The New Threat to Jerusalem

Ghassan Abu Tir's favorite television series was a Turkish soap opera called "Noor." The 22-year-old East Jerusalem hard hat rarely missed an episode. The show's setting—a luxurious villa along the Bosporus—is about as far from cramped and conservative Jerusalem as one can get. Some evenings, the Palestinian backhoe driver would sit with his brother on the balcony of their grandparents' stone house, smoking L&Ms and trying to figure out how he could afford his own villa. The numbers never added up. Building a house and buying his own backhoe would cost more than $100,000; on Abu Tir's salary of barely $1,000 per month, it would take forever to save that much.

He met a girl he wanted to marry, but his parents said no. "If you want her," his father said, "you'll have to build your life first."

Despair at that prospect is no excuse for what happened later, but it may be the beginning of an explanation. Around 2 p.m. on July 22, Abu Tir guided his earthmover toward a busy intersection in the heart of Jewish West Jerusalem. Then he plunged the tractor into a line of traffic stopped at the light, crushing and overturning cars, and injuring more than a dozen drivers. The attack ended in minutes when Israeli passersby rushed up to the cabin and shot Abu Tir dead. Such rampages have become something of a regular occurrence this year. Three weeks before Abu Tir snapped, another East Jerusalem construction worker plowed his tractor into a crowd of commuters on busy Jaffa Road, killing three people and injuring 45. Back in March a third East Jerusalemite slipped into the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in West Jerusalem and opened fire in the school library, killing eight students.

Attacks in central Jerusalem were frequent at the height of the second intifada, but in recent years they have been relatively rare. Israeli conventional wisdom has long held that the living standards of East Jerusalemites, which are significantly higher than those of Palestinians in the West Bank, keep residents comparatively docile. But something seems to have changed. According to statistics compiled by Israeli security sources, 13 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians this year in Jerusalem—as many as were killed in all of last year by Palestinians from any region. Already this year, 71 East Jerusalemites have been arrested by Israeli security forces—far more than in any of the previous seven years. The Shin Bet, the internal Israeli security service, has warned that Jerusalem's Palestinian population is quietly becoming radicalized.

In the Israeli press, the bloody outbursts have been described either as the acts of lone madmen or, paradoxically, the work of militant conspiracies. Neither explanation satisfies. There is no compelling evidence that the incidents were coordinated, but there are common denominators. All three attackers came from small, provincial East Jerusalem neighborhoods on stony hills just minutes apart. Since the summer of 1967, when East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel, the district has built close ties with both the Israeli economy and Palestinian culture. That combination has been a formula for relative stability, earning East Jerusalemites the trust of Israelis on the city's west side.

But in recent years Israel has dramatically altered the sector's landscape. In 2002, former prime minister Ariel Sharon began building a 460-mile barrier—in much of the city, a 20-foot-high concrete wall—that slices deep into Palestinian territory and divides neighbor from neighbor. A network of new access roads and checkpoints has further chopped the territory into a hodgepodge of Palestinian enclaves. Even as Israeli settlements proliferate in East Jerusalem, building permits for Palestinian homes are becoming a rarity. "We're screwing them royally," says Danny Seidemann, an Israeli rights lawyer. "We've cut them off from the West Bank without integrating them into Israel. We've created a state of limbo, and that's the most radical change since 1967."

The situation is full of uncomfortable ironies. It is by now an article of faith that the separation barrier has kept potential suicide bombers from crossing out of the West Bank. Yet with their blue ID cards, East Jerusalem's 250,000 Arab residents enjoy significantly greater freedom of movement within Israel than West Bank Palestinians. Even as Israeli leaders have been talking more than fighting with traditional antagonists like Hamas, Hizbullah and Syria, violence is spiking in the heart of Jerusalem. And while the biggest sticking point in negotiations with the Palestinians is the issue of dividing Jerusalem—lame-duck Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared last week that he didn't think a peace deal including the city was possible this year because of the deadlock—the longer the peace process drags on, the more angry the local population is likely to get. Olmert's decision to step down as party leader in September amid corruption allegations makes any possible resolution even more remote.

A few days after the bulldozer attack, I visited Abu Tir's family. His parents' house, ringed with bougainvillea, sits on a high ridge overlooking the controversial Israeli settlement of Har Homa. Abu Tir's 19-year-old brother Bilal also works as a backhoe driver for an Israeli company. Both brothers quit school after eighth grade. East Jerusalem boys often drop out of high school to earn money in the construction business, but the trade-offs can be cruel. Local women tend to stay in school until their 20s, creating difficult marital imbalances in male-dominated Palestinian society. And high salaries can't erase the guilt and bitterness many young Arabs feel about working for Israeli companies. Bilal says he's been working in Har Homa for the past four years. "It's an extremely difficult feeling," he says, "but I need the money. If I don't do it, someone else will take the job." The heavy-handed tactics of Israel's security services following his brother's rampage have only deepened his resentment. Shortly after the incident he was picked up and interrogated by the Shin Bet. According to Bilal, one of the officers who questioned him warned: "If I see you again, I'll kill you."

