Jerusalem has come to mean so much to so many. It is a religious symbol, a political symbol, a symbol of power. Sometimes it seems like we have made Jerusalem into the embodiment of whatever we want it to be that day. We often forget that it is a city — a place where people live. People have lived here for centuries and have built the physical and the symbolic Jerusalem that stands today. These people are what make it a city. Jerusalem is its people, not just its stones. And while the city stands tall, its people are in ruins.
In the past few months, I have been part of a group of activists, Free Jerusalem, who came together to grapple with the issue of child arrests in Jerusalem. At the time, we were expecting three to four arrests of children per week. Our plan was simple: We would get a call from Palestinian activists in different East Jerusalem communities who would inform us that a minor had been arrested and that their parents wanted us to be involved. We would then go to the police station and, as Israelis with all the privileges that come with that, along with a good understanding of the law, we would refuse to leave until the child’s rights were respected. We weren’t even thinking about demanding the release of the kids, but wanted to ensure that their basic legal rights were respected.
On the first day that we started responding to child arrests we were notified of three cases of child arrests. On the second day, we were notified of another five — the youngest of them was a nine-year-old boy, under the age of criminal responsibility, and the oldest was a 13-year-old. Two of the 12-year-olds were kept in detention overnight and brought in front of a judge the following morning, who prolonged their arrest. How dangerous could these 12-year-old boys, who were crying the whole time, be?
More and more cases kept coming in. Parents looking for their children arrested before their eyes, but without anyone telling them where they were being taken; 12- to 13-year-old boys beaten in interrogations, and eventually signing confessions in Hebrew which they didn’t even read; four 10- to 11-year-old boys whose pictures after being arrested were circulated to the press with their school bags still on their backs; a 15-year-old arrested in a night raid as dozens of policemen came to drag him out of his bed in the middle of the night. By the time the Jewish High Holidays arrived, we couldn’t keep up. Sixty-eight minors were arrested in 10 days — seven of them under the age of 12. The following week the number doubled: 125 minors were arrested in Jerusalem alone between mid-September and mid-October. Almost every single one of them was arrested under the same charge: stone throwing.
Child Arrests and Israeli Law
It seems that the Israeli police believe that the law no longer applies to Palestinian children the moment they are accused of some kind of “security offense.” In arresting these children, the police are ignoring the law that forbids the arrest of anyone under the age of 12 and only allows detention in very rare circumstances. The Israeli police ignored this law when they arrested a nine-year-old for five hours without his parents present. They ignored the law that states that minors old enough to be arrested should be arrested by a plainclothes policeman and should be summoned through their parents when dozens of armed policemen broke into a Palestinian house at 2 a.m. in order to drag a 15-year-old boy from his bed. They are ignoring the law that says that detention should be the last resort for minors when these detentions turn into prolonged arrests and the government recommends instituting a minimum two-year sentence for stone throwing. From our experience, over 90% of arrests of minors in East Jerusalem were made against regulations under the provisions allowed in extreme and rare cases. In East Jerusalem, this is the norm. For “stone-throwers” this is the norm. And Israeli society is happy to allow this.
Who Are These Stone-Throwers?
But do any of us actually understand who these “stone-throwers” are? Let us imagine one of them: a 12-year-old boy from the neighborhood of A-Tur in East Jerusalem, or maybe he’s from Silwan or from Issawiye. Six schools in A-Tur were inaccessible by car for the last month of the school year last year, after Israeli police placed concrete blocks on one of the main roads of the neighborhood. Those roadblocks are now there again. Our 12- year-old boy studies in one of these schools, and now has to walk a much longer way to school every morning. Every morning he passes by the armed policeman standing outside of his school — sometimes they ask him to open his bag. Sometimes they just follow him with a glance. They glance at him the way one would look at a suspect because that’s what every 12-year-old is now. Last year on several different occasions, tear gas was shot into the school he studies in because of clashes between police and children before or after school. Police would come, pick on a child, and then another and another, until one of them pushed back, and then they would arrest him, or throw a sound bomb, and wait for the reaction of another child and then throw tear gas. And there you have it: a stone thrown at policemen gives them the excuse to tear gas the school and arrest whoever they catch. But that was last year, and those are just some memories. This year started with a shortage of 1,400 classrooms in East Jerusalem (as always), and our 12-year-old boy knows this first hand — he, like many other kids in East Jerusalem, studies in shifts: morning shift and afternoon shift. When he’s out of school, much earlier than his peers in West Jerusalem, he wanders the streets. Just the streets. Because there are no parks: less than 2% of the parks in Jerusalem are in East Jerusalem. Sport facilities? After school activities? Those are all rare and far between in East Jerusalem — no one even expects them anymore.
Then a heavily armored jeep enters the neighborhood while the boy and his friends are walking down the street. It is the same policeman he knows so well from the entrance to his school. The road is full of stones — they are badly paved with no sidewalks, just dirt and stones. So he picks up one of those stones and throws it at the armored jeep and runs like hell. It gets easier to do the second time, and the third, and it becomes one of the things he and his friends do. It is a 12-year-old’s form of resistance to what he has no control over. Born 10 kilometers east of where I was born, I would have been a stone-thrower, too.
In the New Testament, one more layer in the creation of the symbolism of Jerusalem, it says: “If they [the people of Jerusalem] keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Maybe that’s what 12-year-old children throwing stones are — stones crying on behalf of those whose tears are not seen or heard. The stones of Jerusalem that we should be gazing toward are not those of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, the mosques, the churches or the Western Wall. We should be looking down at the stones on the streets of East Jerusalem, being lifted by small hands created from the ruins of your idea of Jerusalem.