Last Saturday night, nearly 200 Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli activists took part in a demonstration in front of Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon’s home in the upscale West Jerusalem neighbourhood of Rehavia. The protesters were demanding the mayor to take action in the face of ongoing police violence in the East Jerusalem district of Issawiya.
“We called on him to take responsibility for what’s been happening in Issawiya and to ensure the safety of the entire village,” explained Shahaf Weinstein, the lead organiser of Saturday night’s protest. “He is also their mayor, whether he likes it or not.”
Over the past six months, Issawiya has been the scene of extensive police brutality. The police harass the neighbourhood daily, and also conduct indiscriminate night raids. According to last month’s report by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, this involves police officers in the “detaining of residents returning from work, issuing of traffic tickets for spurious infractions, serving of house demolition orders, acts of violence, and detentions – particularly of minors.”
Despite being religious and right-wing, the first-time mayor ran on a platform of being “everybody’s mayor”, Weinstein pointed out. Many of the protesters on Saturday night focused on this, emphasising that Leon must also represent Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.
The protest was organised by left-wing Jewish-Israeli groups Free Jerusalem and All That’s Left, though members of a West Jerusalem youth group and non-affiliated individuals were also present in solidarity. Free Jerusalem has a deep relationship with Issawiya and has been organising almost 150 independent activists as “watchdogs” monitoring and documenting police brutality in the village for five days a week for the past five months.
Saturday’s demonstration blocked the street from traffic while residents of Issawiya gave passionate speeches on the lawn of Leon’s home. Within five minutes of the group’s assembly, though, security vehicles were seen pulling out of Leon’s driveway, which protesters assumed carried the mayor.
“His reaction to citizens and residents of his city coming and demanding that he ensure the safety of everyone in his city,” Weinstein said incredulously, “was basically to drive away.”
Local police told the demonstrators to disperse, at which point they marched down to Paris Square, near the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to continue the rally. Five Jewish-Israeli activists, including Weinstein, gave testimony of what they have witnessed as volunteer watchdogs in Issawiya.
A member of the village parents’ committee, Omar Atayeh, 52, told me over the phone about the damaging effect that this violent police campaign has on the children of Issawiya. “Police are always here, near schools… harassing them with tear gas and stun grenades. They are scared to walk to school.”
The campaign began with the targeted issuing of traffic tickets to village residents, but quickly escalated as the people of Issawiya began to fight back, mostly in the form of children throwing stones at passing police or military vehicles.
“Most of those arrested are only kids,” Atayeh explained. “The police take them and then put them under house arrest and they are unable to go to school. Then they get depressed and confused.”
Atayeh’s own 16-year-old son has been arrested twice. On the first occasion he was imprisoned for three months, before being placed under house arrest. The second time, he was in prison for a year and a half. “I didn’t even recognise him [when he got out] because he spent so much time in jail. Jail is a very confusing place for a child.”
Issawiya feels like a war zone every night, said Atayeh. Police come in the early hours of the morning, breaking down doors and throwing tear gas and stun grenades. This description was echoed by Israeli activists.
“We are so happy that Israelis are coming to our village and taking pictures,” Atayeh pointed out, “but when our kids see the military coming to defend the activists, they are asking questions.” He noted that it is difficult to hear the Jewish-Israeli activists who come to help them speak the same language as the police officers who are violent against them. “It’s very confusing for the children.”
Nevertheless, having activists acting as watchdogs has proven effective, says Weinstein, especially when challenging the claims made by the police against local residents when they are arrested. This may be one reason why the police are so vehemently against their presence.
“The only thing that the police are concerned about is the fact that Israelis are in Issawiya,” Weinstein said flatly. “The police don’t care at all about the safety of the children.” As long as there are police in the neighbourhood, he added, there are going to be Israeli activists.
Though no one knows exactly why this campaign is targeting Issawiya specifically, B’Tselem claims that it is an inseparable part of Israeli policy throughout East Jerusalem. “[That policy] seeks to perpetuate a demographic majority for Jews in the city. This goal is pursued in part by devoting resources and efforts to making life in the city unbearable for Palestinians, so that they leave, ostensibly of their own will.”
“We live together, us with the Jews,” exclaimed Atayeh. “Everybody should live together in peace. Why does war break out every time I go home? Why should we have to live in fear?”
The Jerusalem District Police were contacted for a comment, but had not responded at the time of publication.