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My Cousin Mohammed Abukhdeir’s Murder – And The Jews Who Mourned Him – Changed Me Forever

In the summer of 2014, my homeland was saturated with grief. It was the grief engendered by the loss of 531 children. The first three were Israeli. My cousin and neighbor, Mohammed Abukhdeir, was the fourth. Gaza would soon come to mourn 526 more.

My life changed in unexpected ways after Mohammed’s murder. My family changed. My views changed.

Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who launched the attack against Gaza, finally seems to be nearing the end of his reign. This, and a recent HBO series about that summer, has me thinking about those changes.

I hope the story of Mohammed’s family, unfiltered by HBO, might change you, too.

Kefah Abukhdeir

Kefah Abukhdeir

Mohammed was a wiry teenager with a great sense of humor. I remember how small he was when he stood next to me. I am only 5’3”.

He loved working in his father’s electrical supply store and wanted to be an electrician, just like his dad, Hussein, my uncle. He always made me laugh, always found me the best deal. He was a good kid. He would have been a good man.

Like all stories of this land, Mohammed’s begins with prior generations. The Abukhdeirs are the largest clan in Shufat, a village of 35,000 souls on the north side of Jerusalem. We call Jerusalem Al-Quds, The Holy, a word that recalls its Hebrew corollary: Kadosh. Shufat is named for David’s descendent, King Yehoshafat, who built a palace here. According to Abukhdeir family lore, we descend from sword makers who once furnished weapons for David himself, or as we call him, the prophet Daoud.

We are fallahi, what you would call in English “good peasant stock.” We are never meek. Abukhdeirs have fought occupations since the Ottomans. Both my grandfathers evaded conscription into the Turkish army, refusing to die for an occupying power that degraded our people because no one ever came back; too many sons were buried nameless in foreign soil. Instead they took to the ships at Haifa, though they never cut ties to the land, and always dreamed of feeding their children from their ancestral olive groves near the Holy City.

When the Turks gave way to the British, Grandfather Ismail decided to return from exile in America. He sold his store to a Jewish friend — Grandfather Ismail called him Yaqoub, but he was Jacob to his own family. They shared a love of food, a calendar of ritual observances, and a sense of history. Yaqoub had fled Europe, which he described as less merciful than America. Ismail told Yaqoub about his mother hiding valuables from Ottoman soldiers, hiding hot, clay pots of stuffed cabbage in piles of kindling to guard her family’s meal. She also hid daughters: Girls with pretty eyes turn soldiers’ heads. Yaqoub told Ismail similar stories, of hungry soldiers and vulnerable family members. But Yaqoub also asked my grandfather what it was like to have farmed the land of our prophets. Europe was a cold and foreign land, and Yaqoub wanted to feel the warmth of home.

When Grandfather announced he was returning to Jerusalem, Yaqoub promised: I will meet you there, the only place we can really live.

Grandfather Ismail listened to talk of Palestinian independence with hope, but Al-Quds was handed to the Jordanians. Two of his sons, one of them my father, returned to America. A third remained, printing leaflets, seeking independence from the Hashemite king. Jordanian authorities caught and tortured him, and he fled to his brothers in America, where he died of his wounds. After 1967, the fourth brother began to protest Israeli rule. Grandmother changed his name and bought him a ticket to America.

I was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where, as a small olive skinned girl with a non-English name, I was often mistaken for Jewish. Many of our neighbors and close friends were Jews, and like these Jewish friends and neighbors, my parents pursued economic mobility while raising funds to support the causes of their people across the ocean, in their homeland. Every summer I was sent to spend time with my Siti, my Grandmother, in Shufat.

Diaspora ingrained in us Abukhdeirs the necessity of education so that we could prosper anywhere. We now span the globe, but still feel connected to a nation and a city, maintaining our ties from Venezuela to America to Shufat.


Ramadan 2014 fell in summer. Fasting through the heat and the long days sapped our strength. The kids would stay up all night playing foosball and cards at the community center. After suhoor, the pre-dawn family meal, they would attend prayers, come home weary, and sleep through the fast until sundown. Then they would wake for iftar, the evening meal, and more fun and games.

That morning, Mohammed’s friends had just left for suhoor with their families. But he stayed, playing on his phone; he lived right next to the mosque. He thought he would eat from his mother’s table, then go to pray. No one thought to consider the previous night, when someone tried to kidnap a woman and her children just down the street.

