to Eilat, a Red Sea beach resort, this November.
“He liked to take his kids to Eilat for vacations,” Rami says. “My kids would complain that I wasn’t taking them to Eilat.”
Speaking with Alaa’s family and friends, a picture emerges of a man devoted to his family; of a father who liked to take his wife and children for barbecues and picnics in the hills around Jerusalem.
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For eight years, Alaa had worked for the Israeli telecommunications firm Bezeq, fixing phones and internet lines.
“His job was good; financially he made a good salary,” Rami explains. “Before what happened with his cousins, the company gave him a certificate that he was a good employee. But after the incident, the situation became very bad for Alaa.
“They started to send Alaa to places where there were problems in East Jerusalem, like Anata, Shuafat refugee camp and Silwan, next to the settlers,” Rami recalls. “Silwan’s an Arabic area, but he would also have to go and fix the phone line for settlers. He was hearing anti-Arab insults when he went there. He was being sent to the places where others were refusing to go. He said to them more than once, if they didn’t want him then they should retire him.”
But what was really hurting Alaa, Rami says, was that despite having been an employee for eight years, he hadn’t received a contract.
What we all faced last year, and what Alaa faced personally when they destroyed the house - this was part of the switch that made him do what he did.
“He was on a sub-contract, not a direct contract with Bezeq. He had a good salary but not good benefits. When he started doing this job, he started with three other people from East Jerusalem. After seven years, all of them got a contract, apart from Alaa.
“The last time I saw him was Saturday, three days before,” Rami remembers. “We sat here together, drank coffee and spoke about normal things. There was nothing strange. I spoke to him on the phone on Monday and we just spoke about normal things.”
What happened just a few days later, on October 13, a week after the demolition of Ghassan’s house, was captured on a security camera.
A handful of people are waiting at a bus stop in the West Jerusalem neighbourhood of Guela when a car suddenly mounts the pavement, ploughing into them. A man gets out of the car, holding what looks like a meat cleaver. He swings it wildly at two of the people he has just run over.
The man is Alaa.
The next thing the blurry footage shows is a security guard running into view. He shoots at Alaa until he falls to the ground. Still holding onto the cleaver, Alaa tries to swing at the shooter but is shot again and the security guard is able to kick away the weapon.
Unarmed, Alaa staggers to his feet twice more but is shot in the back each time. Roughly a minute later, soldiers and security forces arrive on the scene.
Yeshayahu Krishevsky, a 60-year-old rabbi, was killed in the attack. Two other Israelis were injured. Alaa was taken to hospital, where he later died.
The incident was part of a wave of stabbing attacks across Israel and the West Bank that have taken place against a backdrop of growing violence that has left at least 73 Palestinians and 10 Israelis dead since October 1 and the UN questioning Israel’s use of force.
But Alaa’s story stands out among those of the mostly young, unmarried men who have carried out knife attacks.
“What we all faced last year, and what Alaa faced personally when they destroyed the house – this was part of the switch that made him do what he did,” Muawiah says.
But, as with his cousins almost a year earlier, everyone was shocked by the attack. Daoud had shared an evening cup of tea with his son two nights earlier. “We drank tea together,” he remembers. “We sat here and it was a normal night.”
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When asked what might have motivated Alaa, Mohammed resorts to gallows humour. “It’s a stupid question. It reminds me of when the Shabak [Israel’s security agency] kept asking me why my sons carried out the attack at Har Nof [the synagogue]. I told them I don’t know. You could have asked them yourself, you had them in the morgue for 40 days.”
Sitting in the mourning tent, Daoud remembers his son as a sociable, caring family man who was uninterested in politics.
“Alaa went to work normally that day. No one expected anything to happen to him,” he says. “We don’t know if he had a problem with other Israelis that led him to do this. No one can answer this. It’s a secret right now.”
Nineteen-year-old Thaer Abu Ghazaleh woke up early on October 8 and left the fifth-storey apartment he shared with his father in Kufr Aqab. He headed for the checkpoint that separates his East Jerusalem neighbourhood from the rest of the city.
“I picked them up early, [at] around five in the morning, from Qalandia checkpoint and drove them to Tel Aviv,” remembers Thaer’s boss, who runs a firm supplying Palestinian labour to companies in Israel, and asked not to be named.
As on most mornings, he was taking a group of young Palestinian workers from pick-up points close to Jerusalem and driving them to work in Tel Aviv.
“Everything was normal. Thaer was joking, acting normally, just like every day. The last time I saw him was [at] around 7:15am. I dropped them off at the office and left.”
But that afternoon, he received a series of phone calls in quick succession.
“S, who is responsible for the employees, called me. He said that Thaer had gone outside to fill his water bottle. There was a problem in the street and he didn’t come back.
“One of the Israelis from the same building called me and said that one of my employees was looking for Israelis and wanted to stab them, inside the company. He didn’t find anyone, and then he went out. They saw that on the cameras afterwards,” Thaer’s boss adds. “The same person called me again afterwards and sent me a picture to ask me if this was one of my employees. It was Thaer, shot.”
The picture showed Thaer lying dead on the pavement. He was wearing a black T-shirt with the slogan: “Time heals all wounds” printed on it. According to witnesses, he was shot by an off-duty Israeli air force officer, after stabbing an Israeli soldier with a screwdriver and then wounding four civilians in a busy Tel Aviv street.
“It was a big shock,” his former boss says. “These were five months that I lived with him, I would take him to work every day. I asked the other workers if he told them anything. They just said he was acting normally, he went to get some water and that he didn’t come back.”
To go to Jerusalem, we go through the checkpoint. We have to take our clothes off, in front of all the people. It's humiliating. I don't want to go to work just to be humiliated. I've been working for three years with the same Israeli guy at a grocery store in Tel Aviv. Now, he comes to work with a gun.
At the entrance to the Kufr Aqab neighbourhood, where Thaer lived with his father, the walls are covered with soot from the fires young local men have been lighting every night. Israeli soldiers raided Thaer’s father’s home after the Israeli military issued a demolition order for the house in the wake of Thaer’s attack, and local youths have been burning rubbish and tyres in the hopes of stopping them from returning.
On a street corner, just off the neighbourhood’s main drag, a group of teenagers smoke cigarettes and sip from bottles of Fayrouz, a non-alcoholic beer. After work, when he was not lifting weights at the gym, Thaer used to hang out here with his friends. They all describe him as a cool guy; funny, relaxed, a religious moderate who was uninterested in Palestinian political parties.
“I’ve known him around a year and a half,” says 19-year-old Radwan Abu Rumeileh. “We used to talk and hang out. We used to go to cafes and smoke argileh. He was a cool guy, calm. Not the kind of guy making problems.”
“We talked about cars, motorbikes, sometimes we went driving,” another friend, 18-year-old Mohammed Abu Sharif, continues. “He wanted to get married next year. He was talking about that.”
There was nothing remarkable about his behaviour in the days before the attack, they say.
“Thaer was normal in recent weeks, he had no problems,” Radwan recalls. “I was very sad and so surprised; all of us were surprised.”
Thaer had been working as a technician with the same company for five months, helping to install industrial size air-conditioning units in cities across Israel. He had previously worked for his uncle in Eilat doing a similar job and was used to crossing paths with Israelis. But the young men say the atmosphere in Israel changed after Muhannad Halabi killed two Israelis in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 3.
“Recently, he hated going to Tel Aviv,” 19-year-old Mohammed Ashab interjects. “After the first incident with Muhannad Halabi, he didn’t want to keep working there.”
“In the last few weeks, every day we had trouble from the soldiers. It’s much worse,” Radwan adds. “To go to Jerusalem, we go through the checkpoint. We have to take our clothes off, in front of all the people. It’s humiliating. I don’t want to go to work just to be humiliated. I’ve been working for three years with the same Israeli guy at a grocery store in Tel Aviv. Now, he comes to work with a gun. That’s humiliating.”
At his house in the Old City of Jerusalem, Thaer’s grandfather, 71-year-old Khader Omar, is chain-smoking cigarettes in the living room. The wide-eyed patriarch still cannot make sense of what happened.
“I was shocked. I didn’t expect it at all. He was 19 years old. He was very precious to his father. Everyone loves him. When he was killed, it was a huge shock,” he says.
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On the day of the attack, Khader Omar was preparing to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque when a neighbour called him with urgent news.
“I went to see him and he told me what had happened to Thaer. When I saw the photo, I doubted what I saw. It looked like Thaer but it couldn’t be him and I wasn’t sure. I called Thaer but there was no answer. I called his father but there was no news.”
Omar scrolls through a smartphone until he reaches a picture of Thaer. In it, he’s lying dead on the ground. The grandfather points to what looks like a bullet hole in Thaer’s forehead, and says whoever shot him dead used excessive force.
“They could have easily stopped him without killing him. They could have shot him in the legs and stopped him.”
