JERUSALEM (AP) — Murad Mahmoud’s 14-year-old son has been detained by Israeli police in his east Jerusalem neighborhood three times in the last two years. His 10-year-old has been interrogated by police in combat gear. These days, he keeps all six of his children inside most of the time, fearing even worse.
“I won’t even let them go to the corner store,” he says. “I’m not just afraid they’ll be arrested, I’m afraid they’ll lose an eye or get shot in the head.”
Nearly every day for the last nine months Israeli police have stormed into the Palestinian neighborhood of Issawiya in east Jerusalem in a campaign they say is needed to maintain law and order. Rights groups say that in addition to searching houses and issuing fines, they have detained hundreds of people — some as young as 10 — on suspicion of stone-throwing.
The operations frequently ignite clashes, with local youths throwing rocks and firebombs, which police say justifies their heightened presence.
But residents and human rights groups say the raids themselves seem intended to provoke confrontations and have created an atmosphere of terror, with parents afraid to let their children play outside. Last month, a 9-year-old boy was shot in the face by police, losing an eye in an incident authorities say they are still investigating.
It’s unclear what prompted the crackdown, but many residents feel police are making an example out of Issawiya so that Israel can cement its control over east Jerusalem, which it seized in the 1967 war and later annexed.
East Jerusalem Palestinians have Israeli residency, but few have accepted citizenship, either because they don’t recognize Israeli control or because of the long and complicated application process. That has left many feeling vulnerable.
“From May of last year until today, every day they occupy Issawiya all over again,” said Amin Barakat, an optometrist and a member of the neighborhood council.
Issawiya tumbles down a hillside behind Israel’s Hebrew University, just a few miles (kilometers) from the city-center. But like other Arab neighborhoods in east Jerusalem it is overcrowded and poorly served, a legacy of decades of Israeli policies favoring Jewish areas of the city, including east Jerusalem settlements. Under President Donald Trump’s Mideast initiative, which strongly favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians, Issawiya would remain part of Israel’s capital.
The narrow streets wind past walls covered in graffiti supporting Hamas and other armed groups, and residents take pride in their Palestinian identity. But many work in Jewish communities. They say the graffiti is the work of local teenagers, and there’s no evidence any factions have an organized presence in the neighborhood.
The intensive raids began last May, but the situation escalated the following month, when a 20-year-old was shot and killed by police, who said he approached to within a few meters (yards) and launched fireworks at them.
The police say they treat Issawiya like any other Jerusalem neighborhood.
“There’s no use of unnecessary force,” Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. “There’s no unnecessary patrols that are taking place. Everything is carefully calculated based on what is taking place inside Issawiya.”
He said forces have responded to stone-throwing on nearby roads, including a major highway, but he was unable to name any specific act of violence outside of the clashes with police inside Issawiya.
Residents angrily reject any suggestion they pose a threat to others.
“For 19 years I’ve been working with Jews,” said Mahmoud, a construction manager. “They welcome me into their homes. … I have more than a hundred Jewish clients. I only have problems here in my home.”
Rights groups say the raids go far beyond the targeting of individual suspects and amount to collective punishment of the neighborhood’s 20,000 residents.
Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for equal rights in Jerusalem and has closely followed developments in Issawiya, said the operations are “unprecedented in scope and scale,” amounting to a “violent disruption of daily life.”
In addition to sweeping arrest raids, police have set up flying checkpoints that strangle traffic and issued arbitrary fines for minor violations of local ordinances, it said.
“It’s inexplicable and unjustifiable that an entire neighborhood would be targeted” because of individual offenses, said Amy Cohen, a spokeswoman for the group.
Mohammed Abu al-Hummus, the head of Issawiya’s local council, says around 750 people have been detained in the last nine months, with most released after a day or two and many placed under house arrest for days or weeks. He says only around 30 people have been formally charged.
Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said fewer people have been detained and more have been indicted, but did not provide figures.
Rights groups and residents acknowledge that young people respond to the police operations by throwing stones and firebombs. But they say police provoke the violence and many fear the effects it will have on the next generation.
“It’s a long-lasting trauma for them,” said Tal Hassin, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “If you talk with kids, especially the boys, they are big heroes, But it’s only a facade. They don’t sleep at night, they have nightmares.”
Her group has sent formal complaints to the police chief and the attorney general presenting evidence of a campaign of collective punishment and routine violations of Israeli laws governing the treatment of minors. It has not received a response.
Barakat, the optometrist, has seen the effects on his own son, a shy, soft-spoken 15-year-old whose friend was recently arrested. He says his son rarely sleeps longer than three hours at a time and sometimes screams out at night.
“When he sees what happens in the streets he feels anxious. He’s nervous at home, at school — and not just him, the whole generation,” he said.
“He goes to bed at nine. He gets up three hours later and wants water, or he gets up and wants to watch a football game. He’s not even interested in the game, he just wants to sit with his mom and dad.”
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed.