Peace activist killed in Palestinian attack

2015-10-28 11:43
Richard Lakin, a dual Israeli-American citizen originally from Newton, Massachusetts, who died on October 27, 2015. (Courtesy of the Lakin family, AP)

Richard Lakin, a dual Israeli-American citizen originally from Newton, Massachusetts, who died on October 27, 2015. (Courtesy of the Lakin family, AP)

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Jerusalem - An American educator who marched for civil rights in the 1960s and advocated coexistence between Muslims and Jews when he moved to Israel died on Tuesday after succumbing to wounds sustained in a Palestinian attack on a bus in Jerusalem two weeks ago.

It was one of many attacks in a month of violence triggered in part over Palestinian allegations of Israel changing long standing agreements at Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, charges Israel has strongly denied and said amount to incitement to violence.

In an effort to lower tensions at the site, Israeli and Jordanian officials said on Tuesday that new surveillance cameras should be installed within days at the shrine, with the goal of streaming footage live online for maximum transparency. Jordan serves as the custodian of the Muslim-administered site.

Richard Lakin, 76, died of wounds sustained on October 13 when two Palestinian men boarded a bus in Jerusalem and began shooting and stabbing passengers. It was one of the bloodiest attacks in recent violence in which Palestinian attackers killed 11 Israelis. In that time, 55 Palestinians have been killed, including 35 identified by Israel as attackers and the rest in clashes with security forces.

Lakin was originally from Newton, Massachusetts, and a long-time principal in Glastonbury, Connecticut. His Facebook page displayed an image of Israeli and Arab kids hugging under the word "coexist."

Micah Avni said his father was a beloved educator and author of a book on teaching. He was an elementary school principal in the US and taught English in mixed classes of Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem after moving to Israel in 1984.

‘Believer in people and peace’

In the 1960s, Lakin was active in the civil rights movement in the US, marching with Martin Luther King and bringing students from Boston to the South for sit-ins, Avni said.

"He was a big believer in people and in peace and in being kind and he never hurt a soul in his life," Avni said, adding that thousands of people from around the world have contacted him to express their shock and condolences after his father's death.

Suzanne Hertel of West Hartford, Connecticut taught under Lakin at the Hopewell School in Glastonbury, where he was principal. He championed an effort to bring students from inner-city Hartford to Glastonbury under a program called Project Concern, she said.

Rabbi Richard Plavin of Beth Shalom B'nai Israel in Manchester, Connecticut, which Lakin attended before moving to Israel, said Lakin was a passionate man who pursued peace and justice. He said Lakin was a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, working to desegregate the South.

"He was really a peacenik. He believed deeply in a two-state solution and wanted to see Arabs and Jews living together in peace," he said.

Lakin was on the bus returning from a doctor's appointment for minor back pain when "he was brutalised by two Arabs from east Jerusalem who got on a bus, shot him in the head, then stabbed him in the face, then stabbed him in the head" and continued stabbing him multiple times in the body, his son said.

Avni said his father's legacy "would be for people to take their energy and use it to do kind things, my mother describes it as random acts of kindness."

The current round of violence began in mid-September, triggered in part by heated disputes over the Jerusalem shrine.

The hilltop compound in Jerusalem's Old City is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the two Jewish biblical Temples. It is the holiest site in Judaism. Known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, it houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-topped Dome of the Rock. It is the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Under decades-old arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit, but not to pray at the shrine.

The number of Jewish visitors to the site has risen in the past five years, while several leading Israeli politicians and groups have made statements demanding prayers at the site.

Such comments have fuelled Palestinian fears that Israel is trying to expand its presence at the site. Israel has adamantly denied the allegations and accused Palestinian leaders of inciting violence and spreading lies.

In mid-September, tensions started to soar. Clashes erupted at the shrine between young Palestinian throwing stones and fire bombs and Israeli security forces. The violence quickly spread to the rest of Jerusalem, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The idea to install the cameras emerged during separate talks late last week between US Secretary of State John Kerry and the three sides with a stake at the shrine – Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian self-rule government. Kerry was looking for a way to lower tensions, but it's not clear if video cameras will suffice.

Under the compromise brokered by Kerry, video cameras are to be installed inside the 15-hectare walled platform to help defuse tensions.

The details are to be worked out between officials from the site's administrator – the Islamic Trust, or Waqf – and Israeli authorities, said a senior Jordanian government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations. He said he expects the cameras to be installed in "days, not weeks."

He said both Muslim clerics and Israeli officials will for now monitor the images, but that "the ultimate goal is for the footage to be seen on the Internet, by everyone."

Israeli officials confirmed the plan, and in a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said it hopes to start the process "as soon as possible."

Israel has welcomed the plan, saying the cameras will prove it is doing nothing wrong and expose violent activities by Palestinian protesters.

The Palestinians have given the plan a cold reception, saying Israel will use the cameras to arrest people and complaining that deeper issues have been ignored. The Palestinians say the violence is due to a lack of hope for gaining independence after years of failed peace efforts.

At a Jerusalem news conference, Abdel Azeem Salhab, chairperson of the Waqf council, accused Israel of trying to "Judaise" the mosque.

"Israel wants cameras for its own purposes and this will not happen," he said.

In the latest outburst of violence, Israel's military said soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian who attempted to stab a soldier in the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, the military said soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians who stabbed a soldier at a bus stop in the West Bank. The soldier was in serious condition.

Also on Tuesday, an Israeli court sentenced radical Islamic cleric Raed Salah to 11 months in prison. The prison term will start in November, said Zahi Injaidat, a spokesperson for the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel. Salah is the head of the branch.

The sentence stemmed from a 2007 sermon that the court ruled was "incitement to violence" and "incitement for racism," Injaidat said.

Salah has often focused his fiery rhetoric on claims that Israel was altering prayer arrangements at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. He has had repeated run-ins with Israel and was previously imprisoned for assaulting a police officer and funnelling money to Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.

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