Stones and security in Abu Tor

As we say our goodbyes to friends who have visited us, my husband always tells them – don’t go down the hill, go up the hill to leave Abu Tor. This started after just a few too many incidents of stones thrown at our friends’ cars when they did go down, winding through the Palestinian part of this Jewish-Arab neighborhood along the seam line between East and West Jerusalem.

The first was when my sister and her family came to visit us. They set off to go touring in Jerusalem, all the cousins giddy about their first day together, only to be back seven minutes later with a shattered car window and sobered spirits. “There was a group of kids walking along,” my sister explained, “and as we drove by, they looked at us and then threw a stone through the window.”  No one was physically hurt, just grimly reminded that Jerusalem can be complicated.

Since then I know my husband is not really wrong to assiduously direct our visitors up, only up. Better safe, than sorry. And I have learned it is not “just” a Jewish-Arab issue, as Arab friends have also told me that they sometimes fear going deep into some of the neighborhoods further down, where there are apparently tough issues of drugs and violence. 

But I hate that it feels like it reinforces fear, given how much fear is also being manipulated in the current political climate against Arabs. For every one stone thrown at a car on our street, tens of thousands of Jews and Arabs have also passed each other, uneventfully going about their daily business.  Nothing newsworthy.  Just regular life.   

Police often take up a stand somewhere along our street. Sometimes they position themselves down the block, just before the street curves into Arab Abu Tor, tucking themselves back into an overgrown driveway.  Sometimes they wait at the top of the block, where the road splits into two other side streets.  Sometimes they wait at the midpoint, not far from where we live, perhaps even with their car in the middle of the street so that all the passing traffic is detained. 

I see them checking IDs, asking questions.  I have only ever seen them stop Arabs, usually young and working-age men.  I presume this is meant to help prevent these stone-throwing and other violent incidents.  But those who are stopped and checked while walking down the street are doing just that – walking down the street into Arab Abu Tor.  Maybe heading home.  Or off to run an errand.  Who knows?

I may see – but not be stopped by – the police checks as I leave home, or as I return home. At night, if the police are parked in a certain spot down below, we might see the flashing police lights on our apartment walls.  When our windows and doors are all wide open to catch a cooling breeze on a hot summer night, we may even hear the voices of the police who stand there, as they chat, joke, check someone.  It’s not every day.  Weeks may go by that I don’t see police there.  But they always reappear. 

My friend Aida, who is Arab and lives in the Arab part of the neighborhood, tells me her father knows their exact shifts and at what hours he is most likely to be stopped. He heads one of the city’s health clinics. Aida’s mother is a lawyer. They are secular in outward appearance. They send their children to the bilingual Jewish-Arab school Hand in Hand. What about their appearance or behavior might raise police concerns? They too are checked regularly.    

One time the babysitter, a woman from a Haredi background, told me that when she and our three children, then around ages 6, 5 and 2, had walked home that day there had been police checking those who passed by. “Why don’t they ever stop us?” asked the kids. “I told them that it was because they are kids,” the babysitter said, visibly uncomfortable with something that felt both understandable but also, somehow, unfair. “I didn’t know how else to explain it.” 

Of course the police conduct these checks for security reasons. Especially during times of tension in Jerusalem, there are often increased incidents in our neighborhood – stones thrown through our neighbors’ car windows a number of times; once a Molotov cocktail was thrown onto the porch of our neighbor downstairs; another time one was thrown on the porch of the neighbor across the street. 

With each incident Jewish neighbors react with varying degrees of frustration, fear, anger and hopelessness. “What messages are they taught at home and at school?” ask some, seeking to understand. “They are celebrated at home! They should stop complaining about ‘price tag’ attacks. Kahane was right,” others declare. 

I also wonder what lessons they – that is, the Palestinian youth or young men who have likely thrown the stones or Molotov cocktails – have taken from home, school, and from the streets where they have grown up? In explaining Israel to outsiders, I always hear people (surely myself included) start their explanation with – “well, it’s so complicated.” But I have come to understand that for the Palestinian side there is also a more complex context, whose fuller picture is needed to answer this question. 

