JERUSALEM – The fate of a Palestinian boy seized center stage Thursday in the battle of narratives accompanying the recent burst of deadly Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ignited an uproar in Israel after falsely claiming in a televised speech that Israelis had “summarily executed” Ahmed Manasra, when the 13-year-old actually was recovering at an Israeli hospital after he stabbed two Israelis, including a boy his own age.
Palestinians, in turn, were enraged by video showing Ahmed lying in the street, his head bloodied and his legs splayed, as bystanders curse him and shout “Die!” in Hebrew. The images, widely circulated on social media, made no mention of the preceding attack by Ahmed and his cousin Hassan, 15, who was then shot and killed by police Monday.
The case has become a lightning rod for both sides.
Israel has repeatedly accused Abbas of fomenting violence with what it says are incendiary comments.
“Now we have a new big lie. That new big lie is that Israel is executing Palestinians,” Netanyahu said Thursday. Still, he said he would be “perfectly open” to meeting Abbas to address what the Israeli leader said was a wave of incitement.
Abbas, who has long argued that armed attacks on Israelis go against Palestinian interests, has denied the Israeli allegations that he is fomenting unrest. He did not immediately respond to Netanyahu’s offer.
In his speech Wednesday, Abbas said Israel has engaged in excessive force and the “summary execution of our children in cold blood.”
The high-level name-calling highlighted the abyss between the two leaders, at a time when prospects for a return to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations appear nil.
In the past month, eight Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. During the same period, 31 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 14 labeled by Israel as attackers, and the others in clashes between stone-throwers and Israeli troops.
Israel has increased security across the country in response to the unrest. On Thursday, the military said it would deploy 300 soldiers in Jerusalem to help police maintain order, guard public transportation and the city’s main streets.
Both sides use social media to promote their official narratives.
Israeli officials have released security camera videos of the attacks, sometimes within minutes. The police, army, Foreign Ministry and prime minister’s office cooperate, collecting clips from Palestinian websites that are seen as promoting violence or searching for Facebook posts from assailants that they say indicated they were about to commit violent acts.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emanuel Nahshon said the strategy is to spread Israel’s messages and complain to popular services about allegedly offensive comment. He said Israel persuaded Google’s YouTube service and Facebook to remove several Palestinian videos.
Palestinian authorities, meanwhile, have focused on releasing amateur video appearing to show Israeli police using excessive force.
The battle also plays out in private Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
On the Palestinian side, social media play a growing role in the conflict. Palestinian media experts say the vast majority of Palestinians between the ages of 12 and 22 use social media.
For the young, social media have taken the place of political factions that were key to organizing major bouts of fighting with Israel in the past.
In this round of violence, Palestinian attacks on Israelis have largely been carried out by individuals with no ties to militant groups. Motives often remain murky, but relatives of assailants have cited as potential triggers both the pressures of life under Israeli occupation and videos seen on social media.
Israeli Facebook users, meanwhile, have been sharing a wide array of posts during the unrest, including videos on how to defend themselves against stabbers, as well as the clips of attacks on Israelis. Some Israelis accuse the media of anti-Israel bias or express anti-Arab sentiment, while others call for coexistence.
Among Palestinians, the video of the wounded Ahmed Manasra has perhaps had the biggest emotional impact.
In the video, the terrified boy is seen lying between the tracks of Jerusalem’s light rail, his legs at a twisted angle after having been struck by a car in the wake of the stabbing attack.
As Israeli officers stand nearby, voices are heard — presumably those of bystanders — shouting at the boy in Hebrew and Arabic. “Just shoot this son of a bitch in the head,” one man says in Hebrew. Some policemen appear to be trying to push away those yelling at the boy.
On Tuesday, the Palestinian Information Ministry posted the video on YouTube, with subtitles in English, under the title, “Ahmed Manasra — Israeli brutality exposed.”
Israel responded by announcing the boy was alive and being treated at Hadassah Hospital.
On Wednesday, Israel released security camera video that appears to show the two Manasra cousins wielding knives and chasing a man through a Jewish area of east Jerusalem.
The video moves to a shot of an Israeli boy standing in a candy store, getting on his bicycle, then collapsing and falling off the bike after the stabbing.
In a final scene, Hassan is seen being confronted by two armed policemen along the light rail track. He lunges at the officers and is shot.
Abbas made the next move in a televised speech Wednesday evening.
“We will not give in to the logic of brute force and policies of occupation and aggression practiced by the Israeli government and its herds of settlers who engage in terrorism against our people and our holy places and our homes and our trees, and the summary execution of our children in cold blood, as they did with the child Ahmed Manasra and other children in Jerusalem and other places,” he said.
The comments, aimed at a domestic audience, appeared to be an attempt to catch up with Palestinian public opinion; Abbas faces mounting criticism at home that he is too conciliatory toward Israel. Behind the scenes, Abbas has been urging his security commanders to clamp down on violence, saying attacks on Israelis counter Palestinian interests.
Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Abbas’ comments about Ahmed Manasra were a result of inaccurate information.
“We thought in the beginning that he was killed,” Erekat said. “Then the information we had was that he is clinically dead.”
There appeared to be no attempt by Abbas’ office to set the record straight. Instead, it accused Israel of inciting against the Palestinian leader.
Erekat said Abbas was trying to underscore claims that Israel is wrongfully killing Palestinians being accused of carrying out attacks.
“There could have been many ways to arrest those people, but they chose to shoot in order to kill, and this is what happened in many cases,” he said.
Nine human rights groups in Israel expressed concern Wednesday over what they said has been “a worrying trend to use firearms to kill Palestinians who have attacked Israelis or are suspected of such attacks.”
The groups said that “politicians and senior police officers have … openly called for the extrajudicial killing of suspects.”
The U.S. has also expressed concerns that Israel may have used excessive force in subduing some of the attackers — a claim Netanyahu rejected.
He said Israel is using “exactly the kind and amount of legitimate force” that any other government faced with seemingly spontaneous stabbing attacks would use.
The wave of stabbing attacks has meanwhile spread fear in Jerusalem and much of Israel, shattering the brittle sense of security Israelis had managed to restore a decade after Palestinian suicide bombings terrified the nation.
The public panic has also exposed an ugly side, with some enraged residents calling for Arabs to be kicked out of their apartment buildings and many Palestinians afraid to venture out of their homes for fear of getting mixed up with vigilante mobs.
The month of violence has mostly been confined to sporadic stabbings and clashes between Palestinian protesters and police. It has claimed the lives of eight Israelis and some 30 Palestinians, a far cry from the years of near daily shooting and bombing attacks that killed more than 1,000 Israelis and thousands of Palestinians in the early 2000s. But already, a siege mentality has taken hold.
“The sense is that the entire country is the front line, and that everyone is a candidate for stabbing,” Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the daily Yediot Ahronot, wrote recently.
Municipalities have increased security patrols, the government has eased gun licensing procedures and public officials, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, are openly carrying personal weapons and encouraging the public to do the same.
Several bystanders have already subdued attackers, but there have also been incidents of quick gunfire that have sparked fears among Palestinians that if they are even perceived to be a threat, they might get shot.
“People are afraid. They fear being shot, so they prefer to stay at home until this thing is over,” said Zakariya Alqaq, a Palestinian university professor.
The violence began with clashes at Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site and quickly spread to Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, across Israel and to the West Bank and Gaza.
Israeli leaders say the violence is due to Palestinian incitement. But Palestinians say it is the result of years of Israeli occupation, failed peace efforts and lack of hope among their youth.
For Israelis, stabbing attacks have become near-daily occurrences, mainly in Jerusalem but also in the Israeli heartland, in cities such as Tel Aviv and in residential Raanana farther north.
Israel has been unable to quell the attacks, carried out seemingly spontaneously by young Palestinians without any affiliation or support from militant groups. In a bid to contain the violence, Israel has deployed soldiers in its cities to back up thousands of police officers and has erected concrete barriers and checkpoints at the entrance to Arab areas of east Jerusalem, where many of the attackers are from.
Jerusalem has been the focal point of the violence, where Jews and Arabs in every corner of the city have begun looking over their shoulders, fearing the violence could hit them too.
On Thursday, the alleyways, shops and cafes of the usually bustling Mahane Yehuda market were nearly emptied of shoppers, and vendors complained of a drop of some 70 percent in sales since the violence began. Police in vans, on motorcycles and on foot patrolled the area near the city’s central bus station where a Palestinian attacker stabbed a 70-year-old woman Wednesday, checking the identification cards of Arab men on the street.
Moshe Niddam, a 16-year-old meandering around the nearly barren area outside the bus station, brandished a small paring knife that he has begun carrying for self-defense.
“I’ll tell you this, if the attacker … intends to stab me, I will also take out my knife,” the Israeli teen said.
The fears have sometimes turned into outright panic. After the bus station attack Wednesday, word of a potential second attack sent a swarm of security forces and civilians in a mad dash down a central road, until it was declared to be a false alarm. On Thursday, police sealed off streets in and around Tel Aviv after reports of a suspicious vehicle. Earlier this week, an Israeli man stabbed a fellow Jew in an IKEA parking lot in northern Israel after mistaking his dark-skinned victim for an Arab.
Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have watched as police or bystanders have opened fire on assailants, in many cases killing them. When attackers have been apprehended alive, angry mobs have often kicked or punched them.
Many Palestinians in east Jerusalem have opted to remain at home, and Arab citizens of Israel have complained of being afraid to speak Arabic in public. In one widely shared Facebook post, a Palestinian living in Tel Aviv said a neighbor demanded in a letter to building residents that he be “checked out” in light of the security situation.
Mohammed Abu Sabih, a resident of east Jerusalem who sells produce at the Jerusalem market, said Palestinians in Jerusalem are warning each other not to walk around with their hands in their pockets so that no one suspects them of hiding a knife.
“It’s not safe for us,” said Abu Sabih, 24, who said he asked his Jewish boss to pick him up and drive him home from work as a precaution.
As the attacks have spread beyond Jerusalem, Israelis nationwide have stocked up on self-defense weapons, such as mace and guns, and shops have reported a dramatic spike in sales that has emptied shelves.
Private security firms say they are stretched to the limit and have been forced to reject assignments for lack of manpower. The Rikoshet outdoor sporting company said massive demand has depleted its 40 branches of pepper spray. They are now importing it urgently and running a waiting list for anxious customers.
At one store in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba, shelves were empty of pepper spray but still had handwritten instructions on how to use it. Instead display windows offered a sale on electric shockers and saleswomen reported increased demand for batons, knives and other weapons.
Some parents have kept their children home from schools without full-time security, and others have taken to patrolling outside kindergartens. One mother pleaded online to other worried parents to allow their children to attend her daughter’s 4th birthday party, assuring them that the gates of the park where it was to be held would be locked and two of the adult guests would be armed.
Those eligible for guns have been flooding arms shops.
“There’s huge interest in self-defense measures, whether it is gas, pepper spray or shockers. And of course in guns for self-defense,” said Yair Yifrach, who runs a shooting range in Givat Ze’ev, north of Jerusalem. “People are afraid, you can’t ignore it.”