After Thaer’s death, his father, Abd al-Salam, moved in with Omar. “He’s devastated. Since Thaer’s death his father has been staying here with me. He can’t go to his house. He can’t stand the idea of not seeing his son walking in the house, or seeing the places where he used to sleep, or used to eat. He didn’t leave my house after Thaer died.”
But that changed on the morning of October 19, when Salam was arrested by the Israeli military in the Old City. “They came at 5am,” Omar says. “They searched the house and arrested him.”
Salam was later placed under administrative detention for six months. The procedure permits the Israeli military to detain prisoners without charging them or allowing them to stand trial.
Omar reaches for another cigarette and puts down his smartphone. He looks tired.
“It was a huge shock,” he says. “Why would such a positive guy, who wanted to get engaged and get married, do such a thing and end his life?”
In the grainy video footage from October 10, 19-year-old Mohammed Ali is seen sitting close to Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. An Israeli police officer walks towards him and appears to speak to him and hold out his hand.
Mohammed stands up and hands something to the officer, before sitting again. Two other police officers approach on either side of the first.
Moments later, the teenager jerks to his feet a second time, pulling a knife from his jeans. He stabs at the officer’s head. The officer recoils and Mohammed tries to kick out at him. A nearby team of Israeli security officers rush to the scene, shooting Mohammed repeatedly until he is dead. Two police officers were also injured by stray fire.
Not far from that spot is the butcher’s shop belonging to his uncle, where Mohammed used to work in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the shop, where newspaper clippings of footballers are plastered sporadically on the walls alongside blocks of family photographs, Mohammed’s cousin Ismael, who still works there, remembers him.
“He worked here every day in Ramadan,” the 23-year-old explains. “But after that he would only come sometimes. It’s a tough job and he didn’t really like it. He wanted to make furniture and be a carpenter. He was starting to learn to make furniture.”
Ismael and Mohammed used to hang out after work, playing street football, going to coffee shops or watching the big football games in the room above the butcher’s shop. Mohammed was a Barcelona fan.
“I have no idea what happened with Mohammed. On that day, one of my friends came and told me that he was sitting at Damascus Gate and I thought he would come here to meet me. An hour later, I heard about what happened.”
When asked if his cousin was involved with any political parties, Ismael scoffs. “Not at all. He wasn’t political.”
On the third floor of a stone tower block in Kafr Aqab, Mohammed’s mother, Hasna, remembers her son’s sense of humour and kindness.
“He would bring me flowers every day, and he also gave me this,” she says, pointing at a stuffed red teddy bear on a shelf. “Once a week, he would spend the night looking after his grandfather at his house in Shuafat refugee camp.”
Hasna pours black coffee as one of her daughters places a tray of baklava beside a vase of dying roses on a table in the living room. Mohammed’s mother speaks easily as she recalls her son’s qualities, but grows tense when asked what could have motivated him to carry out the attack.
She did not foresee it, she says; her son loved life, just like any normal teenager. But he had been distressed by the events at Al-Aqsa Mosque compound over the past two years.
“He talked about how settlers didn’t used to go to Al-Aqsa but now they can go easily, protected by soldiers,” she recalls, clutching the sleeve of her black abaya.
Jews have visited Al-Aqsa compound, which they call the Temple Mount, in increasing numbers over recent years, according to Israeli police figures. And while non-Muslim prayer is prohibited there, some Israeli groups have campaigned for that rule to be changed and fringe groups have even called for the construction of a new Jewish temple at the site. The Israeli deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, said on October 27 that she dreamed of an Israeli flag flying at the Temple Mount.
The Israeli government has stressed that there has been no change to the status-quo at Al-Aqsa, but tensions over access rules have sparked clashes between Palestinian civilians and Israeli security forces there this autumn.
“When he saw women being beaten by soldiers at Al-Aqsa, it really influenced him,” Hasna says. “He was sad and angry at the same time. He told me that he was really upset by these acts and that he couldn’t do anything about it.”
But Hasna believes the final trigger for Mohammed came when two of his friends from the Shuafat camp were killed in quick succession. Twenty-year-old Wissam Faraj was shot dead during clashes on October 8, while Ahmad Salah was killed in overnight clashes on October 9.
Mohammed attacked the police officer the next day.
“The two were shot before him and he went to their funerals. I think he felt pressure; he was provoked because he lost two of his best friends,” Hasna says wistfully. “This motivated him. I think it’s the reason he had such a violent reaction.”