Children under occupation in the Old City in Hebron
17 June 2006
A two-year-old boy runs down a slope to greet us. We call 'Marhaba, habibi' - 'Hi, little one' - and he takes my hand, kisses it and touches it to his forehead, then runs back home again. When we visit families we meet many lively, engaging and intelligent children - all the more now it is the long summer holidays.
Every day during school term we are out on the street in Hebron seeing that the children are getting to school safely. They have so much to contend with, which has become normal for them.
We see them threading their way between concrete blocks and army vehicles at intersections. Little kindergarten kids, with their small bright coloured school bags, dwarfed by army personnel carriers, jeeps and humvees. We see them stopped to go through a cabin with a metal detector. The boys emerge with their belts in their hands, as the buckles set the alarm beeping. The girls, supported by their teachers, have often protested and said they will not go through. Once, the soldiers stopped every child and searched their bags there, as well as making them go through the cabin, so that there was a build-up of 70 boys waiting - and finally getting through late for school.
We see their teachers detained to have their IDs checked for half an hour, or even an hour, although the soldiers recognise them, as they go through every day at the same time.
On Shabbat (Saturday) when the Israeli settler children have no school, settler boys and girls are on the 'settler-only' street. The Palestinian children have to cross this street and run the gauntlet of settler stones thrown at them. Up the street on Tel Rumeida, old established Palestinian families live next to settlers, who moved in the last 25 years. Settlers habitually throw rubbish into their Palestinian neighbours' backyards, cut down, break or poison their grape vines, stop their access to their homes with razor wire, and turn the walk home from school into a daily hazard.
One little girl we met last week was afraid to go home because a soldier had chased her with his gun pointed at her. A boy was beaten up by settlers who wrongly accused him of stealing an air pump. A 7-year-old boy had been in hospital with bad bruising and a broken arm after a beating by settlers. He still has nightmares four months later. Often we are told about soldiers invading people's homes at night. The family is herded into one room while the soldiers either trash the contents of the house, or search for arms, or spend the night on the roof, or make themselves at home inside for several hours. The soldiers have been doing this more often, we have heard, since the Hamas victory in the elections, as they are afraid that even if there were no arms last week, or ever before, there might be now.
There have always been Palestinian street boys who harass us internationals as we come and go from our apartment and up to the market and shops. Everything from calling out for a shekel - or a dollar - , to cries of 'Welcome - f...k you', to blocking our way, grabbing at bottoms, even muggings, taking cameras or cell phones. Recently this seems to have got worse. We realised we needed to take a positive initiative towards them to turn things round. An opportunity arose last week when there was a Christian Peacemaking Team delegation staying here, and so there were fourteen of us, instead of three. We all went along to the park - the one big open space in the Old City - gathering up a following of children, as we went. Then the CPTers spread out and each started different games with a group of them.
There must have been 70 or more children there, and we - and they - all enjoyed it immensely. There have been noticeably more genuine smiles and friendliness since.
Our street - once the lively chicken market - is cut off just past our door by a barrier fence and concrete wall. It is a dead end where few people other than ourselves and our visitors come now. The rooftops opposite are permanently occupied by the Israeli army, and those houses are empty. For some time, boys have been salvaging copper from ancient abandoned TV sets, which they smash up in the street near our door. Then it started to escalate: they stripped wiring from the outsides of the empty buildings. Next they were on the roofs pulling down aerials and iron pipes.
Two days ago we came home to find them throwing the heavy metal window frames, which they had wrenched out of the empty houses, down into the street.
The soldiers on duty on the roof were looking on. The boys told us: 'The soldiers said we can take anything we like'. Our neighbour remonstrated with them, and said she would tell the owner of the house, but one boy asked 'If they want the stuff why don't they come and live here?' The owners, who moved out when the army took over, cannot easily come into the Old City, and don't have access to their houses. Palestinian police cannot operate in this Army controlled area, and Israeli police do not come in here either.
This evening as I write, I hear some loud crashes. Looking out from the balcony, I can just see where a boy is pushing a large square tank (a water tank, maybe) off a roof. They have found a source of good money: 500 shekels from one afternoon's work, we were told. Palestinian Authority funds are still cut off by the US-led international boycott. A quarter of the population depend on these funds. Many families have had no pay since February. People are desperate - any income helps.
Who is putting stumbling blocks in the way of these children, turning some of them from enchanting two-year-olds into tough, street kids a few years later? And are we too part of the problem, living in the midst of them, but not acting effectively to channel all their energy, and initiative in constructive directions? We think of our peacemaking work in terms of the wider conflict - the Israeli Occupation, and violence by settlers and soldiers against the Palestinians. But there is also peacemaking work to be done right here on our doorstep among this exploding population of children.