I woke on July 2 to find my daughter on her phone, receiving a flurry of texts. I listened as she kept repeating herself: “La” — no. Then, she burst into my room to say Mohammed, Uncle Hussein’s son, had been kidnapped. I told her to text her cousins and tell them to stop their pranks. Then her father’s phone rang, and the Imam called from the minaret: “Mohammed, son of Hussein, son of Said ‘the bone-setter’ Abukhdeir has been kidnapped.”

Mohammed Abu Khdeir's mother, Suha

Suha, the mother of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir who was killed in 2014, reacts in a courtroom after the sentences were announced on February 4, 2016 at the Jerusalem district court. Image by Getty Images

Abukhdeirs in diaspora connected with those in Palestine. Those in Palestine gathered in Shufat, at Hussein and Suha’s house.

But as the crowd grew, so did the military and police presence. The main street was chaos. Soldiers swarmed. Helicopters circled. In the midst of our terror, the full force of the occupation came down upon us. Within 24 hours, all levels of the Israeli military surrounded us. The streets filled with IDF anti-riot troops in black uniforms with plexiglas shields.

Our bewildered family tried to grasp what had happened to our boy and wondered why our community was besieged.

It seemed incomprehensible. Didn’t the Imam say Mohammed was kidnapped? Why are we surrounded?


We of course already knew that the Imam was right. That morning, some men on their way to Al-Aksa had told Hussein they saw Mohammed screaming from a car. They gave chase, but the kidnappers evaded them. Hussein accessed the surveillance cameras he installed on his building and across the street. The feed showed men forcing Mohammed into a car, its license number clearly visible. Like any parent, he called the police. When they asked for his computer’s hard drive, Hussein gave it to them. But then they took him into custody and confiscated it.

Hussein was held for three days under suspicion of killing his own son. Hussein would later tell us how Israeli investigators accused him of hitting his son on the head, of meeting him in the forest with five other people, of putting a tire around him, pouring gas on him, watching his son burn to death, then singing with his guitar next to the smoldering body.

Then came the question that would eventually be released to the press: Did you kill your son because he was gay?

The narrative traveled quickly from the Israeli authorities to the press to Mohammed’s family. Those of us who knew foreign languages went to the “press room” — Hussein’s roof — while Hussein remained in custody. One reporter asked Suha, Mohammed’s mother, about her son’s “effeminate habits.” The New York Times bureau chief asked about his haircuts and his grooming, apparently signs he was gay.

I wondered if they would have posed the same questions to the mother of a Jewish or American murder victim. We began seeing “pinkwashing” in the media, juxtapositions of tolerant Jews with violent Arabs.

Suha was also hosted by the police, but released the same day. Hussein and Suha told us that the police demanded that they sign a statement that no Israeli participated in Mohammed’s murder for the body to be released. They still had no idea how their son had died, only that they had a funeral to arrange.

Meanwhile, everyone in Shufat was asking what happened. Tension was ramping up. We were all in shock, asking each other the same questions: Did you see the black riot gear? Black uniforms means shit is going down. Don’t worry, Allah protects the innocent.

Met with riot gear and guns, we began to organize in self-defense, gathering rocks and stones. We covered our faces in keffiyehs, the same ones our grandfathers wore tilling fields and our grandmothers used as slings for our fathers while threshing wheat. Dumpsters were overturned; they would offer some protection from the bullets we expected would follow the tear gas. We armed ourselves with the same earth awaiting Mohammed’s return. Our Mother, the land of Palestine herself, was now our weapon.

Relatives of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem

Relatives of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir who was killed in 2014, hold posters bearing his portrait outside the Jerusalem district court during a hearing on February 4, 2016. Image by Getty Images

The Imam declared a halt to the fast, because we needed our strength. He came with pita with za’atar and olive oil, a hearty Palestinian breakfast. But our hearts wouldn’t let us eat or drink.

Young men came from neighboring Beit Hanina and Shufat’s refugee camp. A boy has been kidnapped. Shufat is under siege. People filtered in by the old trails, parking cars on side streets, walking into town.

They populated the mourning area around Hussein’s house. Abukhdeir men stood all day receiving guests, inviting them to stay for iftar. Mohammed’s death fused with Ramadan to become a months-long wake.

Meanwhile, war erupted in Gaza and more children joined Mohammed.


Mohammed’s body was finally delivered to the mosque and identified by his uncles. One collapsed at the sight of his charred remains.

We learned that they examined Mohammed’s lungs and determined he was still breathing when his murderers lit him on fire. The body was then wrapped and carried by cousins. Thousands walked behind little Mohammed. Shufat’s families came together, descendants of our ancient past: Canaanite, Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. Mohammed’s funeral was one of the largest ever in Jerusalem.

