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Published December 12, 2015
They lived ordinary lives with ordinary ambitions — an electrician saving up to get married, a fitness buff, a worker in a butcher shop, a teen with plans for study in Europe after high school. But then these young Palestinians seemingly snapped.
According to police accounts, some of them disputed, they stabbed Israelis in "lone wolf" attacks. Motives often remain murky, but attacks have been escalating, with eight Israelis and 12 suspected assailants killed over the past month, many in Jerusalem.
The violence comes amid growing Palestinian hopelessness, particularly in the Israeli-annexed Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Social media amplifies the anger as amateur videos make the rounds showing Israeli forces seemingly using excessive force, or angry bystanders cursing at wounded Palestinian assailants.
Subhi Abu Khalifeh grew up in the Shuafat refugee camp, one of the poorest areas of east Jerusalem. Shuafat, like several other Arab neighborhoods in the city, has been cut off from the rest of Jerusalem by Israel's West Bank separation barrier. Services are spotty, with garbage often piling up in the streets.
The entrance to the camp looks like a battlefield, with scorched cars and streets blackened by burning tires — remnants of frequent clashes between stone-throwers and Israeli security forces.
Every weekday, Abu Khalifeh, 19, crossed through the barrier gate on foot, passing through metal detectors and an ID check. On the other side, he and two brothers were picked up by a contractor and driven to building sites in Tel Aviv.
Abu Khalifeh, an electrician, was making about $60 a day, and was saving money to get married, which can cost a prospective groom several thousand dollars for a gold dowry and other expenses.
On Thursday, he didn't show up for his ride to work. Brothers Rami, 24, and Mohammed, 28, left without him. He didn't answer his phone all morning; by early afternoon, the family received word that he had been arrested as a suspect in a stabbing attack that seriously wounded an Israeli man. He remains in custody, and the family has had no contact with him.
His parents said they could only speculate about his motives.
His father, Ibrahim, said that over the years, he had been beaten and verbally abused while working as a street cleaner in Jewish neighborhoods, experiences he shared with his sons.
His mother, Samar, said her son was particularly upset about an incident last week in which an 18-year-old Jerusalem woman, Shuruq Dwayat, was shot and wounded by an Israeli civilian after police said she stabbed him. A Palestinian version on social media said the man had harassed teen, trying to remove her headscarf, but she did not stab him.
After Abu Kalifeh's arrest, his two brothers were fired and his father was suspended from his street-cleaning job.
Despite the loss of income, Ibrahim Abu Khalifeh said he could understand his son's anger. "This is very, very normal when you look at what is happening to us," he said.
A few streets away, two dozen men sat Monday on plastic chairs in an alley outside the home of the Ali clan. A young relative, 19-year-old Mohammed Ali, had been killed two days earlier by police fire near Jerusalem's Old City neighborhood.
Flags of Fatah, the movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and its rival, the Islamic militant Hamas, fluttered above their heads, though neither claimed Ali as a member.
Young men showed visitors a video on their smart phones. It showed Ali standing next to a wall after being stopped by police for an ID check. Ali handed over his ID and then leaped forward, waving a knife. Police said he stabbed two officers. Troops opened fire, killing him and mistakenly wounding two officers.
Ali's relatives said they believe he was driven by anger over what many Palestinians claim is an Israeli plot to take over a Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third-holiest site of Islam.
Israel has repeatedly denied such plans, accusing Palestinians of incitement. However, more Jews have been visiting the Muslim-run site, the holiest in Judaism, in recent years, some calling for prayer rights there, fueling Palestinian suspicions and helping trigger the latest violence.
A banner hanging near Ali's home lauded him for "responding to God's call to defend Al-Aqsa, Jerusalem and Arab dignity."
Since dropping out of school several years earlier, Ali had bounced between jobs and was working most recently in a relative's butcher shop in the Old City, near Al-Aqsa. An uncle, Ahmed, said Ali prayed daily at the shrine.
He said his nephew came from a relatively well-off family. "He had money, he had no psychological problems," the uncle said. "His problem was that he was sensitive to his homeland and his religion."
