Frontline Jerusalem: A murder that left so many questions

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The Independent Online
NAELA HAMDAN AYED, a Palestinian health expert from Ras al-Amud in East Jerusalem, was having a busy morning on 11 February. She took a taxi to an insurance office on Jaffa road in Jewish West Jerusalem at about nine o'clock and decided to walk back to the Palestinian part of the city for a hairdresser's appointment at 10am.

Her quickest route lay through Elisha Street, a narrow lane through the Jewish district of Musrara. It runs down hill to the Damascus Gate entrance into the old city of Jerusalem and is often used by Palestinians on their way to the City hall.

She never reached the end of the road. No witnesses have come forward but, judging from the blood stains, she was attacked by somebody with a knife outside the steel door of 11 Elisha Street. Stabbed in the body, she staggered into the middle of the road and died.

Elisha Street also houses the Independent office where I have worked for the past four years. The first I knew of the murder was when I saw policemen and neighbours gathered around a body at the end of the street.

The first thought that came to mind was that the serial stabber who preys on Palestinians walking through West Jerusalem had struck again. In the past year he has killed two people with a knife and wounded half- a-dozen. Detectives briefly had the same idea. But the case then took a strange twist. About five hours after the murder, a 22-year-old Palestinian named Mohammed Shalaan went up to an Israeli checkpoint to the east of Jerusalem and told the Israeli policemen: "I'm the man who stabbed the woman this morning.

"I thought she was a Jewess, so I murdered her," he told the detectives. "I bought the knife in East Jerusalem. I got to Musrara this morning, I wandered about the alleyways and when I saw the woman I stabbed her and ran away. When I heard she was an Arab I panicked and decided to turn myself in."

His parents said their son had always had psychological problems. He was unemployed and had once smashed the windscreen of his headteacher's car. On another occasion he was arrested when he told an Israeli woman in a supermarket he had a bomb.

Taha Shalaan, the father of the alleged killer, says: "Mohammed didn't do it. He was having breakfast with me when the murder took place." An unemployed labourer living in a poor house in the Palestinian township of Abu Dis, Mr Sahlaan is almost bent over with sorrow at his son's arrest. He has no explanation for Mohammed's confession. He says: "I don't have enough money for a lawyer, I can't even pay the rent."

In a city as riven by hatred between Israelis and Palestinians as Jerusalem, each side has a different view of what had happened. The Israeli police are satisfied by Mohammed Shalaan's confession and have handed the papers on the case to the prosecutor. Many Palestinians are suspicious of the speed with which the police dismissed the theory that Ms Ayed was murdered by a Jewish serial killer.

Palestinian misgivings are in part the fruit of a desire not to believe that somebody such as Naela Ayed, a specialist in health and nursing with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in the United States, should have been stabbed to death by a fellow Palestinian.

Ms Ayed, 48, spoke English, German and Arabic and had degrees from three American universities. She had turned down job offers in the US and the Gulf to return to Jerusalem to try to improve the health of fellow Palestinians.

"I don't want to idealise her, but she felt what she did was important," says Maher Hamdan, Ms Ayed's brother. He said she had a deep feeling for Jerusalem. "When it is threatened, Jerusalem needs its people so much," says Mr Hamdan. "There is so much passion about the place. She had many offers of jobs in the Gulf but she had a big sense of belonging here."

He is suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his sister's murder. Why were there no witnesses in a normally busy street? Why have the Israeli police done so little to find the serial killer of Palestinians? According to Mohammed Shalaan's father, the alleged killer knew an Israeli intelligence officer, so could the confession be a put-up job?

None of these questions will be answered to the satisfaction of everybody in Jerusalem. The residents of Elisha Street are already forgetting the killing that took place at the end of the road.