East Jerusalem - Occupation through a child’s eyes

The latest crisis in Jerusalem is the worst for a decade and is exacerbating the existing social problems already facing residents and in particular children.
The social fabric of East Jerusalem is deliberately weakened by Israel

The UK NGO Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) works with a community centre, Saraya, in East Jerusalem to support women and children. Saraya’s Director Hiyam explained to MAP the devastating effects of the continued occupation on children’s mental health and development; “the social fabric of East Jerusalem is deliberately weakened by Israel.  Combined with the common problems of an urban environment, like drug abuse, this has created a deadly cocktail for education. Sadly since the foundation of the centre in 1991, the situation has only worsened.”

Saraya offers recreational activities for children, teaching them dabke dancing, painting and storytelling so that they can escape their worries. The centre supplies neighbourhood schools with libraries and computer labs, its social workers tackle common mental health issues through psycho-social support and through a range of different courses, Saraya also empowers women financially.

The UN Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947 designated Jerusalem as an international zone. After Israel seized West Jerusalem in the 1948 War, tens of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from the city. Then, in violation of international law, Israel occupied and annexed East Jerusalem in 1967. The violation of Palestinian rights in the city continues today with home demolitions, restrictions on freedom of movement, search and arrest operations without fair trial, expulsion and illegal settlement building combined with settler violence. Israeli policy appears to be one of establishing Jerusalem as its capital through creating facts on the ground and by removing the city’s Palestinian population. 

Palestinians living in Jerusalem pay taxes to the Israeli government but are not granted citizenship, nor do they enjoy services like education. East Jerusalem Palestinians frequently have to renew their residency permits, proving that they live and work in the city and that their children go to school there.  Renewal applications are often rejected and residents are then deported from the area and not allowed to return. In addition to this, it is almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain construction permits, meaning that thousands of home have demolition orders pending. Meanwhile Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has announced the building of 1,000 new settlement homes to add to the 350,000 Israeli settlers already living in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian schools in Jerusalem are commonly refused building permits to expand, meaning that classrooms are overcrowded and buildings lack basic facilities like playgrounds, libraries or science labs. Schools are dilapidated with no windows for fresh air in the summer or a proper roof to protect the children from rain in winter. Palestinian children often also struggle at home. With no new homes being built or old ones expanded, children grow up in packed houses often consisting of one room without any space to concentrate on studying. In the worst cases, their homes are demolished, forcing families to live on the streets.

Saraya has also had its share of settler violence. One night in 2007, a group of settlers protected by the Israeli army took over part of the building where Saraya is based. A family of settlers is now living next door. “Regularly, we have police and soldiers on the roof for ‘security reasons’. They scare the children,” laments Hiyam. Palestinians in East Jerusalem face daily harassment from Israeli settlers, army and police, and children are often targeted. After the killing this summer of 17-year-old Mohammed Abu Kheidr, who was kidnapped and burned alive, the Israeli security apparatus launched a campaign of mass arrests. More than 900 Palestinians from East Jerusalem have been arrested since July, many among them minors. Detention without charge is common and many report being beaten in prison. “The constant threat of harassment and arrest has left the children of the neighbourhood traumatised. It is hard to expect them to know what respect is when they are so often treated disrespectfully themselves.” Suaad, a social worker at Saraya, struggles daily “how can I take away their fears of being arrested or kidnapped if I am terrified myself of losing my 5 year old daughter?”

Alaa, one of the boys at Saraya, was taken from his bed around midnight by the police, who put him in a temporary detention centre. When the Israeli authorities released him the next day, they put him under house arrest. “This is a common tactic of the Israeli police. The child is not allowed to leave the house and his mother is obliged to accompany her child at all times. She cannot come to the centre anymore to take classes or do activities with her other children,” explains Suaad. “We offer therapy to the children who are put in jail and we discuss the situation in groups. I advise them to not go out alone at night when it is not necessary, to avoid closed areas and not to react to provocations. What more can we do? The children have a lot of anger in them and the hardest part of my job is to try and relieve their stress. Sometimes, I get them to talk about their feelings but it is difficult to find a way to get them to return home without anger.”  

To avoid the risk of arrest or attack, many Palestinian parents are sending their children away from Jerusalem to protect them. As a result, families often become separated, as parents cannot join their children for fear of losing their Jerusalemite ID. The constantly tense atmosphere has many consequences for the Saraya centre. Suaad spoke of “police patrols blocking roads, many children and even teachers have difficulty accessing the centre. Some of our activities like the theatre class are impossible if everyone is not present. This breaks the dynamics of the group and hinders our activities.” 

In recent weeks the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Some schools have been closed due to fear for the children’s security. At the end of last month the Israeli army entered a school in Ras Amoud to arrest some of the students there, and on several occasions, children have been blocked from entering school and shot at with tear gas. Suaad continues, “when the children make it to school, they are constantly distracted by the sound of ambulances or helicopters. At night, the noise of the clashes keep them awake. No child is able to study under such stressful circumstances.”

Mohammed Firawi, the brother of one of the volunteers of the centre was arrested on the first day of school in his final year. He was described by everyone as a very intelligent young man. The Minister of Education did not allow him to take the final exam in the interrogation centre, keeping him from entering university. Suaad reflects on the politics behind it, “Ignorant or uneducated people are less likely to rise up. That is why they are trying to deprive this generation from their childhood and the right to education. I want the world to know this, but nobody is watching.”


This article was republished with kind permission of Medical Aid for Palestinians and originally published here.