Occupied East Jerusalem – Dozens of wooden and brass plaques, along with bouquets of flowers, spill into the living room in Hussein Abu Khdeir’s home. Most of the mementos bear the same image of his son Mohammed, a wide-eyed, skinny teenager in a white baseball cap.
A year has passed since Mohammed Abu Khdeir was snatched from the street outside his house. The 16-year-old Palestinian was kidnapped, beaten and driven to a forest in Jerusalem, where he was burned alive.
Three Jewish Israeli settlers have admitted to killing Mohammed in an act of revenge. Their trial is ongoing at a Jerusalem court.
As Hussein prepares to mark a year on Thursday since his son’s untimely death, the 50-year-old electrician recalls a bright, sporty boy who loved dabke, a traditional Palestinian dance, and was known for his sharp wit.
“I took him to work with me sometimes, teaching him the skills to be an electrician. One day his teacher asked me ‘Why are you training him in this work – Mohammed is going to be a comedian, he’s always making the class laugh,'” he recalled.
The community here remembers the teenager in a similar light. Abu Hassan has lived in Shuafat for 25 years
, when they re-enact the killing, when they describe exactly where they hit him. Our blood is boiling. There’s fire in our hearts. I can’t describe this feeling.”]
and runs a small grocery store across the street from the mosque. He counted the teenager as a neighbour and friend.
“Mohammed was a generous boy. He installed the television receiver here in the shop. He used to come by and change the channel for me when I couldn’t work it out,” he said. “We were shocked by what happened. Who does this? It’s not human.”
The gruesome nature of Mohammed’s death appalled this East Jerusalem community and triggered the worst riots in the holy city in a decade, spreading to Arab cities in Israel and the West Bank. Nightly clashes between Palestinian residents and Israeli police continued for weeks.
Today in Shuafat, the legacy of that anger is still evident in the destroyed light rail station. Just days after Mohammed was killed, the war in Gaza began. It caused the deaths of more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, while Israel counted 73 dead on its side, mostly soldiers.
As the bodies mounted in Gaza, rioters in Jerusalem found renewed grievances and impetus.
Repeated attempts by Jewish Israeli hardliners to access the city’s holiest site, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, fuelled unrest that burned long into the autumn.
More than 20 people were killed in Jerusalem in the second half of 2014 in interethnic violence.
In March, a leaked report by the European Union warned that Jerusalem had entered a period of “polarisation and violence”, not seen since the second Intifada ended in 2005.
The document cited increased Jewish settlement-building, demolitions of Palestinian homes and dire economic and political prospects for the city’s Arab population as underlying causes.
“Since the murder, the veil of a pseudo coexistence in Jerusalem has been ripped away,” said Daniel Seidemann, lawyer and founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem. “Hatred has become more personalised, more endemic and more intense. The divide in Jerusalem is starker than at any point since 1967.”
While growing right-wing Jewish radicalism and settlement activity in the city have slowly alienated Arab communities here, the most compelling motive behind the unrest, according to Seidemann, was a sense of helplessness among Palestinian youths in East Jerusalem.
“Fifty percent, perhaps more, of the people arrested in the violence were under the age of 18. The kids, who are clashing on a nightly basis with the Israeli police, aren’t being whipped into a frenzy by charismatic people like Abu Mazen. What their large scale participation indicates is a sense that they have no future,” he said.
The events of the past 12 months have taken a heavy toll on the city. There are growing fears that the political conflict here is taking on an increasingly religious edge.
But behind these broad shifts in the contours of the city are stories of human loss and suffering.
In Shuafat, Mohammed’s siblings are still afraid to leave the family home unaccompanied. Weary-eyed and agitated, Hussein described the ongoing court case as a tortuous ordeal.
“When we come home from the trial, my wife and I feel paralysed,” he said. “Once, we came back and couldn’t sleep for four days.”
The Israeli police video, in which the defendants confessed to the murder and re-enacted the attack, has been shown during the trial, while the defendants have replayed the attack in court as well, according to Hussein.
“We are burning on the inside every time we see them [culprits], when they re-enact the killing, when they describe exactly where they hit him,” he said. “Our blood is boiling. There’s fire in our hearts. I can’t describe this feeling.
“The trial is a joke, it’s a sham trial. They are treating the criminals very well, taking them out for breakfast at 11 every day while we wait in the courtroom. The defence lawyer even asked the public prosecutor to show his credentials. It’s a farce.”
The violence in Jerusalem that followed Mohammed’s murder has subsided in recent months, but the city has not recovered from those events. Seidemann believes that if the long-term causes of last summer’s riots are not addressed, the conflict could escalate along religious lines.
“What we’re seeing is the morphing of a political, national conflict which can be resolved into a completely intractable, zero-sum religious conflict that cannot be resolved,” he said. “That is taking place.”