Amid rising Israeli-Arab tensions, Israeli police are waging a crackdown on Palestinian youths – many not yet teenagers – in East Jerusalem’s most volatile neighborhood, Silwan.
In a recent incident, M., a slightly chubby 10-year-old with dark eyes, was harmed by a group of plainclothes forces who sprang out of an unmarked car and grabbed him off the street, according to his father's account, which was backed up by other residents. (M.'s full name could not be used because of an Israeli law protecting juveniles.)
“There were five mistarabin,” M. recalls, referring to Israeli security forces who disguise themselves as Arabs. At a detention center he was questioned by someone who identified himself as Capt. Shadi, adds M. “He asked me, ‘Who throws stones?’ I told him I don’t know.”
The report of a local doctor, Fawzi Aasi, who treated M. after he was released from six hours in custody, said his knees were “bleeding from laceration” and elsewhere he was suffering from pain and swelling – which his father attributed to beating.
The Oct. 18 incident marked the fourth time M. has been arrested since February amid the Israeli police’s escalating battle with the youths of Silwan, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the East Jerusalem area captured by Israel in the 1967 war and then annexed – a move the international community views as illegal.
Since 1991, Silwan has been increasingly penetrated by Israeli Jews who believe it was once inhabited by the biblical King David, and thus view it as a Jewish patrimony.
Tensions are especially high now, after an Israeli security guard – one of numerous guards hired to protect the area’s several hundred Jewish residents – shot dead Palestinian resident Samir Sirhan in disputed circumstances three weeks ago. And on Oct. 24, municipality workers accompanied by police began handing out demolition orders against 22 homes as part of a municipal plan to create a biblically-themed archaeological park, The King’s Garden.
The safety situation for Jews living in the area is “undoubtedly the worst it has ever been,” says Udi Ragones, a spokesman for Jewish residents in Silwan, who sees more police force as the answer. During the past month, he says, there has been an incident of Palestinian stonethrowing or other violence every day. “Stones can kill,” he stresses.
But critics say that the police crackdown, combined with recent scuffles and demolition plans – as well as the municipality’s move this week to shut down a protest tent erected by residents – could cause Silwan’s simmering tensions to boil over.
“They are merely adding fuel to the fire that is spreading and threatening to engulf all of us in flames,” says Meir Margalit, a liberal member of the Jerusalem City Council. “Each day we are on the brink of a new intifada [uprising] that could start in Silwan or elsewhere.”
Youths arrested at home, on streets
Community leaders say that more than 100 youths have been arrested over the past month in Silwan, most of them under 13 years old. Police counter that only 40 people have been arrested throughout East Jerusalem during that time, “all directly involved in violence.” Many are teenagers who engage in violence on their way to or from school, the police say.
"From the complaints reaching us it should be emphasized that at least some of the arrests [by undercover forces] were carried out without any disturbance or stonethrowing beforehand and that the children were at the entrance to their homes or in the adjacent roads and alleys that serve as their playground.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld disputes this, saying “all the arrests in Silwan have been made against suspects directly involved in disturbances and riots, attacking houses and security personnel. The police will continue to arrest anyone who breaks the law in Silwan.”
He said he had no knowledge of M.’s arrest and would check the matter but did not respond to a follow-up query in time for publication.
Interrogation without parents
Another youth, who was recently arrested at 4 a.m. in his house, says he was handcuffed and taken to a police station.
“They started screaming in my face and banging on the table,” says the 13-year-old, wearing a black T-shirt and a baseball cap. “The interrogator asked me did you throw stones? I said no, but they insisted.”
Residents and human rights groups confirm arrests are sometimes conducted at 3 or 4 a.m., with a large force surrounding the child’s house.
“A disturbing picture arises of children being removed from their beds in the middle of the night and carted off to the police station in handcuffs without parents’ accompaniment,” the ACRI wrote in the same letter earlier this week. “The children report violent and frightening interrogations conducted by regular police officers and not by child and youth investigators.”
Attorney Nasreen Aliyan of ACRI says legally youths under 12 can be treated by police as witnesses but not suspects, and that the parents should be present. She adds that in many recent cases, parents are evicted from the interrogation room during questioning. “The law says you have to do it in the least harmful way, by inviting him with his family and having a specially trained officer do the questioning while the parents are present in the investigation.”
Security through fear?
Community leaders and social workers accuse Israeli police of intentionally trying to instill fear in young people.
Four months ago, 15 police entered the youth wing of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, which has computers and a library, and arrested a 14-year-old, according to Ahmad Karain, a staffer at the center. The boy was released after 48 hours.
“The police knew all the children were in the center. They want all the children to be afraid. After that no children came to the center for two weeks,” says Mr. Karain, who was himself shot in the foot by an Israeli settler last year and uses a walking stick.
“When I send my child to the market I’m always nervous about whether he will make it back to the house,” says Abed Shlode, a father of four and member of a committee to fight the home demolitions. “When they can’t catch stonethrowers, they take anyone from the street, just like they kidnapped M.,” the 10-year-old, he says.
M.’s father has two other sons in prison after being convicted of throwing stones at police, and his house also faces demolition. He says that after being arrested M. “wakes up a lot shouting at night. In school he is not studying. He cannot live normally. A 10-year-old in a police station alone. I suffer the pain. They have destroyed my child.”
It’s not just M.
Rawia Saba, a social worker at the Palestinian Center for Guidance in East Jerusalem, says many children are frightened. “They have nightmares, they wet their beds. They are always afraid when walking.”
In the view of Fakhri Abu Diab, a local resident active in the battle against house demolitions, the arrests are actually aimed at forcing parents out of Silwan, part of the city Israel claims as its “undivided and eternal capital.”
“They want to scare the parent so he will give up and leave this area,” says Mr. Diab, whose own home is slated for demolition. “They want the land without the people.