Earlier this year, “Mahmoud” came home to see a letter with his name on it, instructing him to come to the Russian Compound prison facility in Jerusalem.
The 15-year-old Palestinian resident of the Silwan neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem went to the prison with his father, mother and aunt. He was interrogated for seven hours.
“I felt nervous,” said Mahmoud, as he quietly explained what happened to him from the office of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, a news and information center run by Silwan residents.
“They took me to a lawyer, then they took my clothes,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a good situation.”
Mahmoud spent one week in the Russian Compound in a room with four other teenagers. Israeli police claimed that he threw stones at an Israeli police car and Israeli settler cars passing through Silwan. He wholly denies the charge.
“I didn’t know how long I would be in the prison. I kept thinking, ‘Will I go home or not? Will I go home or not?’ It was very bad,” Mahmoud said.
“A lot of my friends are in jail. It’s normal,” he added. “But I always think that I will go back [to prison]. I’m afraid of the soldiers and the police.”
Silwan children targeted
According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, approximately 51 Palestinian children have been arrested in Silwan since mid-September, when clashes erupted after an Israeli settler security guard shot and killed neighborhood resident Samer Sarhan.
“After the killing of Samer Sarhan, the Israeli police intensified its campaign to arrest more children. They announced that they will be putting more fines on the people and to have more children in house arrests for long times outside of their village in order to stop them from throwing stones at settlers,” explained Muna Hasan, the Wadi Hilweh Information Center’s Public Relations Coordinator.
The Palestinian village of Silwan sits just outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. It is at the foot of the third holiest site in Islam, the al-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 — most notably the Elad settlement organization — that are largely supported by the Israeli government and Jerusalem municipality.
In addition to taking over Palestinian homes, the Elad organization is also responsible for the “City of David” compound, an archaeological site that is off-limits to Silwan’s Palestinian residents and which, they say, is another means to Judaize the neighborhood.
Today, 350 Jewish settlers live amidst 55,000 Palestinian residents in Silwan. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center estimates that fifty percent of Silwan’s Palestinian residents are under the age of 18, and 75 percent of these children live below the poverty line. Palestinians regularly face violence at the hands of the Israeli settlers in the neighborhood, and the settlement’s security personnel and Israeli soldiers who have set up a near-permanent presence in the neighborhood.
This, combined with demolition orders on more than 85 homes and ongoing settlement expansion, has contributed to an increasingly volatile and tense living situation.
“The presence of the settlers makes the situation worse as a provocation and threat for the Palestinian identity of the village and [the Palestinians’] existence here,” Hasan explained.
“The people here believe that the Israeli authorities want the settlers to continue their violence because they are not stopping them. They are letting them do what they are doing. So it’s another way to put pressure on the people of Silwan in order to make them afraid and leave their village,” Hasan added.
Lack of basic rights
Many of the children in Silwan who have been arrested — some as young as eight years old — have been taken from their homes in the middle of the night and been interrogated for extended periods of time without the presence of their parents or a lawyer.
Some children have also reported being beaten by the Israeli authorities during the interrogation process. Nearly all of them are taken on the suspicion that they threw stones.
“The main problem is the way they are doing these arrests,” said Nasrine Alian, a lawyer at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). She explained that while under Israeli law police officers are not allowed to arrest children in the middle of the night, the Israeli forces are using legal loopholes and exceptions to do so.
“That’s a big, big problem. They only take them in a brutal way. And the court deals with this issue [of Palestinian children throwing stones] in a very, very strong and tough way,” Alian said.
“Even through the [second] intifada days, we saw [the practice of employing Israeli undercover police] regarding adults, but it wasn’t a policy for children,” she added.
Indeed, according to Muna Hasan, Silwan’s children are often arrested by undercover Israeli police officers while they are playing with friends or walking home.
“The undercover forces pick up the kids from the street even if they were not throwing stones, even if there were no clashes, no nothing. Sometimes they come at 3am and they take them from their houses. Those children need the legal support to stop all the Israeli violations against their rights,” Hasan explained.
Palestinian families have been forced to pay fines of up to NIS 2,000 ($544) and place their children under house arrest, often outside Silwan itself.
For instance, on 16 November, three Silwan youth between the ages of 17 and 20 were each sentenced to house arrest, to be served in the Beit Hanina, Ras al-Amoud and Beit Safafa neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem.
ACRI’s Alian added, “The children aren’t aware of their rights. They aren’t adults. They are very much afraid in these situations.”
No space to be children
Thirteen-year-old “Ahmad” didn’t spend any time in jail following his interrogation earlier this year at the Russian Compound, but he said that the experience still left a mark on him.
“The investigators were very angry. They were yelling,” he said, explaining that he was interrogated for six hours on the allegation that he threw stones.
According to Yoad Ghanadry, a clinical psychologist at the Palestinian Counseling Center in Beit Hanina, children need external space to deal with their emotions.
“In psychology we talk about play therapy and the importance of having an external space where you can communicate your feeling, where you can move, where you can get energy and be exposed to other positive energies from outside,” Ghanadry explained.
“If our children in East Jerusalem don’t have this external space, they also will not have enough internal space to deal with the emotions. We see many children not able to communicate their internal emotions. They act out their emotions. Instead of saying, ‘I’m angry,’ they act angrily. So it has a devastating effect upon the mental health of children,” she said.
Ahmad, who goes to school in the Ras al-Amoud neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem, said that virtually all of his friends have also been arrested and that to be arrested is “normal.”
“But we are always thinking that people will die,” he said. “We fear for the future. We are children but we don’t live like children.”
“Mahmoud” agreed with “Ahmad,” adding that “It’s a bad life for Palestinians in Silwan. We aren’t really living.”
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.