In East Jerusalem's War on Drugs, Residents Say Police Are on the Wrong Side

As anti-drug activists attempt to combat the flood of cheap drugs, often marketed to children, residents say the police ignore, if not encourage, the problem

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A banner with an anti-drug message in Shoafat refugee camp, December 8, 2019.
A banner with an anti-drug message in Shoafat refugee camp, December 8, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

An unprecedented conference took place Friday in the Shoafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. After prayers, hundreds of men headed into a large hall. Representatives of all the families living in the camp sat up front; on stage stood teens in gold vests bearing a logo of a fist smashing a hypodermic needle.

As dramatic music played in the background, one of the teens read a declaration signed by all the family representatives: “I resolve to put family security above the drug dealers. I resolve to boycott them, to not give them respect, to not invite them to weddings and not to attend their funerals.”

It was the first community gathering of its kind in Shoafat's war on drugs. The speakers included notable camp residents, former addicts, a physician who explained the dangers of the newest generation of drugs and a preacher from Al-Aqsa Mosque. The conference was the climax of a rolling campaign by social activists and local East Jerusalem leaders against drug purveyors. Ahead of the conference, young people organized confrontations with drug dealers, helped commit addicts to rehab centers, and hung anti-drug posters throughout the camp's streets.

The anti-drug conference in Shoafat, December 7, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Residents of East Jerusalem say that there was always a serious drug problem, but now it has become an absolute plague. In almost every neighborhood, residents know where to find the local dealer, where the addicted lay helpless and recount stories of the drug-related violence that erupts periodically.

Many blame the Israel Police and Shin Bet security service. Residents say that the Israeli authorities prefer that the youth of East Jerusalem be busy with drugs rather than firebombs – that drugs are part of the security services' toolbox to maintain quiet in the eastern part of the city.

This isn't a new claim, but it seems that over the past few months the situation has further deteriorated. The East Jerusalem drug market has been flooded with cheap drugs like Nice Guy and Mabsuton, and dealers have started to market the stuff to teens and children. According to a number of East Jerusalem sources, a child can get a dose of Nice Guy for 10 shekels ($2.88) or less. Some dealers give out the first dose for free to hook clients.

Sources in the camp say traffickers will simply drop small baggies of drugs into schoolyards, and tell of a package containing 72 such packets that was found in one of the camp's schools. "Once the traffickers had some shame, they had principles; today, nothing. They sell at school entrances and no one says anything to them," says Nasser Hashan of Shoafat, a leading anti-trafficking activist.

“It’s around 200 meters from my house to school,” he continues. “In that distance my daughter sees an addict strewn on the ground, a drunk, a dealer selling to someone, maybe ten incidents like that.”

Anti-drug activists wore vests showing a fist breaking a needle, Shoafat, December 7, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

“We felt that people were deliberately throwing [drugs] into the schools, they don't care about anything, just sell their quantity and bring more," Mohammed Malham. “The question is who has their back? Who can deal like that in the middle of the street without the police coming?”

Almost all those interviewed say the police ignore, if not encourage, the problem. For example, in the refugee camp, it is widely claimed that drug dealers enjoy unofficial shelter at the checkpoint separating Shoafat from the city. “They sell at the checkpoint and if they see anyone [of the anti-drug activists] approaching, they run to stand next to the border policemen because then they know no one will touch them,” says one of the activists at the camp.

In the Silwan neighborhood, residents claim that dealers photograph kids who buy drugs and give the pictures to police. Police later use the photos to coerce the drug users, who are often minors, into becoming informers for security related matters.

Around a month ago the A-Tur neighborhood held a similar conference of youths and family heads against drugs and drug dealers, but it was forcibly dispersed by the police, who even fired tear gas at attendees. The police reported that they’d broken up the event because of disorderly conduct.

Hundreds attended the anti-drug conference in Shoafat, December 7, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

“It seemed to the public that the police had shown up to help the dealers, like here, where the dealers feel safest near the checkpoint," says Issam Johan, a former addict who has worked many years in rehab and in anti-drug programs in the Palestinian Authority and in East Jerusalem.

“If we catch a drug dealer who is from the West Bank we send him back and the Palestinian police deal with him, but if he is Israeli [meaning an Israeli citizen or a resident of Jerusalem] we can't touch him. He would immediately complain [to security services]," says Omar Elkam, who lives in the refugee camp.

Elkam says that the day before the Shoafat conference there were policemen and municipal inspectors issuing tickets to illegally parked cars. “I went over to them and told them there were drug dealers here, they should deal with them. Ticketing cars is important, but this is more important – but they told me to stay out of it,” he says.

On Sunday three of the organizers of the conference in the refugee camp were summoned for questioning to Room 4, the room of the minorities division and the Shin Bet in Jerusalem Police headquarters. Every resident of East Jerusalem knows that the detectives in Room 4 aren’t interested in drugs, but in terror-related crimes.

An anti-drug banner in Shoafat, December 7, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

“The detective said he wants to help me. I told him that you’re the Shin Bet, your whole head is in security and you are bringing me to Room 4. What does Room 4 have to do with drugs?” says Hashan. “I said if you want to help me, bring me to the unit that deals with drugs.”

On Saturday afternoon, the day after the conference in the refugee camp, activists and young people from Silwan and Abu Tor gathered for a protest event that included a joint lunch in front of the home of the man they claim is the biggest drug dealer in the area. The home is surrounded by no less than 10 security cameras. Drugs have been sold from this house for 25 years, the neighbors say.

“Show me where in West Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv a man would put cameras on his drug den?” asks Khaled Zeir, a Silwan resident. “He knows they won’t do anything to him. If anyone touches him he would come with his weapon and shoot. The police know, everyone knows and no one does anything. Nobody dares touch him.”

According to Silwan residents, minors reported in two cases that during their questioning by police or the Shin Bet, they were shown pictures of themselves buying drugs. The security forces threatened to expose them unless they cooperated.

Young people speak at the conference in Shoafat, December 7, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Bilal Elkam, a refugee camp resident, was addicted to hard drugs for 28 years. He’s been clean for the past four years and works as a counselor at the camp's rehab center. “Heroin withdrawal takes three or four days; with Nice Guy you can have withdrawal symptoms for 25 days. It’s a drug you use once, after that it uses you,” he says.

The recovering addicts in the center, among them Arabs from Israel's north, are blocked from the outside world by two sets of locked doors. But when the doors are opened after long weeks in rehab, re-entering the world is not easy. The rehab center sits on the camp's main street, a 30-second walk from the junction identified as the center of the drug trade. "A man walks out the door and there's immediately there's someone there to give him drugs," says Elkam.

The police said in response: “As part of the ongoing fight against drugs, the police are constantly using overt and covert enforcement, particular against drug manufacturing and trafficking, by exposing, arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators. The police operate regularly throughout Jerusalem and especially in the eastern part of the city. As a result, in the past year alone, a number of agents were planted and dozens of drug dealers were arrested, some of whom were detained until the end of the proceedings."

“With regard to the dispersal of the assembly in Abu Tur," the police said, apparently referring to the anti-drug event broken up by police in A-Tur, "there was a protest there during which a number of rioters started to disrupt public order. In response police had to disperse the rioters in order to allow the protest to take place in a legal, orderly fashion. The Israel Police will continue to allow legal free expression and protest, but will not allow violations of order, disregard for police instructions and disproportionate harm to residents’ daily routine.”

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