Families forced out as army occupies Jerusalem rooftop

A Silwan home that caught on fire during clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian youth, January 2011. (Anne Paq/ActiveStills)

The sound of heavy boots stomping up five flights of stairs resonated throughout the entire apartment building on a recent night as the Israeli military headed towards their post on a roof in the embattled neighborhood of Silwan in occupied East Jerusalem.

“There may be clashes [between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers], but it doesn’t mean the army has a right to take over the house,” said Abid Abu Ramuz, a Palestinian father of four, as his children quickly moved towards their front door to catch a glimpse of the soldiers.

Dressed head-to-toe in combat gear — including face coverings, thick helmets and gloves — and wielding machine guns, two Israeli soldiers kept their heads down as they made their way to the locked door leading out onto the roof.

“If we want to do laundry, we have to do it in the stairway. Only a technician can go up [to the roof] now, and only with a permit from the police,” Abu Ramuz explained.

For at least five months, Israeli military has been stationed on the roof of Abu Ramuz’s building — which houses a total of 69 persons from seven separate families, as well as a mosque — in the heart of Silwan’s Baten al-Hawa neighborhood.

One month ago, Abu Ramuz said, the soldiers invited him to a Jerusalem area police station and offered him two options: they would either “pay [him] for renting the roof, or they would go to court and [get a permit to] use it for free.”

He told them to go to the court. And, as of 7 February, the Israeli military received permission from the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv to use the building’s rooftop as their lookout base until August 2012.

“The Israeli people don’t know where they are sending their children. Their children are behaving in bad ways,” said Abu Ramuz, as a loud bang resounded from overhead.

“Every day,” he said, sighing, as he pointed his index finger up towards the roof.

The residents of the building are presently appealing the ministry’s decision to grant the soldiers unlimited access to their roof. In the meantime, however, the constant harassment and attacks continue unabated.

“Everything is hard. My daughter is going through her [high school final] exams at school and the soldiers are playing all night [on the roof]. She can’t sleep,” Abu Ramuz told The Electronic Intifada.

“I filed a complaint today because yesterday they were playing with a stone until 4am. I’ve complained many times. But the soldiers tell me that I can move if I don’t like the situation.”

Daily clashes and military harassment in Silwan

The Israeli military says it has justified its takeover of the roof of Abu Ramuz’s building because of regular clashes that occur between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers, police and settler security guards in the area — and because it offers them a unobstructed view of most of Silwan.

Abu Ramuz explained that at least three Israeli soldiers are on the roof of the building at all times, day and night, and that they are constantly making noise, cutting off residents’ access to electricity and water and sometimes even throwing dirty water or urine onto people walking in the street below.

“It’s winter so the children are staying inside. During the summer it will be more difficult because the children will be outside and they will have nowhere to play. It’s going to be a disaster here in the summer,” the 43-year-old said.

At least four windows in Abu Ramuz’s home remain broken as a result, he said, of Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at his home from the street below.

“The broken windows are all from gas and rubber bullets. I’m not getting new windows because I know they’re just going to break it again,” Abu Ramuz said.

Sitting just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, the Palestinian village of Silwan is at the foot of the third holiest site in Islam, the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount.

In recent years, the neighborhood has undergone a large-scale takeover by far-right Israeli organizations that are largely supported by the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality.

A seven-floor illegal Israeli settlement called Beit Yonatan — which was built in 2004 by extreme right-wing settler group Ateret Cohanim, and which even the Israeli state prosecutor has said needs to be vacated as soon as possible — is also only a few meters away from where Abu Ramuz and his neighbors live.

Intense clashes erupted in the Baten al-Hawa area shortly after resident Samer Sarhan was shot and killed by an Israeli settler security guard last September. Since then, Israeli police and soldiers have routinely arrested residents — especially children — on the suspicion of throwing stones.

The situation deteriorated even further in early January 2011, when an Israeli soldier on the Baten al-Hawa rooftop urinated in front of a Palestinian woman who was trying to hang her laundry there.

During the clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers that ensued, the military forgot a crate of tear gas grenades and other ammunition on the rooftop, and it ended up in the possession of Palestinian youth.

Palestinian residents quickly returned the weapons, yet police and other Israeli security forces conducted nighttime raids and arrests in response to the embarrassing misstep.

From this point on, residents of the building have been banned from accessing the roof.

Children traumatized by military presence

According to building residents that agreed to speak to The Electronic Intifada, children living in the building have exhibited signs of trauma as a result of these sustained attacks, including bed-wetting, loss of interest in school and even a fear of leaving their homes.

“My children are afraid to leave the house. [My four-year-old daughter] is afraid to go to school,” explained Muhammadeia, a mother of six children between the ages of 1 and 13, from her living room.

“It’s very, very hard. My children are always shouting, crying and choking when the soldiers shoot tear gas. I have to close the windows all the time,” she added.

Nasrine Fakouri, a Palestinian mother of five children who lives on the third floor of the building, echoed that sentiment.

“My children used to get perfect grades and they started failing. They’re not even going to school,” explained Fakouri, adding that she was forced to quit her job as a secretary at a local hospital in order to take care of her children, who are now too afraid to leave the house even to go play outside.

Fakouri’s 13-year-old son Hamzi missed the past week of school because he had to undergo surgery as a result of a sound grenade that exploded too close to him.

“They’re not willing to let us live like normal kids,” Hamzi said quietly, on the couch in his living room. “I tell [my siblings] not to be afraid and to keep their heads high.”

Fakouri added that the most difficult aspect of the situation is having tear gas thrown into her home.

“The gas is killing us here. The soldiers even throw gas down the stairwell. I tell [the children] to hide, to use onions on their face to relieve the stinging, and to be very careful,” she said. “Why do the [Israeli] settlers have so many guards while we don’t have anyone? No one is protecting our children.”

Forced out of Silwan

Fakouri said that after months of living in a near-permanent state of fear, her family now has no choice but to leave their home.

“I don’t think I will be able to come back to Silwan. Never,” she said, sitting next to nine packed cardboard boxes that were stacked in front of her livingroom window. “I don’t want to come back. Nobody should live here. It’s horrible.”

Fakouri explained that her family would soon be moving to Jabel Mukaber, a neighborhood in the southern part of East Jerusalem in the direction of Bethlehem. She said that she is afraid that the Israeli military or police will take over the apartment once they leave, however.

She added that she lost a child during her fifth month of pregnancy last year because of what she said was the overwhelming stress incurred by constant Israeli military harassment.

“I’m pregnant again and I don’t want the same thing to happen,” Fakouri said. “We want to leave but we also feel sad about the neighbors that have to stay and deal with it. We just want a peaceful and quiet life and to be able to raise our children.”

Abid Abu Ramuz, for his part, said that despite owning his apartment, he and his family would also likely be forced out because of the Israeli military.

“I don’t want to leave the house, but if the situation continues, I might have to for the sake of my children,” he said. “I’ll have to leave. This is what they want. They want everybody to just leave.”

“I hope [this interview] will get to everybody in the world and that people will start doing something about it,” Abu Ramuz added. “This would not be allowed anywhere else in the world. This is a crime.”

Originally from Montreal, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in occupied East Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at http://jilldamours.wordpress.com.