Palestinian child’s death unites Jerusalem community

  • Nicolas
(JTA) On Friday, in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Beit Hanina, eight-year-old Qais Abd Abu Ramileh drowned in a pit filled by last week’s torrential rains. Reading the news after Shabbat, I was saddened to hear about Ramileh’s death.
by Nicolas Nissim Touboul | Jan 30, 2020

From when he was reported missing until early Saturday morning, Israeli police officers, firefighters, municipal workers, local Jews, and Palestinians worked together to find the boy or recover his body. After local Palestinians broke through the fence of another pit Ramileh was rumoured to have fallen into, “the [Israeli] police shot flares to assist the searchers as the Palestinians shouted encouragement to them”.

While there were early rumours that the boy may have been kidnapped by settlers, as Ha’aretz reported, “this unusual co-operative effort significantly eased the tension in the city”.

This, however, was not how the story was told initially to international readers.

Israel detractors around the world, from Palestinian Authority official Hanan Ashrawi to British politician George Galloway, to United States Representative Rashida Tlaib, were already pushing the unfounded claim that Ramileh had been kidnapped and executed by Jewish settlers.

I was disgusted by the shameless exploitation of this tragedy. But I was incensed as well that ignorant observers are capable only of seeing life in Jerusalem through the lens of conflict.

Far from being a story of Jew versus Arab, this was a story of hundreds of Jews and Arabs working through the night to search for a lost son of this city. In spite of the fact that it was Shabbat, Jewish first responders from as far away as the religious communities of the West Bank’s Gush Etzion area came to aid the search.

The socioeconomic reality in Jerusalem is far from perfect. Underinvestment in public infrastructure in eastern Jerusalem might explain why Ramileh drowned in a pit in the middle of the city. But framing this case as a result of “the conflict” is inexact, misleading, and harmful.

Over the past two years, Israel has opened five community police centres in Arab neighbourhoods, including one in Beit Hanina, to improve law enforcement by building trust and working with community leaders. In this case, as in other neighbourhoods, we’ve started to see the fruits of these efforts and a change in the relations between Arab communities and Israeli security forces.

Ramileh was a student at the Il-Irtikaa (improve/upgrade) public school. Public education in eastern Jerusalem has historically been lacking, driving families to seek out private schools or institutions in which kids are taught the Palestinian Authority curriculum. Beyond incitement against Israel in its textbooks and end-of-high-school examination, the PA curriculum doesn’t offer modern vocational training and correlates with higher dropout rates. It also makes it a long and expensive journey for students later to attend higher education in Jerusalem.

But in the past year and a half, Israel has been implementing a two billion shekel (about R8.3 billion) investment programme for these Arab neighbourhoods, with about half the sum dedicated to public education. In a public school (and all the more in a school such as Il-Irtikaa, which emphasises language learning), students like Ramileh were taught Hebrew – the language of his Jewish neighbours – from third grade.

I’m familiar with this community. My organisation runs a Hebrew class for Il-Irtikaa’s parent community. I believe the courses we provide give the necessary tools for integration into the Israeli-led Jerusalem economy, fostering shared interests between both populations. But beyond that, Hebrew learning is a unique prism through which to meet the culture of the city’s majority group.

The death of any eight-year-old is an absolute tragedy, any parent’s worst nightmare. Instead of using it to further inflame the region and pit Jew against Arab, the story should be used to highlight the need for more Jewish-Arab co-operation, desperately needed infrastructural improvements, and further investment in our neighbourhoods. Only when we acknowledge that our strength comes from working together will Jerusalem’s residents build a truly united city.

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