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In Jerusalem, one murder shattered a whole community’s way of life

As Hamas and Israel trade fire, the family of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, kidnapped and burned alive, is still mourning and the neighborhood reeling.

JERUSALEM, Israel — The three traditional days of mourning were not enough to say goodbye to Mohammad Abu Khdeir, a fresh-faced boy of 16.

After eight days, his family reluctantly planned to fold up the tent that has been their abode since his murder, and began stacking the plastic chairs used by visitors.

Mohammad was kidnapped at dawn just over a week ago, allegedly by six ultra-Orthodox Jews belonging to a gang on the edges of society, and taken from the quiet, prosperous neighborhood of Shuafat, in northeast Jerusalem, to the Jerusalem forest — where, according to a coroner’s report, he was burned alive within an hour. Police suspect it was a revenge killing following the discovery of the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers. The Israeli crackdown in the wake of those kidnappings, and Hamas response, has since degenerated into the trading of rockets and airstrikes.

Hussein Abu Khdeir, 48, is grieving for his son. “Every day my heart dies many times,” Hussein says. “I think of him, and I die. I remember him, and I die. I see his picture, and I am destroyed, my body dies.”

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It is impossible not to see Muhammad’s face everywhere. It is featured on huge posters that drape over the family’s home, Hussein’s electric shop, just around the corner, and on the mosque across the street.

Mohammed was kidnapped while sitting outside the shop on Wednesday, July 2, waiting for his dad to go to Ramadan prayers.

On the other side of the street, Fadi Masrawi, 32, is tending to his bustling clientele at the Ard el-Isra butcher shop. “Before last week, I never in my life saw anything like this,” he says, referring to the murder and to the outbreak of violence that erupted in its wake.

“Never. Not here.”

Shuafat is back to normal, but some buildings are still singed black from the fires started in the protests following Mohammed’s death, and the tram lines, which used to run down the middle of Shuafat Road, the neighborhood’s central commercial boulevard, have been destroyed completely. Twisted piles of metal shade a dozen workmen in neon yellow protective vests, tangling with cut electric wires.

Walking by the butcher’s, Mohammed Oditallah, 50, a cab driver, echoes Masrawi’s sentiment and shock. “This is the first time in my life I have seen something like that,” he says, pointing past the tracks toward the sidewalk Mohammad was taken from. “Its stuff we’d see in Gaza. Not in Jerusalem.”

One client walking in to the butcher’s shop, a list and his wallet in hand, is Salah eDin Khdeir, a cousin of Hussein who has lived in Florida for the past 17 years. He came to Jerusalem a few weeks ago with his family for a long-planned vacation. His son, Tareq, was caught up in the protests following Mohammed’s death and beaten into unconsciousness by Israeli police — all documented on video. 

“He’s doing good now,” Salah eDin says of his son, showing the men gathered around him a picture of Tareq with his face badly wounded. “[Expletive] ’em.”

Today, the family was supposed to be visiting friends on the Golan Heights. Next week, they were planning to tour Haifa and Acco. Instead, Salah eDin is shopping for a somber Iftar meal planned for Wednesday night, a feast marking the end of formal mourning, in which the Koran will be read and the family will say a final goodbye to Mohammed.

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“Every single morning I say ‘Oh my god,'” Salah eDin says, describing the vacation turned into tragedy. “I just want to go home. But what are you going to do?” He buys lamb and chicken.

The entire neighborhood seems stunned and fearful that its inhabitants’ worst nightmare could be coming true — that Jerusalem’s delicate balance of life among Muslims, Christians and Jews may be shattering, ­

Oditallah the cab driver says his children, young adults, and his small grandchildren are now afraid to leave the house.

Muhammad Sharif, 65, a retired high-school history teacher making qatayef — a lacy pancake-like Ramadan delicacy — on an electric griddle outside the Samara bakery is furious.

He launches into a loud tirade. “If we want to live good lives we have to behave like human beings! Respect each other! Behave like human beings, you hear me? Not like donkeys! Not like something in the jungle! Human beings! We are all brothers!”

Later, more quietly, he says, “Of course we are afraid. Your child is like your own eyes. What do you mean, there he is one day, a young man, and then he’s gone?”

Small piles of bricks and rocks are still piled up at the bases of some street lamps along the part of Shuafat that burned after Muhammed’s murder.

But much remains untouched.

At the elegant La Roche boutique, which sells Lebanese and Jordanian chocolate pralines, Yara Nasser-aDin, 19, confidently holds forth on dark versus milk minty squares, or lush pistachio-filled pillows. 

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“I’m not happy with what has happened here,” she says, understating the matter. “It is not human.” Yara, who is studying to become a teacher, used to get to the Hebrew University on the tram and on a bus. Now, with the tram demolished, she relies on “the parents” for transportation.

Even when the tram comes back, she says, “People are too scared to go back. Some people got hit on buses and trams last week. It’s real fear.”