JERUSALEM — The streets of Shuafat in East Jerusalem erupted in chaos Wednesday after news spread that suspected Israeli settlers had kidnapped and killed a Palestinian teenager from one of the area’s most prominent families — exasperating tensions already brought to their breaking point by the discovery of three slain Israeli teenagers the day before.
Angered by the news, as many as 200 Palestinian youth, many with their heads wrapped with keffiyeh, hurled stones and smashed glass windows at nearby tram and bus shelters and destroyed ticket machines.
Israeli police quickly arrived on the scene, firing rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas as protesters retreated behind a large waste container and doors that had been ripped off their hinges.
Suha, the mother of 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, waited in her home near the clashes for her son’s body to be released from the police’s forensics unit. She waited not only for the body of her murdered son, but also for her husband Hussein who was detained all day by Israeli police.
Women who gathered in the Abu Khdeir home to comfort Suha wailed as explosions rocked the surrounding streets. Also present was Aladdin Ammouri, one of Mohammed’s best friends, who found it difficult to keep his hurt and anger at bay.
“First of all they tortured him, then he was beaten up, then he was set on fire, in the early hours," Ammouri said. "These are our lives, we’re trying to live them."
Ammouri said reports that Mohammed had been killed by family members as opposed to Israeli settlers were a lie.
“The press is lying, saying it’s a fight between families. It’s not. It’s a fight with the police."
Mohammed’s cousin, who called himself Nick, said that Jewish settlers jumped out of a vehicle and initially approached Mohammed asking him for a lighter.
“They asked him for a lighter then they put gas in his eyes," he said.
"He’s a small guy. They took him, and we called police, we left the police to see the security cameras here, because there are a lot all around. They said we needed to prove someone took him, and that they weren’t sure of our story."
Later on Wednesday morning, police found a badly burned body to the west of the city in a Jerusalem forest but said they were unsure of a connection. When it was finally confirmed to be Mohammed’s, the usually quiet streets of Shuafat erupted in anger and grief.
Israeli police acted quickly to lock the entire city down. Cordons were in place to stop traffic and “prevent Jews accidentally walking down here,” according to police.
Members of the Abu Khdeir family watched as the neighborhood was overtaken by the worst violence in years.
Some stood aghast and helpless as gunfire sporadically rang out, as tear gas was thrown and as the tram stop was set alight and its glass shattered.
A police helicopter hovered overhead all day, and medics were on hand to treat the wounded.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were no police injuries, but by nightfall local Ma’an News reported that more than 170 Palestinians were injured, three by live bullets. Six journalists were also wounded in the clashes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was the first international leader to condemn Mohammed’s murder, calling it “despicable and senseless.” He appealed to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to take all necessary steps to prevent further acts of violence.
“There are no words to convey adequately our condolences to the Palestinian people,” said Kerry.
Meanwhile, the Abu Khdeir family placed the day's violence into the context of rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over events during the past few weeks.
“The kidnapping and murder is in retaliation to the deaths of those three Israeli teenagers a couple of weeks ago. There’s so much tension and pressure from all sides today, it’s very tense, and it’s a tragedy to see the tension between us and the soldiers,” Mohammed's cousin Nick said.
Shortly after Israeli police released Mohammed’s father from custody, a police source told Al Jazeera that the boy’s murder was not the result of a family dispute, as had been initially reported, but likely a “nationalistic killing”— an act of revenge by Israeli settlers for the recent murder of three Israeli teens.
But police later denied the statement.
Further down the road in the center of Beit Hanina, next to Shuafat, a man who refused to be identified said he was unequivocal about what had happened.
“The Israelis killed a Palestinian boy. The Israelis did it. Things are getting very tense around here. It’s not safe, be careful.”
The principal of an East Jerusalem high school where Mohammed's father worked said he remembers when Mohammed was born.
“Another person has died meaninglessly…for what, revenge. We’re all [part of] humanity,” Ross Byars said in a phone interview from Florida, where he was on vacation.
He recounted an incident from decades earlier, when two dead bodies were found in front of the institution, called Jerusalem School.
“A Palestinian boy walked up and asked, “Are they Jews or Arabs?” One of the guys nearby responded, 'No, they’re Arabs.' Then he asked to know their religion,” Byars said.
“We’ve got to see humanity as humanity and not as Israeli or Christian or Muslim or Jew and we’ve got to feel what everybody feels, the pain that people feel.”