Some Israelis have speculated that Abu Tir—who was related to a prominent jailed Hamas leader—may have acted on behalf of the Islamists. One Israeli intelligence source, refusing to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation, says part of the problem is that East Jerusalemites are "adopting the Islamic way of life in a more radical way." The popularity of Hamas in East Jerusalem spiked in recent years, as it did among Palestinians elsewhere, and most women in the southern neighborhoods now wear headscarves.

But the situation is not that simple. Since Hamas won power in elections two years ago, Israeli security forces have swept through East Jerusalem and the West Bank, arresting scores of senior Hamas figures and shuttering Islamic cultural centers and other institutions. Such centers can, of course, be focal points for Islamic militants, but they can also provide a social safety net and a sense of community. By cracking down on the Islamists in the name of security, Israel is also undermining a powerful source of social stability. The only people who still go to the mosques in East Jerusalem now "are the old people," says bulldozer driver Mohammad Attoun, 25. "Most of the Islamic leaders are in prison. Anybody who goes to the mosque three days in a row ends up in jail. Now I pray at home. The society is completely dismantled."

The same is true even of East Jerusalem's secular leadership. For most of the 20th century, Arab Jerusalem was dominated by a handful of landowning patrician clans with historically close ties to the British governors of Palestine and the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. But after 1967, the Israeli government set out to weaken the ruling clans, partly by disbanding the prewar municipality and replacing it with an Israeli one. For a time, the heirs of those original Jerusalem aristocrats continued to wield some influence; Faisal Husseini, the scion of an ancient Jerusalem family, helped guide the early days of the first intifada from his Jerusalem headquarters, called Orient House. But after Oslo, the center of Palestinian power shifted still further from Jerusalem to Ramallah. Since Husseini's death in 2001, Jerusalem's Palestinians have been largely leaderless. "One of the most important things is the total disappearance of a political leadership class," says Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Jerusalem's Al-Quds University.

The power vacuum provides plenty of latitude for young East Jerusalemites looking to challenge traditional Palestinian mores. Hussam Dweiat, another hard hat from East Jerusalem, spent his rebellious years working as a waiter in Eilat, Israel's carefree resort town on the Red Sea coast. He dropped out of school after eighth grade and eventually met a young Israeli woman who worked at the same restaurant. The young man experimented with drugs and fathered a child with her. When he got jealous, sometimes he hit her. She finally had him arrested, and he did time in an Israeli prison. They stayed in touch anyway, but after his release, Dweiat's parents forced him to end the relationship.

His mother managed to set him up with a bride she considered more suitable: a young Palestinian woman from East Jerusalem. Dweiat got a job driving a bulldozer for an Israeli company and—outwardly, at least—his life seemed to be turning around. His wife gave birth to two children and says he was a doting father. Still, his debts became overwhelming—more than $200,000, partly because of fines that were levied by the Israelis because he had built his house without a permit. "Sometimes I'd feed [his family] myself," says his mother, Sarah. "His whole salary went to debt." On the morning of July 2, he plowed his earthmover into a line of traffic in West Jerusalem, killing several Israelis before an off-duty soldier shot him dead.

Israelis are arguing among themselves about how to respond to such attacks. Some people, particularly in the security services, want to demolish the attackers' homes. In the past several years Israel has halted punitive demolitions, partly in response to human-rights activists, who argue that they constitute collective punishment. As a result, "we lost our deterrence," says the Israeli intelligence source. Punitive demolitions may indeed intimidate East Jerusalemites in the short run. Yet they are also certain to infuriate the population. "Deterrence, in the long run, doesn't work," says Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli historian and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem. "All colonial powers, in the initial phase, think deterrence is enough. But then they learn."

Jamilla Dweiat, Hussam's widow, can't understand why Israel would punish her and her sons by tearing down their house. She worries about it daily and, to pass the quiet evenings, occasionally tunes in to "Noor," that Turkish soap opera. But the good life now seems so unattainable that she finds herself weeping as she watches. During her interview with NEWSWEEK, a team of stolid Israeli officials arrived at her house and walked around—taking measurements for the demolition, she assumed. As the men strode through the halls, Jamilla bit her lip and hugged her belly. The day her husband killed and died, she learned she was pregnant again.