A Rape Case and a Wedding Strain Ties Between Arab and Jewish Villages

A Rape Case and a Wedding Strain Ties Between Arab and Jewish Villages

DEIR QADDIS, West Bank — The video was striking.

As a young Palestinian couple’s wedding wound down in a hilly West Bank village two weeks ago, Arab men danced with ultra-Orthodox Jews from the sprawling Israeli settlement next door. Some even hoisted the skullcap- and sidecurl-wearing settlers on their shoulders.

Had their taboo-breaking bonhomie not been recorded, had the video not been posted online, it might well have receded into local memory as merely another of the countless friendly intimacies quietly shared by the Arabs of Deir Qaddis and the Jews of Modiin Illit.

But publicity took care of that.

Other Palestinians pounced on social media: How dare you celebrate with settlers, the Jews who are illegally occupying our land.

In short order, the groom’s father was asked to resign as village council leader, threatened with dismissal from his job in the education ministry and placed under investigation. Fearing for his life, he has gone into hiding, one of his sons said.

Four days later, an even more shocking incident drove another wedge between the two villages.

The Israeli police announced on June 16 that a Palestinian man had been charged with raping a 7-year-old ultra-Orthodox girl, a student at the religious elementary school in Modiin Illit where he worked as a janitor.

The case drew national attention and this time it was the Jews who jumped to conclusions. Right-wing politicians denounced the attack as anti-Israel. “This isn’t pedophilia but pure terrorism,” said Avigdor Lieberman, who demanded the death penalty.

“The courts must apply the full force of the law to everyone responsible for this terrible deed,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted.

The girl was said to have been dragged half a mile from her school, in broad daylight, kicking and screaming, to an unfinished apartment building half a mile away, where two confederates held her down and laughed as the man assaulted her.

But doubts quickly arose about the case against the suspect, Mahmoud Qattousa, 46, a janitorial services manager. The rape was said to have happened several months ago but was not reported immediately, and no forensics tests were done. And there were no previous reports of the girl having been missing from school.

Within days, the police were disavowing their own investigation and saying they needed to pursue other leads. On Tuesday, Mr. Qattousa was released, though he remained a suspect.

“I didn’t do anything to the girl,” he told reporters, adding: “Someone who would do such a thing should not be put in prison — he should be killed.”

The back-to-back furors in Deir Qaddis and Modiin Illit made for a roller coaster of suspicion and shame that have left people in both communities reeling.

These towns, joined at the economic hip but separated only by a checkpoint and a steel fence, have coexisted, mostly peacefully, for nearly a quarter-century, since Modiin Illit was carved out of land confiscated from Deir Qaddis and four other Palestinian villages.

Today, dozens of Arab car-repair garages are kept humming by customers from Modiin Illit, who ignore the signs warning Jews not to enter because the prices are unbeatable. And scores of Deir Qaddis residents assemble at the gateway to Modiin Illit each morning to work in its schools, shops, synagogues and construction sites.

Over time, the lives of these Arabs and Jews have become intricately interwoven. But the rape case and the wedding demonstrated the limits of that coexistence, and just how quickly the bitter political dispute that overlays everything in the occupied West Bank can obliterate the little sprouts of humanity that take root beneath it.

After 11 years as a schoolteacher, supporting his wife and four children in a two-room apartment on $1,100 a month, Mahmoud Qattousa nearly quadrupled his salary, his relatives said, by going to work for an Israeli man who ran a building-maintenance company in Modiin Illit. Mr. Qattousa oversaw about 80 Palestinian workers.

He did not just supervise. He also cleaned one school himself every morning, “both to earn more and to set an example,” said his brother Abed, 51.

At work by 8, home by 7, he spent hours each night assigning jobs for the next day.

Within two years, he had socked away enough money to transform his cramped home into a spacious three-story, marble-floored palace with arched doorways and a terrace from which he could see Tel Aviv on a clear day.

He was strict with his employees and warned them that the buildings they cleaned had security cameras everywhere, said his wife, who asked not to be identified to protect her children’s privacy.

“Once they saw on the video that a worker had taken a piece of chocolate that was lying around,” she said. “He told the man not to come back. He told the workers, if you found gold, or money, or ice cream, don’t touch it.”

On May 1, the police showed up at the school where Mr. Qattousa was working and arrested him.

Mr. Qattousa has three daughters. The youngest, Rafif, is herself 7. Her father was allowed to call home to speak to her from jail.

“She couldn’t handle it,” her mother said. “She just said, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ then threw the phone down and ran to her bed and cried.”

