A week ago Saturday, Palestinian news sites boiled over. Israel Defense Forces soldiers had arrested a 6-year-old boy from the Jalazun refugee camp in the West Bank, they reported. There is no limit to their evil, web surfers raged.
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The IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, rushed to intervene through his Facebook page. In a post at 8 P.M., he wrote in Arabic that the child had taken part in violent confrontations and even threw stones.
“In contrast to what was written in the Palestinian media, the boy was not arrested but transferred to officers in the District Coordination Office in Ramallah, who called his parents and presented them with the dangerous and violent behavior of their son, along with other children,” wrote Mordechai.
Mordechai attached a black and white video showing the two rather blurry figures of children – one on a high terrace. A red circle surrounds the child on a lower terrace, and he is holding both ends of a slingshot and waving it. The other child is also more skillfully waving a similar sling, which presumably holds a stone. The target of the stones was not in shot, but it’s reasonable to assume it is the regular military position about 200 meters (about 650 feet) below, on the outskirts of the settlement of Beit El.
If the confrontation, to use Mordechai’s terminology, really was more stormy than two children chancing their arm and slinging stones, then the evidence cannot be found anywhere in the video footage released.
The settlement of Beit El is clearly visible in all its glory from the school at the Jalazun refugee camp, situated on the main road.
A high wall has recently been erected along the section of road separating the Jewish community and Palestinian one. But those who leave the crowded camp and its narrow alleys and travel south are unable to miss the abundance of green surrounding the spacious villas and orderly streets of the settlement. Very close and very unattainable.
Strips of orchards, fields and unfarmed land separate the military position from the students of Jalazun. One of them is Ashraf, who will actually only be 6 next month.
Last Monday, it was hard to get the details of Saturday’s events out of him. We met in his grandmother’s apartment, in the heart of the refugee camp. Ashraf’s eyes, surrounded by long lashes, displayed curiosity, but for the first 30 minutes he didn’t utter a word. He skipped from the chair to the sofa and then to another armchair, crawled under a low table and covered his face with his tiny hands, while he was listening/not listening to the adult conversation.
He is still scared, explained his father. He wakes up at night, refuses to go to school where he’s a first-grader, speaks very little. His non-arrest frightened him a lot.
His father, who says his family originates from the village of Al-Abbasiyya, related the story: With no school on Saturday, Ashraf had come to his little store on the main road that separates the refugee camp and Beit El. Suddenly, around noon, he noticed his son had disappeared. He hadn’t even had time to worry when a few children came running and told him that soldiers had taken Ashraf.
As he left the store, he managed to see an armed soldier carrying his son on his back – “like a sack of flour,” as it was later described on social media. The older children had managed to run away from the armed soldiers pursuing them; only Ashraf hadn’t managed to get away and was caught.
Initially, his father told me there was no way his son would have thrown stones – he was too small. But then he himself showed me the video on Mordechai’s Facebook page with the figure in the light hoodie swinging the slingshot. He identified the blurry figure as his son.
According to Ashraf, the soldier who caught him hit him in the neck and also kicked him, but then he wasn’t hit anymore.
The father immediately called his wife and together they went down the terraces to the military position at the outskirts of Beit El. The soldiers threw stun grenades at them but the couple didn’t stop, continuing to walk toward them. “How could we not? It’s our son,” explained the father.
“We want our son,” they told the four soldiers they found at the post. His wife spoke to them in English.
“First get rid of the stone throwers above,” said the soldiers. “Then we’ll talk to you.” They all spoke in a mixture of English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The father yelled at the children to leave, and then the soldiers ever-so-kindly confirmed that their boy was inside the jeep.
The parents saw settler children gathering around the jeep and were afraid they would attack Ashraf. But the soldiers didn’t allow them to approach him. The little boy didn’t even know his parents were right next to him.
The soldiers refused to let the boy go. “You’ll get him back from the Palestinian Liaison Committee,” they said. The parents climbed back up the hill to the road. From there, the father drove to the District Coordination Office and waited for his son to be returned.
A while later, a car belonging to the Palestinian committee arrived. Israeli officers from the District Coordination Office handed the boy over to Palestinian officers, and they returned him to his father. “The moment Ashraf saw me, he began to cry,” the father related. An Israeli officer came to the father and told him to tell his son to stop throwing stones. “He’s small, he doesn’t throw stones,” the father replied, but the officer said they had photographs showing his son doing so.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz that “the claims raised in this article are not consistent with the reality. This is a 6-year-old boy who took part in a violent disturbance last Saturday in Jalazun. In addition, contrary to the claims, at no point was he subjected to violence and he wasn’t arrested by an IDF force. Soldiers removed the boy from the protest and summoned his parents, who arrived to pick up their child within the hour.”
The father was surprised to hear the army’s version of events. The army did not “summon the parents” and neither was he returned to them within the hour. He remembers that it was already dusk when his son was returned, and that at least five hours had passed until he was returned after the non-arrest.
The father recounts that his son was held in the military jeep for two or three hours, and waited around the same amount of time at the District Coordination Office. As far as Palestinians are concerned, when armed soldiers detain or catch a child for several hours, it is an arrest even if it doesn’t lead to an indictment.
The final line of the COGAT Facebook post adopts the tone of the super-pedagogue: “We appeal to the parents who expose their children to danger and send them to provoke Israeli soldiers – your children’s place should be in playing fields and in school, not at violent protests.”
But it’s hard to find room for a playing field in Jalazun. The refugee camp covers 253 dunams (about 62 acres) and is home to some 13,000 residents from 36 destroyed villages, mainly from around Lydda and Ramle, as well as Haifa and West Hebron. The estimated population density is 51,000 people per square kilometer. In the neighboring settlement of Beit El, the population density is 4,023 people per square kilometer. It spreads over 1,480 dunams and is home to some 6,500 residents.
The destroyed village of Al-Abbasiyya from where the father’s family originates was about 20,500 dunams, of which 17,500 were owned by Arabs and 1,135 by Jews. The rest was public land. In 1944, 5,650 Arab residents and 150 Jews lived there. Today, it is called Yehud.
Ashraf didn’t like to talk much, so there was no point trying to find out what he knew beyond the green color that characterizes the neighboring settlement and the permanent presence of the soldiers guarding it, or the military jeeps that lie in wait for the students as they leave school.
There was no opportunity to find out when he had smelled tear gas for the first time in his life, or been awoken by the sound of stun grenades, or why he was throwing stones that didn’t reach the soldiers guarding the green pastures.
Ashraf has returned to school, his father said on Thursday, but he still wakes up afraid every night.