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Lynching or Suicide? Conflicting Accounts of Palestinian Bus Driver’s Death Underscore Growing Tensions in Jerusalem

Youssef al-Ramouni, a 32-year-old bus driver, was found hanged inside his vehicle on Sunday night. With mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians running high, there is now disagreement about how he died.

by Harriet Salem
Nov 17 2014, 9:00pm

Image via Reuters

More violent clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police broke out in East Jerusalem on Sunday night amid conflicting reports on the death of Youssef al-Ramouni — a 32-year-old Palestinian bus driver found hanged inside his vehicle at Har Hotzvim depot.

An early report in Al-Quds, a Jerusalem-based Arabic language Palestinian outlet, suggested that al-Ramouni was the victim of a lynch mob of extremist Jewish settlers who beat and then killed him.

Israeli police said, however, that there was no evidence of foul play in the hanging. "The bus driver committed suicide, there is no other indication other than it was a suicide case," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said this morning.

An autopsy on al-Ramouni's body, conducted in Tel Aviv's Institution for Forensic Medicine with "coordination and cooperation with the [victim's] family," at first seemed to confirm the Israeli position. "It was reported to the police and to the family that no criminal activity is suspected," said a statement issued by Jerusalem police following the completion of the examination.

But in stark contrast later in the day Dr. Saber al-Aloul, a Palestinian pathologist present at the same post-mortem at the request of the al-Ramouni's family, said that the autopsy did not suggest suicide but rather an "organized criminal murder." According to al-Aloul the autopsy showed postmortem lividity on the back, not on the lower extremities, indicating that the victim was not hanging for long. There was "no dislocation of the first vertebrae, which is usually found in cases of suicide by hanging," he added.

The bus driver's family, who showed journalists photos of al-Ramouni's body, also claim he was murdered. "I saw bruises and marks that he was beaten up," the driver's brother Louy al-Ramouni told Reuters. "Youssef cannot commit suicide, it is not possible, he is leading a good and happy life with his wife and his family"

So far CCTV footage from the bus depot, that might definitively resolve the incident one way or the other, has not been released.

The disparate accounts of al-Ramouni's death, and subsequent clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli police, underscore the deep mistrust between the two sides after a long and bloody summer of war and unrest.

In the last month five Israelis and one foreigner have been killed by Palestinians in a series of stabbings and vehicle-based terror attacks. Around 12 Palestinians have also been killed in the recent unrest, including several perpetrators of the incidents.

The recent upsurge in violence on the streets of East Jerusalem goes back to July when a Palestinian teenager was beaten and burned to death by Jewish extremists in revenge for the abduction and killing of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinian militants in West Bank.

The murder of the Jewish teens was one of the triggers for the subsequent seven-week Gaza war that killed 66 Israeli soldiers, 7 civilians and more than 2,000 Palestinians

It also prompted the re-establishment of an Israeli policy of demolishing the family houses of suspects implicated in attacks that are deemed to have deadly intent against civilians.

The policy, previously abandoned in 2005 after its deterrent effect was questioned, was brought back at the beginning of this summer to punish Marwan al-Qawasmi and Amer Abu Aysha — the two suspects, and at the time fugitives, implicated in the kidnap-murder of the Israeli teens. Since then Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has justified the continued use of the controversial policy, condemned by human rights organizations as collective punishment, as a response to the recent spate of terror attacks against Israeli citizens.

Today the Israeli military also said it had issued more demolition notices to Palestinian families in West Bank whose relatives are suspected of involvement in attacks. The precise number of destructions scheduled was not specified but among them was the home of Abel Rahman al-Shalodi, who was shot dead by police after ramming his car into a crowd of people in Jerusalem in an attack that killed two people including a three-month old baby.

According to B'Tselem human rights organization, Israel demolished 666 houses as punishment for terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada — from 2001 until the practice was halted in 2005.

Israeli police spokesman Rosenfeld said police were prepared for the destruction or sealing of the houses in East Jerusalem but were still waiting for the final green light from the government. If the orders, which subjects have 48 hours to appeal against, go ahead it might well spark further unrest. 

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem