8 Jul 2011
Dozens of Palestinian children clamoured excitedly in the East Jerusalem village of Silwan on June 26, each clutching the strings to as many helium-filled balloons as they could. Moments later, the children watched as the sky above this flashpoint Palestinian neighbourhood filled with red, green, black and white – the colours of the Palestinian flag – and the hundreds of balloons were taken away by the wind.
“This event is to make the children happier, as they’re letting go of these little balloons, and so they see that we’re taking care of them and support them and will always be here with them,” explained Murad Shafa, a Silwan resident and member of the Popular Committee of al-Bustan, which organised the event to commemorate International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
“These balloons represent every small child that has been arrested and beaten at the hands of police,” Shafa said. “The duty of the police is to protect children and not to try to arrest them. [We and] our children suffer greatly from the municipality and the occupation police.”
Nestled just south of Jerusalem’s Old City walls and the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, in what is known as the Holy Basin area, Silwan is the scene of weekly confrontations between some of the village’s 40,000 Palestinian residents, more than 400 Israeli settlers, and Israeli soldiers, police officers and private settler security guards who maintain a constant presence in the neighbourhood.
An average day in Silwan normally involves a sky filled with a mixture of suffocating Israeli tear gas and thick, black smoke curling up from burning tires in the road, regularly used to block Israeli army vehicles from entering the area. Israeli security forces regularly clash with Palestinian youth in the densely populated neighbourhood, and night raids, arrests, and the use of live ammunition, among other weapons, against residents is commonplace.
Children arrested and detained
In the past year, however, a surge in the number of arrests of Palestinian youth has been witnessed. According to Israeli police records, 1,267 criminal files against minors accused of throwing stones were opened across East Jerusalem between November 2009 and December 2010. This pattern has continued into 2011, as hundreds of children continue to be arrested and detained for allegedly throwing stones, especially in Silwan.
Frequently taken from their beds in the middle of the night, children have been interrogated without the presence of lawyers, their parents or other family members, and nearly all have been subjected to some form of either physical or psychological abuse during their arrest and questioning. This practice violates both international conventions, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Fourth Geneva Convention, and Israel’s own laws related to the rights of minors.
According to The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel’s Youth Law is routinely violated in the arrest and interrogation procedures of Palestinian children from East Jerusalem. More specifically, the law’s provisions that arresting a minor should be avoided if possible, that a minor’s arrest will be for the shortest possible period of time, and that “in any decision to arrest a minor, the suspect’s age and the impact of the arrest on his physical and mental well-being and development must be taken into account” are regularly ignored.
Further, while the age of criminal responsibility is 12-years-old, children as young as seven have been arrested in Silwan and interrogated on the suspicion of stone-throwing. “Even when the police have been aware that the minor in question was under the age of criminal responsibility, they have made no distinction between these younger children and older ones in the way they have conducted their investigations,” ACRI found in a March 2011 report.
“Children have been detained for hours on end, handcuffed, they have been threatened during interrogations, screamed at, and coerced by any means into revealing information about the incidents taking place in their neighbourhoods. In this context it is important to emphasise that the younger the child is, the greater the chance that he will experience trauma and psychological damage from such treatment,” the report continued.
According to Sahar Francis, the Director of Addameer, the Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association, these arrests are not only meant to intimidate and scare youth, but are used as a political tool to discourage Palestinian political activism more generally.
“First, it’s to threaten [the children] and make them think ten times before being active in the future of any political activism. [The Israeli authorities] are aware that this experience will be with the person for the rest of his life so by one way or another, it will affect the whole community,” Francis said.
“It’s also about collecting confessions against adult activists because they know that it’s are easier to collect confessions from [younger people], and they can give names of older organisers,” she added.
Settler presence inflames tensions
In Silwan specifically, the purpose of arresting Palestinian children is clear: to deter Palestinian residents from resisting ongoing Israeli settlement expansion and Jewish-only control of the neighbourhood, as well as being submissive in the face of police and army violence, house demolitions, and the daily oppression that accompany this colonisation project.
Private, right-wing Israeli organisations with the stated goal of settling Jewish families in various parts of East Jerusalem have increased their presence in Silwan in recent years, including Elad and Ateret Cohanim.
According to a report released by Israeli NGO Ir Amim, the first settlers affiliated with Elad moved into the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of Silwan in 1991. Today, the organisation has acquired a number of properties and manages the City of David archaeological site, which brings in over hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
According to residents, the Jerusalem municipality has also pushed zoning and planning policies for the exclusive benefit of Jewish residents and tourists in Silwan. Plans to build a park where King David’s garden was once allegedly located, for instance, would necessitate the demolition of 88 homes in al-Bustan, in effect destroying the entire neighbourhood and evicting all its residents.
Today, it is estimated that approximately 400 Israeli settlers live amidst Silwan’s 40,000 Palestinian residents.
These settlers are provided with 24-hour private security guards – the majority employed by private Israeli security firm Civilian Intelligence (“Modi’in Ezrahi” in Hebrew), which is subcontracted by the Israeli Ministry of Construction and Housing – and cameras have been set up throughout the neighbourhood.
According to an ACRI report released in September 2010 titled “Unsafe Space”, the cost of employing private security guards for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem in 2010 alone was approximately 54.5 million NIS ($16m). This sum came entirely from Israeli taxpayers.
“From the testimony of residents, the neighbourhood perception is that security guards are abusive, both against children playing in alleyways and against adults. They employ verbal and physical violence, and even make use of loaded weapons. Moreover, according to residents, the security guards are “quick on the trigger”, and perceive themselves as holding the ultimate power to serve as arbiters of daily life in the neighbourhood,” the report found.
“Unlike police officers, whose ability to use force is limited by the strict guidelines established by law and police procedure, private security guards are not subject to these laws, nor are they obligated by the basic rules that guide the police in carrying out their duties … the result is that the security guards employed in East Jerusalem are not reined in by any clear working definitions, a situation which invites the abuse of power.”
Indeed, a seven-floor Israeli settlement named Beit Yonatan in Silwan’s Baten el-Hawa district was the site of the killing of 17-year-old Milad Ayyash in May of this year. The exact circumstances of Ayyash’s death have yet to be fully investigated. Even the Israeli state prosecutor has said the apartment block, built in 2004 by extreme right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim, needs to be vacated as soon as possible.
In another case from September 2010, an Israeli settler security guard shot and killed 32-year-old Silwan resident Samer Sarhan under questionable circumstances. His death fuelled numerous days of riots throughout East Jerusalem and a string of arrests in Silwan for stone-throwing and other charges, all stemming from clashes with Israeli security forces.
End goal to displace Palestinians
Shortly after Israel began occupying East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, the state conducted a census of Palestinian residents and provided approximately 66,000 of them with Jerusalem identification cards. Anyone absent during the census was not given Jerusalem residency rights.
Since that time, more than 14,000 Jerusalem ID cards have been revoked from Palestinians, as a draconian system of proving that one’s “centre of life” is in the city has been enforced by the Israeli authorities. Leaving the country for seven years, or acquiring foreign citizenship, can mean losing the right to live in Jerusalem and even entering the city to work, visit holy sites or see family and friends.
This policy of revoking Jerusalem ID cards – combined with illegal Jewish-only settlement expansion, discriminatory zoning policies and home demolitions stemming from the inability of Palestinians to receive building permits – is implemented in order to safeguard the so-called “demographic balance” of the city. The Jerusalem municipality is ardently working to increase Jewish presence in Jerusalem, in particular in the Holy Basin area surrounding the Old City, of which Silwan is a part, in order to maintain a Jewish majority and limit the number of Palestinian Jerusalemites to fewer than 30 per cent.
In March 2011, Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, stated that: “The continued pattern of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem combined with the forcible eviction of long-residing Palestinians is creating an intolerable situation in the part of the city previously controlled by Jordan … [and] can only be described in its cumulative impact as a form of ethnic cleansing.”
Neighbourhoods such as Silwan – where resistance, political awareness and youth empowerment projects are thriving, and which sit in key areas the municipality deems in its interests to control – pose a real threat to Israel’s fulfillment of its stated, and highly sought-after, goal of “demographic balance”.
Thus, while their ultimate purpose is to intimidate and deter Palestinian Jerusalemites from resisting Israeli policies, the arrests of over 1,200 minors throughout East Jerusalem must be seen as one of the many tools being used today to facilitate the displacement of Palestinian Jerusalemites and the preservation of Jewish control over the city.
“The Israeli police supports the municipality and tries to arrest our children, and acts brutally towards them, and fires [tear] gas at them, and arrests them on the way to school or to the store,” said Murad Shafa, shortly after children in Silwan released hundreds of balloons into the air on June 26.
“But to that we say that we will remain here, and we will teach our children steadfastness and stability and permanence,” he added. “That’s why we will remain in our homes, on our land, with our lives and in our Jerusalem.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. She regularly contributes to The Electronic Intifada, Inter-Press Service and Free Speech Radio News. More of her work can be found at http://jkdamours.com/