Thursday, April 18 2002 Celebrating Independence Day at Issawiya – Apartheid in Action

April 16-18, 2002

By Neve Gordon, Yuri Pines, and Catherine Rottenberg

On the eve of Independence Day, at around 4:00 pm, all entrances to Issawiya were hermetically sealed; large numbers of police entered the village and began house-to-house searches. Men returning from work could not get home. Slowly, more and more men gathered, stranded on the roads leading to their houses, without coats, food or water. As the hours passed, they realized that the police and military were not going to allow them to return home that evening. And it was only at around 4:00 in the morning when they finally gave up and went to sleep in cars or on the concrete streets of the Jewish neighborhood, the French Hill. Some had blankets that Ta’ayush and other people had brought, others did not.

It all began hours earlier. On Tuesday, April 16, at approximately 8:30 am, the Israeli police and military imposed a curfew on Issawiya, a village located in north east Jerusalem just a few meters from Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, and adjacent to Jerusalem’s French Hill. (The 8000 Palestinians who live in Issawiya are Israeli residents; they pay Jerusalem municipality taxes – although they receive almost no services – and have blue identity cards.) Sick people who had left their homes earlier for checkups, children who were coming back from school, university students, and others stood for hours waiting to enter the village. The police allowed these resident to enter, but in increments and according to the whim of the checkpoint guard.

Independence Day at Issawiya

At around 4:00 in the afternoon the police stopped letting people in and imposed a total closure and curfew on the village. One couple returning from Sharei Tzedek hospital with their baby, who had been hospitalized for 3 days, were refused entry. They waited at the checkpoint until 2:00 am, when finally neighbors took them in. Ta’ayush members demanded that the family be allowed to return home, but we were ignored.

The alleged reason for the curfew was that a “terrorist was loose in Issawyia.” However, most of the other Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem were also under curfew that night, suggesting that at least one of the reasons the authorities imposed the curfews was to make sure that Arabs stayed home while Jews celebrated Independence Day.

Independence Day at Issawiya

The people of Issawiya, like the residents of other Arab neighborhoods, did not receive an explanation. Their village was simply closed off; no one bothered to tell them what was going on. The scope of the force employed and the degree of police brutality during the twenty-six hour curfew, whereby hundreds of residents were prevented from returning to their homes, and thousands were humiliated, appears to be unprecedented within the Jerusalem setting.

Young Border Policemen stood at the checkpoint and treated all Palestinian residents alike — as state enemies. These policemen were not only extremely aggressive and rude towards anyone who inquired about what was happening, including Ta’ayush members, but some of them were trigger-happy. More than once during the day and night, when residents walked “too close” to the checkpoint, the soldiers threw stun grenades and tear gas canisters no real reason was needed.

Independence Day at Issawiya

At about 6:00 pm, all of the residents from one Issawiya neighborhood — who had been ordered to stay inside their homes since morning — were ordered to leave their houses and were taken to the village school. The operation apparently focused on the area near the mosque, where security forces were looking for suspected militants. Women and children of this neighborhood (and of nearby houses as well) were evacuated from their homes and brought to the school. Men were also driven away, although some of them evidently stayed near their dwelling area during the search at the police’s request — in order to open shops and houses for inspection. An elderly person told us that he had been beaten by the Border Police when he refused to comply with their requests.

At midnight, when we called the police and military spokespersons, demanding that the children be given blankets and food and not held like animals in the cold Jerusalem night, we were promised that it would be taken care of. Later we found out that nothing had been done. Only at 4:00 in the morning did they begin letting those locked in the school go back home.

Independence Day at Issawiya

Meanwhile, about 50 Ta’ayushim and people from other organizations joined the 300 men who were stranded on the road leading to the village. We brought some blankets and food. Many of the men were worried about the fate of the their wives and children, knowing that the soldiers and policemen were searching their houses while they were standing helpless outside. For hours we waited with them, trying to interest the press, who did not think that the Issawiya events were “news”. We called Israeli Knesset Members and friends from the Jerusalem municipality council, but despite their well-meaning efforts, they were powerless. The Israeli Association for Civil Rights as well as Adallah tried to intervene, but again to no avail.

At about 2:00 in the morning, the guards at the checkpoint threw another round of stun grenades and tear gas canisters at us, just to emphasize who was in control. Only at 6:00 am the following morning were the men allowed back inside, and at 11:00 the curfew was lifted. No militants were actually found during the raid.

Independence Day at Issawiya

On April 17, several hours after the curfew was lifted, a group of 12 Ta’ayush activists visited Issawiya to survey the damages.

Major damage was inflicted on two shops and a hairdresser salon. The latter was destroyed irreparably, evidently as a result of grenades thrown into the small salon. The site looks as if a major battle had taken place there, although it had actually been empty. There was less damage to the two other shops. In both cases the owners opened the shop to the security forces, who then blew up the rear door of the shops in order to enter a small courtyard in one case, and a staircase of the house in the other. These tactics are similar to the ones employed by the Israeli military in Balata and other refugee camps. In both stores, explosives caused damage to merchandise. One of the storeowners complained that the soldiers had stolen mobile phones and cash from the counter.

Several houses were also damaged. One house was shattered as the security forces used explosives to blow up an attic, destroying the adjacent rooms, and even part of the exterior wall. This house requires major renovation before safe living conditions can be reestablished. Nobody was arrested in the house, and the security forces apparently found no evidence of any illegal activities within it. In two other houses we saw evidence of shooting into wardrobes. In another house, the soldiers used large amounts of explosives to demolish the outer door, but in this case they left most of the furniture, including wardrobes, intact. At least two cars had been damaged in the course of the operation as well.

Independence Day at Issawiya

But the nightmare did not end. Throughout Independence Day a Border Police checkpoint remained in place; the police harassed everyone who wanted to leave the village. At about 11:00 pm on April 17th, Border Policemen returned to the village once more, patrolling the streets and throwing stun grenades to frighten and terrorize the residents.

The following morning, April 18th, a roadblock was placed at the village entrance yet again. Sometimes the policemen checked the cars and let them through, taking about 5 minutes per car, while on other occasions it took them between 30 to 40 minutes. The men were ordered out to the cars and told to lift up their shirts just to make sure they were not strapped with explosives. Rabbi Arik Asherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights, Neve Gordon and other Ta’ayushim were also made to exit their cars and lift their shirts they too were suspected of being suicide bombers.

Moreover, within a period of an hour, while a few Ta’ayushim were in the village, Border Policemen who had taken over the roof of one of the houses threw three rounds of tear gas canisters (one round every twenty minutes) at children who were playing in the streets. The children were not throwing rocks; they were not even shouting at the policemen. They were just playing.

Happy Independence Day 2002!!!!