In the eye of the storm: The children of East Jerusalem

The Old City of East Jerusalem, with its ancient limestone buildings and narrow, twisting alleyways, has become the epicentre of violence which has engulfed the occupied Palestinian territory since October last year. A spate of random stabbing attacks on Israelis, deadly force used against suspected Palestinian attackers, and the use of live and rubber ammunition against Palestinians during protests and demonstrations over the past few months has led to 140 Palestinians and 19 Israelis being killed and a further 13,400 Palestinians and 220 Israelis injured.

Amidst the tension and bloodshed sits an oasis of peace and calm. The Saraya Centre is a MAP-supported project which provides psychosocial support services and a safe place to learn and play for Palestinian children in Jerusalem. Anmar, Saraya’s Volunteer Coordinator, described to MAP how the clashes have affected their work: The young guys who volunteer with us have stopped coming because their families are too afraid to let them come. It is the young guys that are the most vulnerable to violence from the police and soldiers.”

The children, Anmar says, are the hardest hit in violent periods such as this: “During the worst days of course we as teachers we were very scared ... If we are feeling like this, can you imagine how it must be for a child?” she asks. “They see that it is not just a conflict between adults, they see in the news that also little children have been killed.”

The activities MAP supports at the centre help children cope with these tensions and fears. “We can give them advice on how to deal with the situation. In the most difficult days we would walk with them back home,” says Anmar. “We do drawing and drama classes, and have group discussions. Here, the children feel safe and they have the space to say what is on their minds. At home, they don’t always have that opportunity.

A number of the children at the centre also spoke about their lives in Jerusalem and the current clashes: Haider (12), Bilal (10) and Nahla (13)*. Here is what they told us:

How is the current violence in East Jerusalem affecting your lives?

Haider (H): “Every day when we go to school there are police and soldiers on the way. They put checkpoints with metal detectors all over the city causing big delays. I am often late to school. They search all our schoolbags and take everything out to see if we don’t have any knives. Sometimes the scanner keeps buzzing and you have to go through it over and over again and take off some of your clothes. Yesterday when I was going home the soldiers were arresting three young guys. I needed to pass by them to reach my home; when I did so, they kicked my bicycle.”

Nahla (N): “On days when the situation was very tense my parents were scared to let me go to school. The sound of the clashes, the shooting of teargas and sound bombs, make it very difficult to concentrate and to study – it is really annoying and disturbing. One day, the police came to our house saying that some people were throwing stones from our roof. But no one ever goes on the roof!”

Bilal (B): “There were a lot of clashes in our street recently, so we just stayed inside the house the whole time.”

Have the clashes affected the Saraya Centre at all?

H: “They had to close the centre for four days because the police did not allow anyone to pass through this area. Israelis settlers live right next to the centre, so there were lots of soldiers on this street. I still came every day, but when I saw it was closed I was sad to go back home. There were no activities during these days so I was bored.”

How does the situation make you feel?

B: “I am scared to see so many soldiers in the street. Also the settlers harass us when we pass by. I heard stories that they put a knife in your bag and then shoot you. Or the settlers shout ‘he is trying to stab me’, and they shoot you on the spot.”

H: “I feel scared but mostly betrayed and unsafe. You need to watch your back at all times and be very careful where you go.”

N: “I am sad for all the young men that have lost their lives.”

Do you know anyone that was injured in the clashes?

N: “My cousin was coming back from school and was caught up in the clashes. A bullet was shot at him and entered his back. Now he cannot walk anymore and he is still in the hospital.”

What do you hope for?

N: “I hope that things calm down again. We have missed a lot of classes in school.”

How do you feel in Saraya centre?

H: “I feel safe in the centre, but then when we have to go back home I am scared. So now we wait for each other and we go back home to our neighbourhood in group so we can watch out for each other. One day we were going home and a settler called the police saying that we threatened him.”

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*Names changed to protect identities