Portrait of Palestinian Killer
What made this admirer of Gandhi board a bus to kill as many Israelis as he could until he, too, was killed? His transformation is a symptom of hopelessness.
Around nine in the morning, Bilal Ranem, 23, and Bahaa Alian, 22, two Palestinian men from the Jabal al-Mukaber neighborhood in East Jerusalem, boarded a bus in nearby East Talpiot, an Israeli settlement. One was armed with a knife and the other with a pistol. As the bus began moving, the men started shooting and stabbing. Ten were injured, and two killed, including one of the attackers.
Rubi Muhatbi, an 18-year-old Israeli, told Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most widely-read daily, that in that “moment, you feel fear and stress and you don’t know what to do. I preferred running away rather than confronting him… all I was thinking about was I was either going to survive this or I die.”
The attack was shocking by any standard, but it was made doubly so for us after the identities of the attackers were released. We quickly realized that we had met Bahaa Alian, the attacker who was killed, less than a year ago.
From what you’ve read in media reports, these two men were either terrorists who were quickly “neutralized” by Israeli security forces, or troubled Palestinian youth from an impoverished neighborhood, surrounded by Jewish-only settlements.
Perhaps both are true, but neither agrees with the impression Alian made when we met him.
“The guy in the streets who throws stones—that is his role,” he said back in November. “But me, as Bahaa, my role is here, inside the society. I mean, if I threw a rock and went to jail for 10 years, what would be the benefit?”
During last year’s tumult, we traveled to Jabal al-Mukaber to attend the funeral tents of the two residents responsible for the shocking slaughter at a synagogue.
Alian was one of the first to step forward and volunteer to introduce two more foreign journalists hoping to talk to family members. He was welcoming and well-spoken. He was also a believer in learning: He co-founded a library in his neighborhood.
Jabal al-Mukaber is one of the poorest parts of heavily impoverished East Jerusalem, the internationally recognized capital of a future Palestinian state, which was conquered by Israel along with Gaza and the West Bank after the Six-Day War of 1967.
According to a May report by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the municipality often turns a blind eye to the needs of Palestinians there, 75 percent of whom live under the poverty line. Most of them aren’t Israeli citizens with full rights, but live as officially stateless, permanent residents. East Jerusalemites have the option of taking Israeli citizenship, but the overwhelming majority reject the offer. They see it as a way of legitimizing Israel’s 1980 annexation of the Holy City.
There is a noticeable lack of faith in education, as shown through dropout rates. Roughly 33 percent of Palestinians in East Jerusalem quit high school by grade 12. Alian said he hoped to do something about these attitudes with the grassroots Jabal al-Mukaber library.
“Two destroyed rooms… it was a pitiful sight. We decided that we, as youth, must do something for the neighborhood,” Alian said in an interview in 2014, explaining how and why this library came to be. “We wanted to create a place that would have benefits for everyone, on all levels. Something that would get kids off the streets and allow them to do something more proactive.”
The library started in 2012, and by 2014, it progressed into a community center. The building was outfitted with a cinema, a computer center for research, a space for young kids, and another for those with special needs, complete with a specialized teacher. Those who attended were only required to pay 30 shekels a month, about $8.00, as a symbolic fee. “We’re always open,” he said.
Alian had faith in his neighbors and his people. He said Jabal al-Mukaber was full of unexploited potential. In his view, the occupation was horrible, but it “shouldn’t be used as a scapegoat on which to blame all of our problems.”
He was also frank in his criticism of Palestinians: “There are a lot of people who are worse than the occupation—people with negative, pessimistic outlooks. People who say we will fail, that we’ll never succeed.”
Did he have a role model, a framework for ending the occupation? Certainly: “I have a lot of faith in Gandhi,” he said. “Everyone has a role. Artists have a role, writers have a role, and now I have found that I have a role here in our society. My role is to run this center, to deliver a message from Jabal al-Mukaber as a whole that we aren’t just troublemakers.”
Less than a year later, Alian climbed into a bus to execute an attack that would take the lives of three people—including his own.
How does one go from a community leader extolling the role of Gandhi, the patron saint of non-violence, to a vicious attacker in such a short time? Alian was a shining example of what a young Palestinian living under occupation could achieve, given the opportunity. Any NGO or peace-building institution would have been happy to advertise his library as its own project.
Perhaps this is the problem. Institutions, organizations, and governments, including the Palestinian Authority (no matter what PA president Mahmoud Abbas says) are still plugged into this failed framework.
The young, on the other hand, are not. As Amira Hass, a journalist with the liberal Zionist Israeli daily Haaretz wrote, there is no controlling the lost generation of Oslo. The failed peace accords haven’t delivered a peaceful co-existence with Israel, a peaceful Palestinian state, and most troublingly, a peaceful state of mind.
Hass observes that Palestinians born in the 1990s are constantly aware that they “may become a statistic, subject to collective punishment—subject to having [their] home demolished or sealed, having a family member expelled from Jerusalem, having siblings or parents arrested and beaten by security forces or being targeted for months on end by the Shin Bet security service.”
This generation has a physical home and a community, but no matter how much they want it to be theirs, it’s not. At the end of the day, Israel has the final say.
“Anything that you can do inside the community to improve it, I believe that is the best way to resist the occupation,” Alian said, 11 months ago.
It leaves us wondering—what changed? And when? Maybe he’d simply had enough. Maybe it was a case of the straw and the camel.