Reflections on Violence: Police in Issawiya

Content warning: state violence, militarized police

I was in Israel-Palestine for two and a half months this summer interning for Zochrot and engaging in solidarity work in the West Bank. Almost everyone I met through solidarity work urged me to tell everyone I knew what was happening there. This is the second of two pieces I’ve written about my summer; the first can be found here. I hope that in sharing these stories, I can help show the human impact of occupation and settler colonialism in Israel-Palestine. This is the story of the daily violence that the Israeli state inflicts on Palestinians in Issawiya, a neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem.

israeli and American activists following and documenting the police. Photo by Bridget Powers.

israeli and American activists following and documenting the police. Photo by Bridget Powers.

On June 27, Mohammad Samir Obeid, a 21-year-old Palestinian from Issawiya, Jerusalem, was shot and killed by Israeli border police. About two weeks earlier, Israeli forces had begun nightly raids in Issawiya, terrorizing the residential neighborhood and arresting dozens of civilians without reason. 

Almost a month later, on July 23, I visit Issawiya on a solidarity shift with Israeli and American activists from Ta’ayush and Free Jerusalem. Since Obeid’s death, Israeli activists had been doing shifts in Issawiya every night with the goal of documenting and mitigating the violence. At 6 p.m., we arrive at a gas station just outside the entrance to Issawiya. There are five of us: two Americans, two Israelis, and a local organizer, Mohammad Abu Hummus. There are 6 vans of Magav, militarized border police, and Yasam, the police’s special patrol unit, parked across the street. Police is a misleading word, though. With full riot gear, tear gas canisters, and heavy machine guns, they seem more like soldiers to me. Every night, they transform Issawiya from a residential neighborhood into a warzone.

Mohammad Abu Hummus picking up the pieces of a gravestone that an Israeli police officer smashed

Mohammad Abu Hummus picking up the pieces of a gravestone that an Israeli police officer smashed

“Do you respect our graves?”

Only minutes after we step foot inside the neighborhood, a van of police stops outside of a cemetery, and six policemen run into the graveyard. Abu Hummus says, “What do you think is going to be here? What are you looking for, dead people? Do you respect our graves?  Do you go into cemeteries in Jewish neighborhoods?” As he is talking, more policemen appear on the other side of the cemetery. They run up a hill, and as we follow them, we watch them arrest two unsuspecting teenage boys. They are escorted by around 15 policemen through the cemetery, to the police cars waiting at the bottom of a hill. As they walk through the cemetery, one policeman smashes a gravestone. 

While we are following and filming the arrests, the soldiers try to stop us. They form a line and scream at us in Hebrew. One soldier is screaming at me and when I say I do not speak Hebrew, he shrugs and shoves me. I am scared. I have never seen an assault rifle in person, let alone be pushed by someone holding one. The message is clear: I may not be able to understand his words but I can understand his violence.

Police and locals on the street

Police and locals on the street

“Ambulances don’t come to Issawiya.”

While the police stop every car that goes by on a main road, pointing their guns at some, children are playing in the street; Abu Hummus tells us there is nothing else for them to do in Issawiya. There is no summer camp, no parks, no community programming. They cannot lobby the Israeli government for this infrastructure, and as Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem, they are not allowed to vote in national elections. East Jerusalem was effectively annexed by Israel first during 1967, and again when the Jerusalem Basic Law was passed in 1980. Thus, the Palestinian Authority does not have sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem and most of its Palestinian residents are unrecognized as citizens by the Israeli government. Despite their lack of formal citizenship, they are forced to pay taxes to the Israeli state and to allow the Israeli police to enter their community every day. 

We meet a kindergarten-aged girl who has a bruise on her face. A few days prior to our arrival , she was playing on a balcony while the soldiers were removing a Palestinian flag from the school building next door. They shot a stun grenade at the group of children, and it hit her in the face. Her father saw the commotion, and came outside to tell the soldiers to leave the children alone. They beat him, pepper sprayed him, and tased him three times in the street. When an ambulance was called it did not come because “Ambulances don’t come to Issawiya.” The young girl is so traumatized she can barely speak. Abu Hummus tells us there is not a single child left untraumatized by the violence they witness and experience every single day. Another young man with marks on his face comes to meet us, and tells us that he was also hit by a stun grenade. Everywhere, we see people in casts, on crutches, bandaged. It is clear to us that everyone in Issawiya has felt the impact of the police operations.

Children gather on a balcony to cheer at activists

Children gather on a balcony to cheer at activists

“Allahu akbar!”

At one point, we round a corner and nearly forty young men and children are waiting for us and begin to cheer and chant “Allahu akbar!” (Arabic for God is great/the greatest) as we walk past. It is the warmest welcome I’ve ever received, but it makes me deeply sad that our mere presence seems worthy of praise.

