Border Police, Hebron's Substitute for Summer Camp Counselors

Palestinian kids try to make the most of their summer vacation under the supervision of Israeli troops.

Some children were standing near the fence, watching families in the garden on the other side barbecuing meat. That grassy area, located in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, looks like a public place; but it's open to Jews only. The Palestinian children who live across the way and whose homes overlook the park are forbidden to enter.

One day last week, when we were visiting and the youngsters were pressing their noses to the fence, an armed Border Policeman arrived on the scene. "Go home - scat," the policeman ordered, pushing them away.

But the kids had nowhere to go. It's summer, vacation time, and there's nothing in their homes. They're not allowed to be on the street, they're not allowed to enter the park, they've never even heard of day camp and they've never seen a swimming pool or the beach.

This particular morning they had already rummaged about in the stinking dumpster at the entrance to the Israel Police station in front of the tomb. Afterward they crowded in line for hours at the offices of the local Islamic charity, which distributes food to the needy during the month of Ramadan. Sometimes they return from there empty-handed.

The children say that sometimes the Border Police use force to chase them away from the garbage dumpster. Sometimes the officers toss a half-empty bag of chocolate milk into the air, and whoever catches it can keep it. Sometimes the leftover chocolate milk spills onto their stained and ragged clothes. Sometimes the children get a sip of chocolate milk. The Border Police find that amusing.

On June 29 two Border Police were filmed by a camera belonging to the B'Tselem human rights organization, hitting and kicking Abed a-Rahman Burkan, a boy of 9, whom we also met this week. The children say that the beatings and kicks are a matter of routine; on June 29 the camera just happened to record them.

The children's parents moved here because here, you can live free of charge. With the assistance of the Spanish government, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee for the Old City recently renovated a small percentage of the old stone houses whose residents fled. Israel is allowing the renovation of only a few of the houses, those that were not abandoned entirely. And the committee called on Palestinian families to move into them.

Every year tens of thousands of righteous Israelis make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Most ignore the gangs of children who come up to them with a plea for a shekel, a cigarette, chewing gum, leftover cola or any other donation.

This week we were walking late in the morning along the street leading to the tomb, when suddenly a shout was heard from the Border Policeman at the Abed checkpoint, who had identified two suspicious objects: Manal al-Jaabari and Musa Abu Hashhash, B'Tselem field researchers, were walking with us on a route that is permitted to Jews only. We were forced to heed the officer's call, and retrace our steps so that we could switch to the path designated for Palestinians, which is separated by a low concrete fence from the Jews' path.

An officer slapped me on Monday morning, hit me." We are welcomed in broken Hebrew by a child, Nabil Ragbi, 12. His face is scarred with pus-filled wounds, his head is also scarred. He is dressed in filthy rags. His father, Nader, is loading construction debris onto his donkey cart.

Nader used to have three horses, who died one after another, "Not because of the Jews, because of Allah," he emphasizes with a smile. And recently he has been forced to make do with a donkey, which he bought in the city for NIS 200. He tries to support his wife and six children by transporting goods from the checkpoint, into a neighborhood that Palestinian vehicles are forbidden to enter. Settler and military vehicles are allowed to travel there. About a year ago he moved here, this morning he already delivered a sofa. During the summer vacation all the neighborhood children help him.

'Everything is Jews'

We ascend to the family's stone house, accompanied by the gang of children: Mohammed Rajmi, 13, his brothers Ala, 14, Wajia, 10, Ali, 9 and their friends. Their voices are chirpy, their bodies are skinny. They all speak Hebrew to some degree or other. "There's no food in the house," says Nabil, "there's no food in the house." He'll repeat this sentence again and again. And again a description of what happened to them on Monday, in Nabil's broken Hebrew.

"There's an officer here ... little Jews ... hit me. It's like that every day." The children hasten to show their scars. Wajia exposes a scar on his foot: "Jews are hit me." Another shows a scar on his neck.

The children apparently taunt the Border Police, and the officers pay them back. Sometimes the children also violate local laws, as we saw when they leaned on the fence of the Jews' park, which is forbidden. They also lust after the policemen's food. "Isn't it haram (forbidden ), all the food that they throw away and don't give us?" And they all know how to quote the Border Police officers' curses, which are not for publication.

They also say that sometimes the Border Police send them to buy cigarettes, and if they refuse, the police hit them. Nabil: "A soldier says to me: Bring me cigarettes. A soldier hits me. There's no food in the house, there's nothing."

Ali Rajmi adds: "We're small here. Everything is Jews. Give us only half an hour in the park and take all your lawn for yourself."

Nader returns meanwhile from another trip on the cart in return for a few pennies. His wife traveled to the hospital on Tuesday to inoculate their baby daughter. Down the street a Border Policeman uses his cell phone to photograph a group of children who cursed him, and threatens to arrest them. The Tomb of the Patriarchs park can be seen from the window, as can the settlers' poster: "We paid. We bought. It's ours."

Nader says that that morning, on the food line in the offices of the Islamic charitable organization, a fistfight broke out. He suffered a blow and blood flowed from his nose to his mouth. For him that meant that he had broken the Ramadan fast and therefore he now offers us coffee and joins us.

We go on a tour of the house's two floors. Almost all the rooms are empty and renovated. In the bedroom there is a double bed and even a chest of drawers, but there is no mattress. The children's room is completely bare, the thin night mattresses are rolled up on the side.

A life devastated

We return to the street and walk via dark, renovated stone tunnels to the house of Amar Burkan. The ascent on the old stone steps is high and difficult. On the first floor there's an abandoned room with piles of garbage, which is the source of the stench in the house. In his room, on the second floor, Burkan is lying on a thin mattress placed on the floor, with a standing fan near his face and an old television flickering in front of him.

Burkan used to be a truck driver, but about a year ago he was seriously injured in a traffic incident near the town of Yatta; one leg was amputated and the other was twisted beyond recognition. Since losing his source of income he lives here, a place that is rent-free. Only once or twice a week he crawls on his hands down the frightening stairs, and goes out to the street for a moment. A rickety electric wheelchair stands near his head, but the motor is broken and there's nobody to fix it. What bothers him most is the fact that that he can't go down to the mosque to pray.

The bearded Burkan is wearing a faded white T-shirt: "Continuing to live together. A nonprofit organization that supports terror victims," is the Hebrew inscription. Until we came Burkan didn't know what the inscription meant. He bought the used shirt for one shekel in the Hebron market place. He is 41, the father of 10 children. His family depends on the food from the charitable organization and on a few shekels that the children beg for on the street from the Jews who come to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Burkan is the father of the boy, Abed a-Rahman, who can be seen on the B'Tselem video lying on the floor crying as the Border Police hit and kick him. Now the child is sleeping in the next room. Later he will wake up and join us, and his face will turn colors when we ask him to tell us what happened. The soldiers ambushed the children, who apparently had cursed them earlier. They grabbed Abed a-Rahman and hit him. The video clip is hard to watch. The boy's older brother works in the Hebron market, helping people carry their baskets for one shekel.

A cart harnessed to a donkey passes in the street, followed by a large gang of children. Nader has another job transporting construction debris, and the neighborhood children run after the donkey in order to help unload the sacks of debris in the nearby lot. A large cloud of dust rises around the wagon and the children.

The Border Police says its commander has ordered an investigation into the beating of Abed a-Rahman. "It is important to note that this is a rare incident which does not represent the actions of the Border Police in Israel. The Border Police denounces the policemen's behavior, which contrasts the values of the force."

Palestinian children near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Nir Kafri