Zakariya Alqaq, a professor at the city's Al-Quds University, said Jerusalem's Arab residents, who make up more than a third of the population, have long felt pressured by Israeli policies, including severe restrictions on building rights. At the same time, they see little support from Abbas's self-rule government and the Arab world.
The growing perception that Al-Aqsa is in danger is now pushing some over the edge, especially the younger generation disillusioned with failed peace efforts.
"The people who are now in a struggle with the Israelis are the post-Oslo generation," he said, referring to the interim peace accords of a generation ago that established Palestinian self-rule in parts of the West Bank.
Mustafa Khatib and Fadi Alloun didn't know each other and were killed by Israeli police in separate incidents. But they seemed to have a lot in common: Both were sports enthusiasts — 17-year-old Khatib played basketball, 19-year-old Alloun was a bodybuilder.
They came from middle-class families and were into fashion and looking good, their Facebook pages showing selfies, not political slogans.
Alloun's case has drawn attention, in part because of an amateur video that prompted allegations police killed him without justification.
The incident began before dawn on Oct. 4 along the tracks of Jerusalem's light rail, at a point where it runs between Arab and Jewish areas of the city. Police allege that Alloun stabbed and wounded an Israeli man and then tried to flee.
The video begins after the alleged stabbing. It shows Alloun walking quickly, as several Israelis shout, "Shoot him! Shoot him!" A police car arrives. An officer jumps out and fires seven shots. Alloun falls to the ground.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Alloun was carrying a knife, ignored warnings to put down the weapon and that the officer's life was in danger.
Two Israeli rights groups have called for an investigation, saying police violated rules of engagement.
Alloun's father, Samir, does not believe his son carried out the stabbing, saying he had no interest in politics. "He is innocent and they executed him," he said.
Across town, in another Arab neighborhood, Maisa Khatib, her face puffy from crying, sat in her living room Monday, surrounded by female relatives and neighbors. She had learned a few hours earlier that her oldest son, Mustafa, had been killed by police fire.
Police said Mustafa Khatib was stopped near the Old City's Lion's Gate because he was walking with his hand in his pocket. When officers approached, he pulled out a knife and stabbed one in his protective vest, causing no injuries. He then was shot dead, police said.
In the living room, several women watched a video of the aftermath on their iPhones. The footage showed Khatib's body on the ground, surrounded by police.
The teen's mother said her son had driven to his private school near the Old City that morning as usual. He did not go to school, though. She said she received a call from the principal around mid-morning, informing her of his death.
She said she was dumbfounded. Her son had made plans for the future, including taking German courses after graduation next year so he could study in Europe.
Cousins Ahmed and Hassan Manasra slipped away from their east Jerusalem home on Monday afternoon. Police said they went on a stabbing rampage, seriously wounding an Israeli man in his 20s and critically wounding a 13-year-old Israeli boy on a bicycle.
Ahmed, 13, was then struck by a car and injured, while 15-year-old Hassan was shot dead by police.
Neighborhood boys consider them heroes.
"I want to be a martyr, because of the injustice," said Samir, 16, who gave only his first name for fear of repercussions from Israel. "Either you live free or you don't live."
On Tuesday, cellphone video showing Ahmed Manasra lying injured on the ground was widely circulated. Police surrounded him as bystanders shouted "Die!" and cursed at the teen, his face bloodied and his legs twisted from being struck by the car.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later cited the images in claiming the Palestinian government is inciting against Israel. "He tried to kill and murder," Netanyahu said of Ahmed. "But the complete opposite is presented in a twisted way."
Yudith Oppenheimer, head of Ir Amim, a group that supports an equitable solution for Jerusalem, said the recent stabbings have been horrific, but that Israel cannot ignore the context of its long-running rule over the Palestinians.
"We all live in fear these days," she said. "But we cannot avoid the fact that the majority of the attackers are kids, under 20."
"The fact that they are so angry and frustrated and have no horizon for hope, this is something we have to look at if we want to understand the roots of this violence," she said.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed to this report.