Even his black eyeglasses are too big for him, and cover half his face. His gaze remains fixed on the floor most of the time, and he hardly speaks. When he does, his voice sounds high-pitched and hesitant. He is skinny and is missing his two front teeth; his baby teeth fell out not so long ago. His mother says that during the first nights after the arrest, he had trouble falling asleep, but now, thank God, he’s sleeping better. But he still looks a bit scared, especially around these uninvited Israelis who have come to ask him questions, again.
Obeida Ayash lives in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem. He is eight years old, a third-grader at the local school, where his mother Ibtiha works as the janitor. She sweeps the classrooms at the school, which has a Hebrew sign at the entrance (in addition to its Arabic one), courtesy of the Education Ministry: “The New Al-Haya Elementary and Mixed School.” There are several glaring errors in the Hebrew.
Other infuriating things are evident throughout this village just a few minutes away from downtown Jerusalem: trash-strewn alleys, narrow and deeply rutted roads, densely packed houses on the hillsides, and countless police officers and Border Policemen lurking seemingly around every corner.
Furthermore, the settlers have also invaded Silwan and added to its troubles: Squads of security guards armed from head to toe watch over each house purchased by various means by Jews here, and defiant and provocative Israeli flags fly from the roofs.
Neglected, tense, full of pent-up suspicion and violence – Silwan is a very tough place. If there’s a municipal government in Jerusalem, it isn’t felt here, not in recent years at least. Since Mayor Ehud Olmert once inaugurated a school in Silwan, in another era, a lot of sewage and bad blood has flowed here.
This week the village was brimming with Border Police officers – busy disconnecting water meters at homes whose residents haven’t paid their bills. In this situation, Israel chooses to be as strict as possible, to make the residents’ lives even more miserable than they are.
The road that Obeida and his mother take to school is strewn with rocks. The day that we meet with them, a muezzin’s call blares through the streets and a Border Police force arrests another young man. Ibtiha embraces him from behind as they emerge from the school, to give him strength and to comfort him after the experience he endured.
She is a single mother, raising her four small children – who range in age from five to nine – virtually on her own. Their father is an Israeli Arab from Kafr Qasem, who rarely sees his children. They live in a cramped rented apartment high up on the hill – the mother, two daughters and two sons. The children range in age from 5 to 9.
All of school’s windows have bars on them, and from inside the sounds of an English lesson can be heard: “One, two three “
Obeida is wearing a faded Superman shirt.
Last Wednesday he was heading home as usual in the afternoon, while his mother stayed behind to clean. When he arrived home he saw that his favorite pen had fallen out somewhere along the way: It was a red pen, he wants us to know. He went back into the street, which was crawling with police, undercover officers and kids throwing rocks. He may have thrown a rock too, though he says he didn’t. Obeida couldn’t find the pen.
This was on the street that winds up the hill above the school, not far from Obeida’s house, near a staircase that leads inside one of the buildings. The smallest, skinniest boy around – maybe that’s why the police caught him, while all the other kids managed to get away. He says the police threw a stun grenade at them. He says there were about 15 police and undercover forces in the street and they all surrounded him after he was caught. One grabbed his shirt from behind and took him with them.
Obeida says he didn’t cry and he wasn’t afraid of the policemen. His mother is proud of her son. When she says, “He’s very brave” – it brings a trace of a smile to his lips.
The incident took place at about 2:30 P.M. Soon after the boy was arrested, a passerby who had witnessed the arrest called Ibtiha at the school and told her Obeida was being held by police in the street. The mother dropped everything and ran as fast as she could. She says she was in shock and was worried that the police could be beating him.
When she got there, she saw her little Obeida facing the whole group of police and other security forces. “All of them were surrounding my little boy,” she says now.
The police took Ibtiha’s ID card, and ordered her and her son to get into the white police van that was parked there. In his soft voice, Obeida says there was a ladder attached to the van. She says the police wanted to take Obeida away before she got there, but one of the undercover guys apparently told them it wasn’t permitted to take him without one of his parents accompanying him.
They drove a short while, to the place that Jews call the Hinnom Valley and Palestinians call Wadi Rababi. There, on the gravel lot by the side of the road, is where the police forces deployed in the area usually gather. They told the mother and child to get out of the van, and then they began questioning the young suspect.
One officer asked questions in Hebrew and another one translated into Arabic, they recall now. They asked Obeida if he had been throwing rocks, and who else had thrown rocks. They wanted names and other information. Obeida says he didn’t answer, except to say that he didn’t throw rocks.
The two say the interrogation lasted between a half-hour and an hour. Obeida says the police told him they didn’t want to hit him or do anything to hurt him, they just wanted him to tell them who was throwing rocks. They wanted names.
Ibtiha meanwhile tried to explain to the police that she had three small children waiting for her at home, and they replied that her son was throwing rocks and therefore they had to question him. When they finished, they returned Ibtiha’s ID to her and let the two of them go.
She says that Obeida ran a fever that night. Now she kisses him again. She says he’s already starting to forget what happened, little by little. But not her: Ever since, she’s been frightened every time he leaves the house. If he’s a little late getting back from the corner shop, she gets worried.
Obeida says he wants to be an engineer when he grows up. He offers a limp handshake and goes into his school, still in his mother’s protective embrace.
The Jerusalem district police say, in a response to request from Haaretz for comment: “The minor was spotted throwing rocks, and was detained by the police officers and the Border Police. As soon as his age and identity were ascertained, he was released. His mother and welfare services were also informed about the incident. Parents and responsible adults are expected to prevent their young children from participating in violent, life-threatening events.”