Open Zion

04.09.13

Rock Throwing On Palestinian Children's Day

“Come here,” a young boy beckoned to me in Arabic. I followed him to a pile of rubble at the foot of the wall—the concrete separation barrier, 14-feet tall here, that divides the West Bank from Israel, which Israelis can cross freely but most Palestinians can't. The boy picked up a jagged stone, placed it into a makeshift slingshot and started whipping it around, making it gain momentum. He launched the stone towards the two Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers guarding the nearby checkpoint.

The stones can cause serious injuries and even death, particularly when thrown at cars and causing accidents. But, this time, as is usually the case, they missed the mark. Instead of hitting the soldiers, the stone ricocheted off of the Wall. The soldiers immediately responded by firing teargas canisters and chasing the children—mostly young Palestinian boys, colloquially known as shabaab, or youth—away with a billowing cloud of noxious chemical fumes at the mercy of the wind.

The occasion last Friday was Palestinian Children’s Day—a day to commemorate the enormous youth population of Palestine, and acknowledge the struggle of Palestinian children under Israeli occupation. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), children under the age of 18 make up almost half of the population ofthe West Bank and Gaza. Statistically, 20 percent of them—and 40 percent of the males—will be arrested, detained and likely imprisoned. For some, this process has already begun: as of January 1, 2013 there were 193 Palestinian children in prison with 26 under the age of 16. “They will arrest them for anything, even just standing there,” Ahmad Qareen of the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan told me.

Since 2000, over 8,000 Palestinians under the age of 18 have been arrested by the Israeli authorities—most of them were charged with stone throwing, which, under Israeli military law, can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. According to Qareen, even Palestinian children who were not throwing stones can be arrested merely by being present at a site where others were throwing stones. They are arrested, detained, interrogated, and often punished if they refuse or cannot give information on who was throwing the rocks.

In Silwan, an East Jerusalem neighborhood located just south of Jerusalem’s Old City, the problem of child arrests is particularly acute. Since Silwan is also home to the controversial City of David tourist attraction and the Ir David Israeli settlement, the streets are heavily policed with both IDF soldiers and Israeli policemen to protect the settlers. One child, Muslim Odeh, has been arrested 14 times. He is only 14-years-old.

Many young Palestinian children frequently find themselves in the streets—either taking part in or at the scene of stone throwing—because of limited access to schools and education. In the case of Silwan, partially due to the aggressive presence of Israeli settlers removing Palestinian infrastructure, there is only one high school for thousands of school-aged children. Families with money can afford to send their children away to expensive private schools. However, many children are unable to attend these schools and instead find themselves either at home or killing time in the heavily policed streets of Silwan where it seems only a matter of time before they are arrested and detained.

An arrest record can bear many consequences for a young Palestinian. “If they see you have been arrested, it can be very difficult to get into a University,” a young woman named Sundous, who preferred not to give her last name, told me. “It can also make it very difficult to get a permit to travel in Israel,” she mentioned.

For West Bank ID holders, travel permits to Israel facilitate travel beyond the West Bank; Tel Aviv's airport is the closes hub for international travel. If one has been arrested at any point in their life, the Israeli authorities are far more likely to categorize them as a “security threat,” shattering many dreams of travelling or being educated abroad.

However, despite the predictable, seemingly fruitless cycle of throwing stones and then being tear-gassed or, sometimes, shot with rubber-coated steel bullets—and the very grave consequences of arrest and detention that can have a devastating impact on a young person’s future—many Palestinians remain undeterred. One friend, Mohammad who preferred not to give his last name, told me about when his family decided to move back to Palestine from Jordan. “We were so excited to move back and resist the occupation—throwing stones everyday,” he told me. 

Mohammad was later injured when a soldier shot him in the leg during a clash shortly after his family moved back. Still, like so many, he still throws rocks. “We don’t have a lot here,” he said. “Throwing stones is something that we have.”