An East Jerusalem Birthday
It was a cold, crisp November day in Jerusalem and the kids and I had been invited to a birthday party in a neighborhood in East Jerusalem that I have been working in. The family’s son specifically asked that my kids come. This neighborhood, in particular, has become very special to me and I have fallen in love with many of its residents. They are incredibly generous despite their own challenges and have welcomed me warmly into their community. One day, I even walked out of a home to find a crew of young men fixing all the dents in my car and the places where my bumper was not screwed in correctly after an accident, work that would have cost hundreds of shekels in a garage! Yet they refused payment.
In general, however, I am cautious with my children, only taking them to certain areas in the daytime and when tensions are low. However, I also want to involve them, and since I have built so many relationships in this community, I figured it makes sense to bring them occasionally to play with other children.
On this celebratory day, we were all preparing for the birthday festivities, chatting while the kids played and innocently showed off their toys. One woman invited the kids to come help her with balloons and other fun preparations and they excitedly went out the door with her.
Suddenly, we heard shouting in Arabic and my heart dropped as I knew something was wrong. I thought only of the kids as somebody yelled for us to come out. We dashed into the street just in time to see the kids all still calmly walking into the next door neighbor’s building ready to blow up balloons, oblivious to the commotion.
“Thank God!” I thought. Then, adrenaline rushed through my veins as I realized what was going on. Around a dozen police and/or soldiers in riot gear were running at the end of the street, guns out, ready for a confrontation. Adults and youth flooded the streets or looked out their windows to see what the latest commotion was about. My eyes teared up as smoke filled the air. I again thought of my children.
Suddenly, people were shouting, “They are taking another child! Another of our children!” I thought they must mean a youth. But then my eyes witnessed what I had previously only heard of-a small child surrounded by the police, a child not much older than one of my own children. He must have been between six and eight years old! I immediately wanted to run and hug my kids but was unable to safely walk the short distance there.
We called the neighbor and they all assured me the kids were very happy, blowing up balloons. I could hear Barney in the background and laughter. As soon as the soldiers cleared out, I quickly joined my kids, giving them huge hugs.
What shocked me was how normal this was to people. For the young children, they just go inside, entertained by adults who seem nonchalant about it all. The children from around ten and over, joined by youth and young adults, seem unfazed and also energized by it. They all step out to see who is being taken this time and then they all share their own stories. It seems clashes with the police and being arrested are a sort of “coming of age” encounter in such a neighborhood. Even those who never want to be targeted by the police or to be arrested eventually are, according to them, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or, as they put it, just for “breathing the Jerusalem air.” It is a shared experience that seems to have touched every family.
After the police left, the street quickly returned to normal and everyone went back inside their homes as if nothing happened. Life goes on.
The birthday party began and everyone seemed so happy. The teenage brother of the birthday boy shared with me about his own arrest. I also recalled one of my friend’s brothers who is from the same neighborhood and recently was arrested simply because they thought he was friends with an unsavory person. He was interrogated and had his legs beaten. They released him later, realizing he had no helpful information, but he is still unable to walk normally as a result of the ordeal.
As I listened, I looked at the other young children, their innocent smiles and laughter dancing from their lips, and wondered if they would all experience such arrests and beatings someday.
My own kids were enjoying themselves so much it was hard to convince them to leave. The hosts also tried to persuade me to stay longer in classic Middle East fashion, offering coffee and finding new games for the kids. I kindly declined, tired out from the experience and wondering both about having my own kids present and about the future of the other children.
I left, considering this land that takes away childhoods and robs innocence, with teenagers being molded into either soldiers or convicts, experiences that scar them for life and shape their futures. I was more motivated than ever to work towards something better but also more overwhelmed than ever by the weight of the task.
The story above is one instance that I happened to witness of an all too common but under-reported phenomenon of minors being arrested for various reasons. According to the Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem, in April 2016, there were 414 Palestinian minors being held in Israeli prisons. On rare occasions, these arrests catch the eye of some journalist and make the news, but they occur much more frequently than is reported. Often, parents must simply wait with little to no information about their child and are prevented from visiting. Once a child is released, the entire street holds a celebration.