After Mohammed lay with his grandfathers, his cousin Tareq, visiting from Tampa, would not leave the cemetery. He had been the last to see Mohammed alive and wouldn’t forgive himself for leaving him alone. He soon did “penance”, taking a severe beating from the IDF. This was caught on video as well. The U.S. Consulate intervened. When he was released with a bruised, swollen face, Suha broke down and thanked God that they did not take another child.

The mourning tent remained throughout Ramadan. Day and night, our boys clashed with the IDF. Our tent was not spared. Tear gas, as if out of sympathy, ensured our tears. We marked the passage of time with the death toll in Gaza. Condolences flowed back and forth as we watched one another on TV and social media.

I stopped taking my five-year-old to the mourning tent. He made us keep every window and door open. If they were open, we could run away. Mohammed could not escape, because they closed the car windows.

Who is coming for us? The children asked. The men in black, the Jews on the street, the Jews in the car.

My heart sank when I heard the talk. My best friend in high school in Atlanta was Jewish. Our close neighbors growing up there were Jewish. Grandfather’s friend, Yaqoub, was Jewish.

But my children grew up in Shufat. In Jerusalem, Jews surround us, strategically extending neighborhoods and settlements to squeeze us.

Yosef Haim Ben-David

Israeli settler Yosef Haim Ben-David, second from left, who is the prime suspect charged along with two minors with the abduction and murder of the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, arrives at the courtroom at the Jerusalem district court on February 11, 2016. Image by Getty Images

But then they began to arrive: thousands of Jews. First came politicians. Suha and Hussein accepted them with grace, even as these people had the bad taste to besiege their home in response to their son’s murder by one of their own.

And then, they came: those whom we did not expect.

They were regular Israelis. As a nation, they occupy us and kill our children. But now they came as individuals and groups — by the busload.

We had to lock some of our family in a room. Some would become upset if they believed we were condoning Israel’s occupation, or speaking with accomplices of the state that raised Mohammed’s murderers. But we were still Abukhdeirs. We would not turn away someone who had come out of respect.

And the truth is, when regular Israelis reached out, my relationship with our occupier changed to something more complicated. Many Palestinians do not want to normalize Israel, the worst single thing that has happened to our people. It disrupted our presence on our land. It forced us to explain why we were not liars for saying “I thrived between the river and the sea.”

But these very people, whom we thought had no conscience, the ones we thought indifferent, came to express genuine sorrow. And not just the Israeli “left” but those who usually do not leave their comfort zones.

They came with no agenda aside from recognizing our humanity, expressing their concern, and paying their respects. I do not remember a similar situation between our communities.

I wondered if any of them were grandchildren of Yaqoub, my own grandfather’s friend from far away and long ago.


Despite this outpouring of support and shared grief, little has changed. Shufat has not been rebuilt. We have no streetlights, just a heavy IDF and police presence.

Our children see Israelis in uniform holding guns every day. The IDF and police treat our sons as potential terrorists. According to Israeli law, an 8-year-old can now be tried as an adult. Don’t cry in front of soldiers, boys tell my ten-year-old son. If you cry, they think you’re scared, so don’t cry if the Jews pick you up.

Incarceration has become a way of life. The police and military presence is a challenge, an affront. They tried to stop the establishment of a monument commemorating Mohammed, conceding only after Hussein threatened to erect it on the train tracks. Arrests are common. Chases are the norm.

This way of life corrupts us all. My occupier and I know each other well. At night, we are each other’s nightmares.

Mohammed was the first I remember to be mourned by both sides. His death made visible our common humanity. After his shroud disappeared into Palestine’s belly, I thought of the anger that compelled us to pick up stones. But then I turned around to see the crowd that had gathered in my village. I saw all the nations who gathered to honor Mohammed. I saw Shufat extend from my grandfathers’ headstones to Palestine and beyond.

I started to listen to the land that honored Mohammed in accepting his body. She asked me why we only gathered for the dead. She asked me when would we honor her with our life?

We are from the same rib of that land between the river and the sea, and I know you as well as you know me. Can true lovers of our land cherish freedom and liberty for all? Must we challenge each other’s love for our land? Might we stand together in Palestine, loving Israel, and vice versa?

Perhaps together we can unchain our youth from their shackles of military service. Can we remember the collective us that stands before God?

We all belong to Jerusalem, Al-Quds. Her love waits for us to honor her.

For Palestine.

For Israel.

For each other.

Kefah Abukhdeir is a Palestinian-American living in Jerusalem. She co- directs and teaches EduReach a local Palestinian educational and learning organization. Ori Weisberg contributed to this piece.

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