The door is wide open, the windows, too – the curtains had to be thrown away, even after several launderings – and still the stench pervades the apartment, repulsing everyone who enters. Only the coronavirus masks somehow help cover up the smell. The place stinks, it simply reeks. This is the home of the Aabed family on Basateen Street, the Street of the Orchards, in the center of Isawiyah. This former village adjacent to Jerusalem is now a neighborhood of East Jerusalem that is neglected, impoverished and densely populated, where militant residents live under the Israeli occupation and occasionally rise up against it.
The windows in the Aabed home have bars on them, and the bars are covered by intricate metal latticework in order to protect the elderly parents who live in this ground-floor apartment, whose living room faces a street that becomes a battleground almost nightly. The Jerusalem District police wields an iron fist in Isawiyah, frequently entering the neighborhood to provoke and confront the locals. The police also use means here that they would probably never dare employ against Jews. For example, the water cannon that sprays “skunk water” in the heart of a crowded, poor residential neighborhood, and not only at stone throwers. It’s also aimed deliberately and maliciously into homes, as is seen in a video shot by residents.
About 22,000 people live in Isawiyah, and its population density is 3.5 times higher than the average in Jerusalem. It’s in these conditions that the police unleash their malodorous liquid.
This was the first time in some years that the police had brought the “Skunk” into the center of a neighborhood. Two weeks after that one-time, violent incursion, it’s still hard to breathe in the Aabed family’s home. Outside are parked the three cars belonging to the extended family. The front windshield of one is shattered, another had to have its windshield replaced, and the windows of the third are covered with Styrofoam as a precaution against the next assault. Here young people throw stones at the police and the police fire tear gas, rubber-tipped metal bullets and water from the Skunk.
The Aabeds’ home is thus caught between a rock and a bad-smelling place.
Walid Aabed has been a bus driver for the Egged company for 16 years, plying the No. 66 route, which runs from Givat Ram to Pisgat Ze’ev – from the ivory tower of the Hebrew University to a settlement-suburb of Jerusalem. Walid likes his job very much. The passengers from Pisgat Ze’ev are “good people, very cultured. The residents of Pisgat Ze’ev are very nice. I know all the regulars, I like working my route.”
Unlike some other Arab bus drivers, he has never been attacked by passengers. “I have common sense and I use it. There are people who are animals, crazies. I try not to mess with them.” On Purim, many of his other local Arab driver friends were beaten and humiliated. It happens almost every day, says Walid, who is married and the father of three sons and a daughter. He and his family live on the first floor of the building we visited this week; his brother lives with his family on the floor above him, and their parents – Yusuf, 73, and Fawzia, 69 – reside on the ground floor. Walid works shifts, alternating between day and night. On March 3, he worked the night shift, which ended at midnight.
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His parents had fled to their second home, in Jericho, a few weeks earlier, waiting for the situation in Isawiyah to calm down. Their apartment is on the frontline, so whenever the tensions rise in the neighborhood they head for Jericho. “My dad likes things quiet,” Walid explains.
Isawiyah has been in turmoil during the past few months, and the police carry out frequent raids there, which of course ratchets up the tension even more. Two days earlier, on March 1, the Jerusalem Municipality demolished the home of Khatham Abu Riala, who is in a wheelchair after becoming paralyzed from the waist down when he was injured during an earlier demolition operation. Isawiyah was up in arms.
“There’s chaos here,” Walid says. “What’s happening in the neighborhood is really upsetting. It makes life hard for us – it’s no good, this mess all the time. We’re fed up. Everything that’s happening is because of the police. They’re punishing the whole neighborhood because of a few kids who cause trouble. I always tried to keep them apart. I have always only wanted quiet. It didn’t help.”
A report issued last year by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, titled, “This Is Jerusalem: Violence and Dispossession in al-‘Esawiyah,” notes that during the period of the occupation, Israel “has taken more than 90 percent of [the neighborhood’s] land by various means.” In no other Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem that Israel has gnawed away at since 1967 “have the authorities benefited more [than] from the land grab than in al-‘Esawiyah,” the NGO states.
The report focuses on what’s termed the police’s “campaign of abuse and collective punishment” in the neighborhood last year: “For more than a year now, the Israel Police has engaged in a violent campaign in al-’Esawiyah. Special Patrol Unit and Border Police forces regularly enter the neighborhood for no reason, without any prior occurrence that could justify police presence… Special Patrol Unit and Border police officers, armed from head to toe, enter the neighborhood with vans, jeeps and drones and intentionally create arbitrary instances of violent ‘friction’ that disrupt routine and make daily life extremely difficult in the neighborhood.”
