Opinion

What Are the Police Looking for in Isawiyah?

Israel policemen operate in the Est Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, August 2019.
Emil Salman

“That’s how it is with Isawiyah … it’s my first love,” says policeman Assaf Ovadia, a little smile on his face and a film of sentimentality in his eyes. “This is the first village I was given responsibility for.” That is the start of the hunt for the weapons presumably smuggled by a “terrorist” in the first episode of the fake documentary series “Jerusalem District.” This is the series that was removed from the screen and the network after Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson revealed that the highly praised district policemen had planted the weapon in the home of an Isawiyah resident for the drama.

The series was buried, the producer apologized to the Kan TV station and the audience (but not to the Palestinian whose home was raided in the middle of the night, his children violently awakened to be unwitting extras in the Israeli entertainment industry). But the policemen of the Jerusalem District continue to screw Isawiyah.

Yes, the police screw Isawiyah. There’s no other way to describe the hell in which the residents of the neighborhood that borders on the Hebrew University fortress of concrete and imperviousness on Mount Scopus have been living for almost five months. There have been 150 days and nights of raids by Yasam (Israel’s SWAT team) and the Border Police, checkpoints on the streets, stun grenades, bullets, one dead and dozens of wounded, hundreds of detentions and arrests, beatings, reports, fines, shouting on megaphones, wailing sirens day and night, blue flashes, screaming and sobbing.

The situation in Isawiyah has become a police TV series – or perhaps a training area for Yasam and the Border Police. You have to be there, in the steep and narrow streets, between the stores and the places of business, the houses and the schools and the soccer field, in order to understand the intensity of the fear and the absurdity, when a little girl squeezes between flashing police vans and Yasam thugs armed to the teeth, on her way to the grocery store. A woman with an infant in her arms looks out the window while downstairs the policemen are waving fists and cudgels at the entrance to the building.

Border Police officers patrolling East Jerusalem's Isawiyah neighborhood in August 2019.
Emil Salman

Young men and women who have just finished basic training burst out of the armored vehicle, block the crawling traffic on the main street and aim their weapons in all directions. They are scared, lose control, toss stun grenades, get hit by a rock, retreat, run up some alley between the customers in the stores and the bus that is stuck on the incline and the crowded apartment houses that border on a road without a sidewalk.

Everyone who has joined us for the night shifts designed to restrain, or at least to document, the unruly behavior of the police in Isawiyah, discovers that the pattern repeats itself. For example, on a routine evening, the traffic crawls down the main street near the mosque. Suddenly five police vans arrive one after another. The members of Yasam and the Border Police, all of them very young, jump out and block the traffic. The usual chaos begins, shouts of protest by the passersby in the mosque square.

A shot is heard, glass shatters, screams in all directions. One of the policemen aimed into the front windshield of a car that was stuck in the traffic jam. The woman inside was wounded by splinters of glass in her eyes, the little girl in back is frozen, white as a sheet. Someone tries to administer first aid, an elderly man asks the policemen to allow an ambulance to arrive, they push him rudely. People around him try to protect him: Don’t touch him, they shout, it’s the mukhtar, don’t touch him.

Suddenly an authoritative voice is heard over the megaphone. The commander of Yasam Jerusalem has come in person to impose order. Later that night I saw him again, twice. Each time he shows up like a deus ex machina to control the tension, as they say, after the interns in the field have created deliberate conflict and lost control.

For months already, every time the police propose an “agreement” or when there’s simply a quiet day, and the residents think that life has returned to normal, a Yasam force arrives and Isawiyah is hit even harder. That’s what happened on Shabbat. One of the activists on the shift said: “We heard a commander saying to the policemen: ‘Get them out of here.’ They came to us. A policeman said: ‘Move away from here because the vehicle has to turn around.’ We moved as asked. Then a resident started to call out to the policemen that they can’t enter his private territory, and without any other reason the police attacked him with terrible violence.”

Palestinian girls walk by Israeli police officers in the Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah, on Friday, November 8, 2019.
Free Jerusalem

According to the activist’s description, additional policemen joined the attackers and beat other residents in the street. When a neighborhood resident tried to shout at them to stop, he was also attacked. Police fired stun grenades, and apparently sponge-tipped bullets too. At one point the police turned to the Israeli activists: On the one hand they told them to “get out of here,” and at the same time they surrounded them and prevented them from leaving.

According to the description, neighbors brought the activists to the stairwell of the nearest house. A policeman fired tear gas at the entrance to the stairwell, and the space filled up with gas. People who found themselves on the street also began to come to this stairwell – young girls, frightened parents with their children, some of them babies, and people injured by pepper gas from the events in the street, with teams of paramedics.

The abuse in Isawiyah is varied, creative, tireless: A 5-year-old boy is summoned for questioning in police headquarters, a fine of thousands of shekels for a cigarette butt tossed on the sidewalk, and “agreements” that the police initiate and violate time after time.

When the parents’ committee announced a school strike, after the police raided the school and arrested a student in the middle of classes, a member of the committee was arrested, etc. etc.

There ‘s no end and no explanation, except for the frightening logic that there are things which are easier and more convenient to do when the country has no elected government and the police force has no commissioner, and even the Supreme Court mainly provides a seal of approval for the abuse by law enforcement bodies upon subjects without rights.

The writer is an author.