Here’s the bike – or what’s left of it: It’s smashed in two. Like two unicycles. It was purchased for 10 shekels (less than $2.50) from a junk dealer in the Hebron market – a blue bike without pedals or brakes that can only be ridden downhill. “Vision,” it says on the bike. It was the only toy of the 10 children of the Burqan family, and even now they’re riding on what’s left of it.
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Last month, a Border Policeman confiscated the bicycle from 8-year-old Anwar Burqan, who dared to ride it on a road reserved for Jews only, in the non-apartheid quarter of Hebron. The policeman threw it into the bushes, but was caught doing so by the camera of a volunteer from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, who happened to see what was going on from his home nearby and decided to film it. Uploaded to the internet and broadcast on television after the incident, which occurred on July 25, the video made waves in Israel and the world.
Anwar returned home crying bitterly, shaken by the police officer’s behavior and scared that her siblings would be angry at her for losing the bike. Her older sister hurried to the site of the incident, at the bottom of the street that leads to their home. She found one wheel on the ground and the other parts peeking out of the bushes at the side of the road. Three days after the incident, Anwar’s father, Amer, had some sort of accident at home and fell out of his wheelchair, which fell apart like the bike; since then he’s been bedridden, without a wheelchair, unable to leave the house.
Anwar wakes up every night in a fright, her mother says. The two have been sleeping in the same bed since the incident, with Anwar clutching at her mother’s throat – like this, she says, demonstrating – and sometimes the child sleepwalks. She has hardly been out of the house since that day. She’s afraid to venture into the street and confines herself to the dark stone path that leads to her home.
Policemen, soldiers and settlers roam Al-Ibrahimi Street, where the incident took place. The Burqans are among the few Palestinian “survivor families” of this ghost quarter in Hebron. Once the city’s pulsating heart, its streets are now empty in the wake of a quiet population transfer. Only the most abject poor still live here, between the separation streets and the barbed-wire fences, checkpoints, abandoned homes and sealed-up stores, amid settlers and the Border Police.
A Palestinian street urchin, who was born with one arm but rides his bike amazingly well, stops himself with his feet – his bike has no brakes, either – and accompanies us to the house. Yehuda Shaul, from the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, is leading a new group of guides from the organization around the desolate streets on this late afternoon.
The Burqans live in an ancient and decrepit stone building whose walls are peeling, near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It’s sandwiched between checkpoints – the “bakery checkpoint” is the closest – in a quarter that Palestinian vehicles are banned from entering. Not far away, Israeli soldier Elor Azaria shot and killed the wounded and supine Abdel Fattah al-Sharif last March.
The house was given to the family almost for free, to induce them to remain in a place from which others fled as if from the plague. No payment for the first five years, then symbolic rent – that’s the deal Amer Burqan cut with a special PA committee.
His children are growing up fearful of the soldiers and the settlers who are virtually on their threshold. The 12 souls in the family crowd into two floors and three rooms with arched ceilings. They are dressed in rags, and the isolation and neglect in which they live is palpable. A broken mirror hangs on one of the dirty walls.
The family has had no source of income since Amer was injured in a road accident about five years ago and had one leg amputated at the hip. They live mainly on donations of food from a Hebron charity. Occasionally the children try to sell corn-on-the-cob in the street, to help make ends meet, until they are chased off by police or settlers – sometimes with stones, like stray dogs. The children also do not balk at begging. One was beaten badly by soldiers a year ago, his parents relate.
In the living room, Amer, with a scraggly beard and partially toothless, is sprawled like a sack on an iron bed. Covered with a tattered striped blanket, he is scratching the sores on his one leg. He’s 45. Before the accident he was a driver, who transported engineering equipment.
Anwar comes in. A slim, lovely girl with light hair, she will be entering the third grade this fall. She’s wearing flip-flops and a faded yellow tank-top that says, “Free style. Girls wanna have fun,” evoking the Cyndi Lauper song – though Anwar has almost certainly never heard of her. With a chain, one ring and a plain bracelet, she evinces incipient feminine mannerisms, occasionally sweeping back her hair with her hand.
Maan, the Palestinian television network, has sent a crew to interview her. At the sight of the camera she rubs her eyes in embarrassment and fidgets on the sofa. Her speech is hesitant and fragmented. After the incident, a PA delegation brought her a big doll as a gift. “We live from checkpoint to checkpoint,” her father says. “This street [of the settlers] is the only place children can play, it has good asphalt.”
The only place the family’s pedal-less ruin of a bike can be ridden is down the hill on the part of Al-Ibrahimi Street that’s for Jews only. The children drag the bike up and then ride it down.
Al-Ibrahimi Street is split in two by a fence: a wide, well-paved asphalt road that’s exclusively for Jews on one side and a narrow, bumpy walkway for Palestinian pedestrians. Israel has consistently denied that the barrier is intended to separate Jews from Palestinians, but in practice, the Border Policemen don’t allow Palestinians to use the street.
The B’Tselem website has a video from 2015, shot by its field researcher Musa Abu Hashhash, who tries to walk down the main part of the road. A policemen tries to prevent him from going on, saying: “Are you Arab? Only Jews walk here. The captain decided You’ll go through there and that’s it That’s what they decided.”
Anwar says that the Border Policeman who took her bike stepped on her foot and it still hurts. The policeman in question was suspended after the clip was posted online.
On that same Monday afternoon, she recalls, she had gone down to the street with the bike, after spending an aimless day in the house. Two armed policemen approached her and scolded her. One stepped on the bike, she got scared and fled, and he then picked it up and threw it into the bushes. Anwar is seen running away in tears. It was all documented in the B’Tselem clip, including Anwar’s heartbreaking wailing.
She says that afterward she was afraid that her younger brother, 6-year-old Ibrahim, would be angry at her for losing the bicycle; he had lent it to her. Now Ibrahim is sitting on the sofa next to her, and urging her on: “Talk, talk.” She is shy in the presence of the uninvited guests. The two older boys, Mahmoud, 13, and Abdel Rahman, 14, speak fine Hebrew, which they picked up from the Border Police troops. They are apparently no longer afraid of them. Their father, confined to bed, says he’s dreaming that someone will donate a wheelchair, “even if it’s used.”
Ten-year-old Saja, who ran to the site immediately and found the bike after her younger sister came home crying, also apparently performed a forbidden act: She infiltrated the Jews’ road for a moment. But this time the police seem to have been lenient. Now she goes downstairs with us and shows us, through the separation fence, where she found the wheel and the rest of the bike, as Border Policemen watch us with mounting suspicion.