But the allegations made no sense, his family said. The day the rape was said to have occurred, in April, Mr. Qattousa was working a side job renovating a schoolteacher’s home, and she corroborated this. So the police revised the charges to reflect an uncertain date.

Then there was the matter of the march down the street in broad daylight.

Palestinian workers are not allowed to roam freely in Jewish settlements. They are shuttled to their workplaces in the morning and back to the gates in the evening. Any unescorted worker can have his work permit torn up on the spot.

“If they see you on the street, they’ll call the police,” said Abed Qattousa.

To those who know Mr. Qattousa best, the giveaway was when the police said that the girl’s attacker had first befriended her by giving her sweets.

“We all knew this was not possible,” said a man named Zvika, the brother of Mr. Qattousa’s Jewish employer, who refused to give his surname. “I can bring endless numbers of teachers and school employees to testify in his defense.”

At Asaad Nasser’s wedding the night of June 12, hundreds of Deir Qaddis residents crowded a plaza near the summit of the village’s main hill. The party began at 8 p.m. and was going strong past midnight.

Mr. Nasser, 25, fixes engines and most of his customers are Jews from Modiin Illit.

His father, Radi Nasser, the village council leader and an activist in Fatah, the Palestinian faction that controls the West Bank, had warned Asaad that his settler friends could get them into trouble if they attended, said Asaad’s brother Issa, 32.

But at around 12:30 a.m., as hummus and pita were being served to the die-hard celebrants before sending them on their way, four settlers arrived at the party.

As a traditional goodbye song blared over loudspeakers, the Jews and Palestinians danced, some Arabs lifted the groom on their shoulders and others carried the ultra-Orthodox men. A string of Palestinian-flag pennants fluttered overhead.

In a brief interview by phone during his honeymoon, Asaad Nasser said he had posted the date and place of his wedding on Facebook but had invited no one from Modiin Illit. “Those four who showed up, I do not know them at all,” he said.

His brother Issa said he suspects the settlers were part of a setup by political rivals who hoped to embarrass the groom’s father. Or perhaps it was just an instance of intimidation.

“Settlers know Arab culture,” he said. “They can defame someone just by coming.”

Nachshon Schutz begs to differ.

He was one of the four ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, at the wedding. Asaad Nasser personally invited him, he said. And the video gives every indication that the men were friends. One of the Jews can be seen planting a kiss on the groom’s cheek.

“I’ve known him for six years,” Mr. Schutz said in an interview. “He fixes cars. I take cars there to be fixed.”

The Haredim of Modiin Illit are not ideological settlers like the religious Zionists living deeper in the West Bank, who want to annex all of what they call “greater Israel.” Modiin Illit’s first residents, who now number more than 70,000, moved there seeking a better life after their old neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak became overcrowded. Relying on welfare to support their large families, they are among the poorest Jews in Israel.

Mr. Schutz, 23, lives in a bus parked on about half an acre of vacant land hard up against the security fence. He and a friend share the plot with dogs, chickens and horses.

From this unlikely doorstep he can see one of the mosques at the top of Deir Qaddis.

The night of June 12, he had attended another wedding, in Jerusalem, which is why he showed up so late at Mr. Nasser’s, he said.

The groom’s father welcomed him, he said, and the celebration was sincere. He said it was only afterward that it became twisted into something else.

“I feel bad that they’re trying to make trouble from good stuff,” Mr. Schutz said. “The top people over there are causing all the problems. Because the people that want to live together are fine.”

The two episodes seem to have stopped the two towns in their tracks.

In Modiin Illit, Haredi parents now warn their children of the dangers of sexual predators. “God should safeguard us,” said Yisrael Goldberg, “but I think most parents are going to be more careful now.”

Others worry that the allegation against Mr. Qattousa may have been a deliberate misdirection and that the real culprit may be one of their own.

“The Arab workers come here to work,” said Miriam, a Polish-born Haredi woman who did not give her surname. “They have to. Why would they take such a risk?”

In Deir Qaddis, Shahar Teram, a Haredi man, was doing business as usual with Hamouda Ayash, a garage owner, as he had for years.

Mr. Ayash was talking about Mr. Qattousa. “Ninety-nine percent, we believe he’s innocent,” he said. “But if he’s guilty, let him be punished, because we reject this behavior.”

Mr. Teram was pondering the fallout from the Nasser wedding.

“This will distance the relationship between the towns,” he said. “Now, if someone invites me for a wedding, I won’t go.”

“If we could put the politics aside,” he added, “we’d live in paradise.”

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