At the entrance to Issawiya in East Jerusalem, eight children are laughing as they chase one another in circles. I take out a camera and a few of them begin to gather around me. The oldest of the group is 13 years old, and tells me that they are playing “Jews and Arabs.” Do you know it? She asks. There are two teams: the Jews shoot at the Arabs and the Arabs throw rocks. The game ends when one of the teams wins.
I look on as they play but cannot really seem to make out the rules. It’s a bit like tag, only that instead of tagging one another, they pretend chase, detain, and shoot each other. The children’s home is just across the road, and they play in the street during summer vacation. Ever since 19-year-old Mohammed Obeid was shot dead by Israeli police here in July, their grandmother doesn’t allow them to stray too far.
The reality in Issawiya is dangerous for children. Every day, dozens of armed Border Police officers enter the neighborhood to “make their presence known,” as one of them tells me. The officers hand out tickets, block main traffic junctions, check IDs at random, and patrol the streets for no apparent reason — at least that’s how it starts.
The script generally repeats itself: an argument breaks out, one of the teenagers throws a stone at a passing police jeep, a group of officers comes looking for him, they throw stun grenades and sometimes shoot rubber bullets, residents are wounded and arrested. This happens almost every single day.
One can write at length about this despairing reality, which stems from Israel’s desire to continue to exert its control over East Jerusalem without granting its Palestinian residents national rights.
In the main square next to an elegant white mosque, three children ask me to take their picture. Another child passes by, warning them to check where I come from, to make sure I am not an undercover cop, and that I am not taking photographs in order to arrest them later. Of the three, it seems that 12-year-old Amir especially enjoys telling stories. Kids generally repeat phrases they hear from their elders, but Amir is different. His memories seem to be his alone, full of minute details.
Amir says that two weeks ago, he heard a knock on his front door at 3 a.m. He has been having trouble sleeping ever since his grandfather died of pancreatic cancer a month ago, and had fallen asleep in front of the computer while playing Fortnite in the living room. Amir got off the couch, opened the door, and saw 10 men standing there, looking at him quietly. “I thought they had come to fix the sewage,” he says as he smiles shyly. When the men, soldiers in civilian clothing, walked into the house to arrest his 16-year-old brother, Amir had no idea what to do. He took out his phone and started snapping photos. His hands shook so badly the photos came out blurry.
Arin listens as Amir tells his story. She will be starting fourth grade next year. A few days before I met her, she was sitting with her father in a convenience store when a police officer walked in and asked for IDs. Her father had left his ID card at home, so the officer took him down to the station. But Arin, who knew where her father kept his card, decided to run home and bring it back to the store. She says her entire body was burning as she ran. By the time she returned, her father was gone.
All at once, the children’s tiny heads turn in unison as a police car passes by. I think they have arrived, Amir says, and something inside him seems to tighten. A few minutes later, Arin’s father sends her a message to come back home.
“There is not a single child in the neighborhood who hasn’t been traumatized by the last few months,” another father tells me while his two-year-old son, also named Amir, bashfully hides behind his father. I try to give him a high-five, but he doesn’t want one. His father says that a month ago, police officers fired a stun grenade at the entrance to their home just as he and Amir stepped outside. The marks from the grenade are still visible on the parking lot floor.
“Amir immediately fainted,” he says. “It frightened me to death. I wanted to take him to the hospital, but the officer who fired the grenade walked up to us, held the child from his feet, and sprayed water on him until he woke up.” Since, says the father, Amir cries every time he sees police officers or hears explosions. Even car sounds cause him to burst into tears. Lately, the father has begun taking him to a psychologist.
Issawiya is home to 22,000 people, 6,420 of whom are children now on summer vacation, says Omar Atia, who heads an NGO that supports the children of the neighborhood. I call him as he is on his way to Jaffa with his family, to celebrate Eid al-Adha.
“I am fleeing Issawiya, Yuval,” he tells me. “One cannot be there during the holiday. It’s too sad. The holiday has always been my favorite day of the year ever ever since I was a child — wearing new clothes, laying them out on the bed the night before, decorating the neighborhood, cooking pasta in the street, feeling happy. But this year, anyone who can is going elsewhere to celebrate. The parents do not want their children to be in the streets. People are mourning. Over the last two month I haven’t seen most of the kids. Everyone stays inside. A child doesn’t forget difficult experiences, do you understand? This situation makes hatred grow in their hearts.”
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“Why is there not a single swing in Issawiya?” he continues. “Why isn’t there a single bench under the shade? Why doesn’t the municipality subsidize any activities or summer camps? We don’t understand who we belong to. On the one hand, they want us to accept the police’s presence here as if everything is okay, yet on the other hand, we don’t matter in the eyes of the law.”
As I speak with the children, an explosion goes off. A young woman who is walking in front of me with her daughter quickens her step. Those are stun grenades, she says. I walk toward the sound; the street is lined with dozens of paramilitary police officers who look more like soldiers surrounded by a few children. Two officers trade stun grenades.
“They’re throwing stones here, you can’t stand here,” one of them yells at me as I start to snap photographs. Another grenade explodes. My mouth goes dry whenever I witness violence. I raise the camera and remember how Amir’s hands shook when he made the exact same motion. Documenting is important. A number of residents have already told me that the police are less violent when there is a camera present. I’ve witnessed this with my own eyes.
One of the residents takes me to his home using a side road so that I can continue filming the officers from his balcony. I see parents running with their children past the officers’ drawn weapons. One of the officers shoves a resident who is trying to reach his home. Chaos. From the balcony I can hear the sound of a baby crying inside. The father walks onto the balcony while carrying his daughter, whose name is Julie. Behind her on the street below, an officer builds a makeshift checkpoint, while another policeman fires two rubber bullets at the home from which stones are being thrown. Julie begins to cry again.
Night falls and the police leave. They will be back before morning. I go back to the main square and see Amir who is happy to see me and asks whether I would like to hear about the basements where the Shin Bet interrogates Palestinians, or about the day his grandfather was arrested. No, I tell him. Another time.
“Where are you from?” he asks me.
“I am Jewish,” I respond. “I was born in Be’er Sheva.”
His eyes go wide. “So how do you know Arabic?”
I hesitate, and tell him that I am an Arab-Jew.
“What’s that?” he asks, and another boy who overhears our conversation jumps in: “They are Jews who learned Arabic, and they are with us.”
Amir stares at me. “Oh, so are you with us or with them?” Again, I hesitate.
“Is there a third option?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not sure.” So I remain silent.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.