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A summer of protests in East Jerusalem leave the youth behind bars

September 26, 2014 at 10:44 am

On Wednesday, Muslim worshippers took their dawn prayers in the streets as the third holiest site in Islam was placed under siege by soldiers. Stray rubber coated steel bullets showered on those who refused to stop worshiping hit three students in their school classrooms. An eleven year old boy escaped an attempted kidnap in a nearby neighbourhood. A man used his own hands to demolish his house, to save himself from the colossal charges that would incur if the government who gave the demolition order undertook it.

This is a day in Jerusalem, home to the holiest sites for some of the world’s major religions. East Jerusalem, supposedly the capital of a Palestinian state, was annexed by Israel and declared its undivided capital in 1980. They constructed a wall around it and enforced a strict system of permits, blocking access for many West Bank Palestinians.

Since then the Israeli government has embarked on a “Judaisation” project, demolishing endless Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for a growing number of Israeli settlers- a bid to stamp the city as the capital of Israel and rid it of its Palestinian identity. Frustrations are bubbling over and frequent clashes between Palestinian youths and heavily armed Israeli police and soldiers are turning the holy city into a battleground.

This was a summer of protest for East Jerusalem. Three Israeli teens were kidnapped on July 12th unleashing a manhunt led by Israeli soldiers who searched and ransacked thousands of homes- the boys’ bodies were found two and a half weeks later. The week that started with their funerals ended with the funeral of a Palestinian boy. The badly charred body of 16 year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir from East Jerusalem’s Shu’fat neighborhood was discovered on 2nd July- he had been abducted by Israeli extremists in revenge for the murder of the three Israeli teens. For days after his funeral, protestors rioted on the streets of East Jerusalem calling for justice and change.

Just days later Israel began its military offensive over Gaza. The outbreak of “Operation Protective Edge” led to what some described as the strongest and most sustained uprising by the city’s Palestinian residents in a decade. In the protests, 16 year old Mohammed Sunuqrut was shot in the head with a sponge tipped bullet and died from his wounds a weeks later.

From Mohammed’s abduction until the Gaza ceasefire was brokered some 56 days later, around 727 people from East Jerusalem had been arrested and it is believed 260 of them were under 18- most are accused of throwing stones and partaking in the protests. An estimated 58 minors still remain behind bars as the summer of protest turns to a seemingly calmer autumn.

According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem which lies at the heart of Israel’s “Judaisation project”, most of the arrested minors range from 12 years old and up, but there have been many cases of the arrest of eight and nine year olds. Mahmoud, an employee at the center, said: “When they arrest children they are educating them how to survive interrogation, how to not give anything away, how to act in questioning. This education is teaching our children hate.” After pointing out that younger and younger children are taking to the streets to protest, he added: “What these children become as a result in the future is made by Israel.”

Defence for Children International- Palestine (DCI-P), a children’s rights NGO based in the West Bank, are also concerned by the situation. “The spike in the number of children arrested in East Jerusalem since the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir in July is extremely worrying, especially given that many of them are under the age of 15,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Accountability Program Director at DCI-Palestine. “Palestinian children in East Jerusalem, already routinely denied their rights in the Israeli military court system, are now being treated ever more harshly by Israeli authorities.’

Since July, the Jerusalem district prosecutor’s office has, according to Haaretz, instituted a harsher policy regarding these detainees– requesting remand until the end of proceedings. The new policy, put in place shortly after Mohammed’s death, also applies to minors and dozens have been jailed for a month or two before their trial starts.

Although children in East Jerusalem are supposed to be protected by Israel’s Youth Law which provides special safeguards to minors in conflict with the law, regardless of their nationality, DCI-Palestine says this law is not implemented fairly. Out of 31 testimonies collected in 2012 from East Jerusalem children who were prosecuted in the Israeli civil court system, 97% reported having suffered physical abuse at some during the process. In short, Palestinian children from East Jerusalem do not enjoy the rights enshrined by Israeli law.

Regardless of the rise in arrests, Mahmoud says the children of East Jerusalem are still not safe. He claims that since the abduction of Mohammed there have been 20-30 cases of Israeli extremists attempting to kidnap Palestinian children off East Jerusalem streets- including the attempt to take an 11 year old boy on Wednesday which was prevented by passersby. He believes this is a new tactic to scare the population: “This is a new tool they are using against us, to scare our children, it is really not safe for them to go and buy sweets at the shop.”

Despite this alarming development, these attempts go virtually unreported to the Israeli police. Mahmoud said: “In the past we tried the police, but when the settlers have shot someone dead in Silwan, they were released in a few hours and the case closed.”

He added: “The Israeli teenagers go missing and they arrested everybody, we have a Palestinian child burned and killed and it takes days for them to arrest anyone.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.