The report goes on to list a series of violent provocations by the police, including needless forceful entry into homes, random blocking of streets, noise from loudspeakers on patrol cars late at night, goading inhabitants by aiming weapons at them, humiliating searches of cars and bags, false arrests of minors at night, searches of stores with the use of dogs, and the issuing of traffic tickets for petty infractions – all of this intended to abuse the residents.
That campaign went on for about a year and ended during 2020. In the past few months the people of Isawiyah have reported the resumption of frequent police operations. On March 3, officers entered the neighborhood at about 8:30 P.M. Around 20 patrolled on foot; young people threw stones at them, until they left. Around an hour later the police returned, this time with the water cannon – the “shit truck,” as Walid Aabed calls it. The stench machine sprayed its foul liquid in all directions. A video clip taken by residents and made available to B’Tselem field researcher Amer Aruri shows the vehicle proceeding slowly along Basateen Street, police officers following on foot behind it. When it arrives at a certain house, the water cannon is swiveled to the left, directly at and into the windows. It floods the house with the liquid whose horrific odor will remain for a long time to come. This is the home of the Aabed family.
Fortunately, as already noted, the parents weren’t home. The force of the spray smashed the window, and the green malodorant spread through the apartment, into the rooms. The police of course had no idea, and presumably could not have cared less, whether the house was empty or whether children, elderly or sick people were sleeping there. The force left the neighborhood at 11:30.
Arriving home after midnight, Walid was overcome by the smell. First he went up to his own apartment, where there was also a smell, and then hurried to his parents’ apartment, and was shaken by the stench. “Thank God my parents weren’t home," he tells us. "They would have suffocated from this.”
Together with young people from the neighborhood, Walid labored until 3 A.M., washing down the street outside and his parents’ apartment, but to no avail: The odor was as pungent as before. In the days that followed he has used liters of bleach and other cleaning agents – he even started a coal fire in the hope that the smoke would drive out the smell – but nothing has helped. He had to throw out the curtains; some of the furniture was damaged and he worked hard to scrub it down. In the room next to where we sat with him this week, the disgusting liquid had reached a height of 10 centimeters (4 inches), he told us.
The Israel Police this week issued the following statement to Haaretz in response: “This is what a total distortion of reality looks like. Police officers who were working in the area to enforce the law encountered a violent, dangerous riot, with dozens of lawbreakers and rioters throwing Molotov cocktails, stones and various objects at them from every direction, including from roofs and balconies. As a result of the serious violence that was aimed at the police officers, two of them were wounded and needed medical attention, and damage was caused to police vehicles that were operating at the scene.
“In the face of the lawbreakers and disrupters of order who tried to harm the police officers, the forces used crowed dispersal means, including the Skunk, an effective, nonlethal means intended to disperse disruptions of order, which reduces friction and the chances of injury as much as possible. We will continue to operate resolutely to arrest violent rioters, violators of the law and disrupters of order, and everyone who tries to harm the life of police officers or civilians.”
About three months ago, police forces broke into Walid’s home in the middle of the night by mistake, after blowing up the front door. In a rare instance, the police compensated him for the damage that was done. “Write down that I thanked them. Why should I lie?”
Three days after the Skunk incident, Walid was summoned for interrogation at the police station in the Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem. At first they wanted his father to come in, but Walid explained to the police that his father is old and would have a hard time getting there. The interrogators apparently wanted to know what he thought about recent events in the neighborhood.
What’s the solution, we asked him this week. That’s also what he was asked in room No. 4, the well-known interrogation room in the sprawling Russian Compound. His reply to the interrogators: “You are the government. I don’t want to tell you not to enter my village at all. That’s your job. But the less you enter, the fewer problems there will be. We deserve to live. We live here in suffering. We suffer very, very much, and that must not be. It’s not fair, in my opinion. What we have is not a life. It’s living in shit. There’s no need to punish a neighborhood, a village, homes. We can’t talk with the people in the neighborhood who throw stones – people will say we are collaborators. We are stuck in the middle. We’re being devoured.
“I am one of the first who wants only quiet. Quiet. I don’t want stones to be thrown at the police, and I don’t want the police coming into the neighborhood. I am against both things. We only want to live like human beings. Like human beings. That is our right.”