If streets could talk

Consider the lessons of the neighborhood’s street signs.  One that greets you as you enter and leave the neighborhood explains about the battles of the Six Day War in 1967 between Israeli and Jordanian forces, and the “occupation” and “cleansing” of Abu Tor.  Opposite that sign is the street Gdud 68, Battalion 68, named to honor the troops who did battle in the 1973 war.  As Naomi Street, the main entry road to the neighborhood, winds its way from the Jewish into the Arab part of Abu Tor its name changes to: Hamefaked, The Commander.  These are the streets that these same youth live, play ball, and walk to school on. 

Yes, those who give names also chose to call the forest in the valley alongside Abu Tor the “Peace Forest”.  But there is a bitter-sharp dissonance that puts these names at odds with each other, the former giving a message of domination that can only alienate, anger and incite, squelching whatever aspirational symbolism is intended by the Peace Forest.

What lessons come from school?  That assumes that all have access to schools, and decent ones at that.  A crisis-level shortage of classrooms means in East Jerusalem that there are some 2,000 fewer classrooms than are needed, exacerbated by a drastic shortage of teachers

Add to this shocking poverty levels, with 83.4% of the children in East Jerusalem living below the poverty line. A shortage of both jobs and social services, makes it an almost Sisyphean effort to counter the negative effects of poverty or help create paths of mobility into better lives. 

In many ways these conditions are strikingly familiar, as they are the challenges of harsh urban poverty in big cities worldwide. But here the well-known challenges of urban poverty intersect with the bitterness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and East-West Jerusalem tensions. 

Reports from journalists and human rights organizations give accounts of police coming to East Jerusalem homes in the middle of the night, arresting children as young as 12 whom they suspect of throwing stones, taking them from their beds to prison.  There the protective measures in place for minors seem to be all-too-often disregarded with regard to their detention conditions, the interrogation, lack of access to parents or proper counsel. 

The children’s parents, I read, may know nothing at all of the whereabouts or wellbeing of their children.  I imagine their frantic fear. 

I get my own small taste of these fears one afternoon at work, when I get a teary gasping phone call from my younger son. He was on his way home from school and a block away from the house, but is now terrified to go any further.  I force my voice to remain calm as I try to discern what had happened to scare him so much, and if he had been hurt, tense with fears of the worst. 

A white van came screeching around the corner, he explains breathlessly.  Men in black masks, only their eyes showing…  He could see their gaze on him as he stared at them while they rushed by…  No, they didn’t stop…  No, no one did anything to him.  “But maybe they will come back and do something to me as I walk home,” he ends in petrified whisper.    

Later a friend who is in the army told us it was probably, in fact, our own security forces heading in to conduct a security operation in Abu Tor.  I remembered the large white vans I had seen on a few occasions at the parking lot of the nearby First Station, and the dozens of military police, busy, focused, preparing for some action, presumably in one of East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods – could it be ours, just down the hill in the Palestinian part of Abu Tor? 

The police are worried about security.  Perhaps we can dismiss the fears of an 8-year old who does not understand the complexities of war, and need not be scared of those who are here to protect him.  But can Jewish security and wellbeing be achieved without considering Arab security and wellbeing at the same time?  Is cracking down the answer, or also building up community relations, and seeing that all benefit from the advantages of public safety and equal decent conditions?  These factors play a security role even without a more systemic political solution to the conflict. 

“I am so used to the police stopping us all the time,” explains Aida.  “There is only one time I felt the police were there to protect me.  That was when arsonists burnt our [joint Jewish-Arab] school in 2014.  The morning after the fire we got to school, and there were police and I was relieved to see them. It made me feel safer. But it also felt strange that this was the first time that I have felt protected by them.” 

Can even the most well-intentioned parent really counter all this alone?  And can police checks alone really create greater security if we fail to look at the broader array of harsh factors in this tit-for-tat-for- tit-for-tat whirlwind we all live in? 

This is the third in a series of articles about living in Abu Tor. 

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach has worked on migration, conflict and development issues for thirty years, integrating policy, practice and people-oriented perspectives. For the last decade she has worked on building Jewish-Arab shared society in Israel, and is currently writing a book. She is a Schusterman Senior Fellow and holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.
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