Outraged that police have blocked the two main entrances to their neighborhood with concrete slabs amid chronic rioting, hundreds of residents of east Jerusalem’s Isawiya neighborhood gathered Wednesday to demand their removal and cessation of what they deem unjust “collective punishment.”
“We’re not throwing rocks or participating in riots!” shouted an angered middle-aged Arab man from a megaphone, a few meters from a wall of heavily armed riot police near one of the barricades leading to Hebrew University.
“We just want the roads to open!” Behind him, a group of residents held placards stating “We are against collective punishment,” “No permission to build in east Jerusalem,” and, “East Jerusalem is being strangled.”
Isawiya resident Darwish Darwish, who said he divides his time between New York City and his home in the Arab community, said the roadblocks have only heightened tensions between Arabs and Jews.
“Because they set up road blocks for 11 days, no one can come in or out by car unless they drive through the outskirts of town and that takes over 30 minutes,” he said. “We work in the Jewish areas and we can’t get to work and our kids can’t get to school.”
Despite the ongoing rioting known to be endemic to the neighborhood, Darwish went on to describe Isawiya as a “very peaceful place” that has been unfairly targeted by police because “little kids are throwing rocks.”
“You have to understand, we’re talking about minors – nine-, 10-, 11-, and 12-yearolds,” he said. “What do you expect? They have no playground, nothing to do and the police come here with M-16s and [stink bombs] for little kids. It’s ridiculous! You use weapons like this to fight an army in Russia, not to fight little kids!” Acknowledging that the recent terrorist attacks in the capital – resulting in the deaths of an infant and several adults – were carried out by adults, Darwish said, “There’s a reason to kill.”
“When Israelis kill [Arab] family members and there’s only one left, the survivor is going to get revenge,” he explained.
Mustafa, who requested his last name not be published, claimed that police have entered the village every day for weeks, throwing stink bombs into houses of residents who have no involvement in rioting.
“They threw some kind of gas into my neighbor’s house the other day that smelled disgusting and she and her four kids couldn’t breathe,” he said. “And why? Because a couple kids in the village throw rocks? They come here to spray this gas in the houses of people that have nothing to do with it.
Darwish added: “I couldn’t even go into my house last night because of the stench.”
According to Mustafa, the gassings have made a number of residents sick, and ambulances have been prevented from reaching the homes because of the roadblocks.
Asked if community leaders have told the rock and firebomb-throwing youths to stop attacking Jews and police officers, he replied, “We tell them to stop, but they don’t listen.”
“The question is not how to stop the children from throwing rocks and demonstrating, it is how to stop the police and soldiers from coming to peoples’ homes,” interjected Diana Mardi, of the NGO Planners for Planning Rights.
“They are provoking people when they enter the neighborhood. Unless they stay outside of Isawiya, they [the children] won’t stop this,” she said.
The man commandeering the megaphone then shouted: “The police are only thinking about throwing stones, but we all pay taxes! Over 16,000 people here have no services because the municipality doesn’t allow planning, even though it’s part of the city’s master plan.”
Mardi continued: “When you block off the main entrances and prohibit people from getting services it is illegal. The only thing the municipality does is destroy houses and refuse to give permission for building.”
Conceding that the police presence in Isawiya has increased considerably following a recent spate of terrorist attacks and rioting, Mardi said that while she disapproves of violence, she does not condemn the children who routinely throw rocks and firebombs.
“I don’t like people to come to this level, but they are angry and want to express their feelings because they have been suffering for so long,” she said. “There are no adult or children community centers, no local services, badly damaged roads, and a lack of schools and classrooms.”
Asked how she would propose fixing the problem, Mardi emphasized dialogue between community leaders and the municipality, coupled by a complete overhaul of the neighborhood’s crumbling infrastructure.
“Ask people what they need, including local services, better roads and better schools,” she said. “And allow them to improve their community to get the same rights as people living in the West.”
Pointing in the direction of the Hebrew University several meters away, Mardi added: “If you take a few steps you can see the difference between here and there. You can see that that is an Israeli neighborhood and that this is a Palestinian one, which is even worse than a third-world country.”
Moments later, an Israeli police officer could be overheard telling the Arab man on the loudspeaker that police want to remove the roadblocks but that first calm must be restored.
Following the protest, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said heightened security measures in Isawiya were necessary and were implemented after a number of residents threw firebombs and rocks at police officers in the area and attacked Jewish homes and residents.
“The security measures are effective when riots take place and police need to quickly contain them,” Rosenfeld said. “These measures will continue until the situation on the ground returns to being fully calm.”