Israel claims there is a sleeper cell of terrorists hidden in Issawiya, and this is its justification for the violence that the police have caused in the neighborhood the past month and a half. I doubt that terrorists would greet American and Israeli activists with such open arms. 

I think about how I was taught that Israel is a safe haven for me. Before I left for the summer, a family member warned me about terrorists. The first time I went into the occupied West Bank this summer, they told me not to do it again because “You don’t know what kind of people are there,” and that “As a Jewish woman, you can’t be too careful.”

But I am not afraid of the Palestinians who are welcoming us into their homes. I am scared of the Israelis who are running through the streets of this residential neighborhood with loaded guns, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades. I feel the weight of the police’s disgust. They do not see me as their equal but as a traitor – and I am doing nothing to stop arrests or to protest, I am just there to document and to be in solidarity. The Israeli Occupying Forces are not there to protect me or global Jewry. They are there to protect the Israeli state.  

Content warning: depiction of state violence

“You are nothing without your gun!”

As it gets darker, the residents of Issawiya begin to throw stones at the soldiers from balconies and windows. This is dangerous for us, as we do not have the heavy arms, face shields, and protections that the soldiers have. At one point, to escape the stones, we run into a restaurant. Abu Hummus stands at the entrance, filming the soldiers throwing stun grenades over a wall past which they cannot see. When they realize they are being filmed, which is legal, they come to the entrance of the restaurant and, after a brief exchange with Abu Hummus, slam the door on him. He opens the door, they slam it again. This repeats several times before the soldiers decide they would rather us be out in the open than in the safety of the restaurant. The soldier grabs each of us by the arm and pulls us out of the restaurant, one by one. 

Zuriya, one of the Israeli activists, begins yelling in Hebrew at the soldier as he is pulling her down the street. She says, “You are nothing without your gun! You are a coward, not a man! You are nothing!” He is most violent with her, grabbing her so roughly she bleeds.

I have never seen such hatred and hunger for violence in someone’s eyes as I did when that soldier looked at us. I am confident that if we were alone in a room with him, without cameras, he would have severely hurt us. I can’t help but wonder: if that’s how he looks at me, an American Jewish white-passing woman, simply for being in solidarity with Palestinians, how much hatred does he hold for the residents of Issawiya? For the Palestinians he interacts with every day, with a gun in his hand?

“This happens every night.”

Later, we are standing with a large group of Palestinian men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, watching the soldiers and waiting for something to happen. I sit down and notice something by my foot. It is a hard, round piece of rubber with a metal bottom. I am told it is a  גומי, a gummy, a rubber bullet, just lying on the floor. Not too far away, we hear shots. Right next to us, two local men are repairing a metal fence with power tools. It is distracting and the combination of loud noises, bright lights, and chaos is disorienting. Under my breath, I ask “Can they do that any other night?” My friend standing next to me replies, “But this happens every night.” 

She is right. The police describe their actions as “just routine policing.” Because it is the first time in my life that I have witnessed this kind of violence, it is disorienting, shocking, disruptive. For people who experience it every day, daily life must go on. 

Children look at the camera and police stand on the street.

Children look at the camera and police stand on the street.

“This is occupation.”

I feel completely drained on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv. I am grateful to be with my friend, grateful to get into my air conditioned apartment, grateful to be and feel physically safe, and grateful to sleep in my comfortable bed far away from the violence of the evening. Even now, writing this two months later and thousands of miles away, I feel nauseous thinking about the violence I witnessed. For the 20,000 residents of Issawiya, the 330,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem, the 3 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and the 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza, the violence is much more intense and cannot be escaped so easily, if at all.

About a month ago, Haaretz published an article about the daily raids in Issawiya. According to their research, over two months, over 340 people from Issawiya were arrested, at least half of them were under 18, and only five, out of 340, were indicted. In searches of homes, no weapons were found. No police or Israelis were injured, except for when two police officers were injured by a stun grenade, which was thrown by a different Israeli police officer.  There is no justification for the violence that the police have inflicted on Issawiya. 

Today, Issawiya is still experiencing nightly police raids despite multiple agreements between the municipality and the police to end, or at least reduce, these pointless operations. It has been happening for four months now, over 90 days. Israeli activists are still going every night to show solidarity and to document the violence. I wonder how much longer this “operation” in Issawiya can continue, and then I remember that is has already been 71 years since the forced expulsion of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli state began. 

It is no coincidence that the violence is taking place in a neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem, one of the most contentious and heavily disputed areas in the conflict. It is also no coincidence that Issawiya is a politically active area. Although the violence feels arbitrary, it is targeted. It is an attempt to quash political activism and to make life unliveable.

This is occupation. This is collective punishment for the crime of being Palestinian. Every night, the 20,000 residents of Issawiya are terrorized. People are afraid to walk down the street. Most women and children stay in their homes, watching from windows as the police shoot rubber bullets and throw stun grenades. In Issawiya, just like in Sur Baher, even a home is unsafe.