The recent legislation is a form of collective punishment towards Jerusalem and its youth, rights groups say
Jerusalem – Walking towards Jerusalem’s Old City, it has become an ordinary sight to witness Israeli soldiers patting down several Palestinian teenagers simultaneously; hands pressed up against the wall, heads facing forward, and legs spread.
Thanks to a recent legislation, passed by the Israeli government in February, the ‘ stop-and-frisk law ‘ allows Israeli soldiers to body search any passer-by “regardless of behaviour, in a location that is thought to be a target for hostile destructive actions”.
“It is blatant racism. Anyone that merely looks Arab – and apparently Israelis know what Arabs look like – is taken to the side,” Jamil Freij, Palestinian resident of Jerusalem told Al Jazeera. Freij, 26, who works in the Old City, says the “unbelievable” number of Israeli forces deployed has made him extremely unsettled.
“They’re crazy. They would shoot me – just like that. All they need is a glimpse of doubt.”
The Old City falls within Occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel invaded during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]
Since the start of the uprising in October, fear and paranoia have come to characterise the city’s atmosphere, particularly at Damascus Gate, a vulnerable scene in the conflict.
Tens of heavily armed Israeli soldiers, with their fingers on the trigger in a show of force and power, are concentrated at strategic points at the entrance of the gate, a regular hangout spot for young Palestinian men.
“We have a problem now; young men who have no intention to fight in that manner start to become conscious in front of the army. When I’m walking, I start thinking about not making any sudden movements in front of the soldiers – for example, if I shriek about forgetting something at home,” said Freij.
The police see Palestinians as a threat. The way they treat them is not to safeguard the security of the Palestinians. It is a treatment between the occupation forces and a people under occupation.
The past eight months of sporadic alleged attacks by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers and settlers have been met with a forceful crackdown in the form of point-blank shootings at alleged attackers and unarmed protesters, military checkpoints, body searching and a heavy deployment of troops throughout the city.
According to the law, soldiers can inspect any individual, in specific locations, without having to answer for their actions. This has resulted in what rights groups describe as “openly racist” treatment towards Palestinians who are being body searched, sometimes aggressively, based solely on their appearance.
“Any Palestinian who is passing by is subject to being searched. Israeli soldiers would make them stand from between 15 minutes to an hour. It is not just that they search them – but the way they are being searched is humiliating,” said Nisreen Allayan, the lawyer for the East Jerusalem project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“They always make them lift their arms and open their legs. Sometimes they make them unbutton their pants and lift up their shirts in the middle of the street. They also make them stand on the side for a while even after they’re done searching them,” said Allayan, describing the way young Palestinian men are being inspected.
A previous version of the bill allowed soldiers to inspect individuals only if they had enough reason based on behaviour and actions, to suspect them of potentially carrying out an attack. Accordingly, they would be taken to a police station for inspection rather than be humiliated on the street. Allayan believes the new legislation is a form of collective punishment towards Jerusalem and its youth.
Although the government has not disclosed the areas in which the law is being applied, Allayan says it clearly targets Damascus Gate, particularly due to the several attacks carried out against Israeli soldiers there.
Approximately 300,000 Palestinians live under Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]
Despite being heavily armed, Israeli soldiers have been seen responding to threats of alleged attacks with “excessive force,” as the United Nations pointed out in a recent report.
A horrific video filmed by Al Jazeera at Damascus Gate in February showed Israeli forces firing a hail of bullets into a 20-year-old Palestinian that allegedly attacked two Israeli border police with a knife, even after he was clearly dead and posed no threat.
“Any movement that occurs in the wrong place at the wrong time – on impulse – can be interpreted wrongly and can be lead to the trigger being pulled, especially as there is encouragement from a national aspect,” said Issam Jweihan, director of the Awareness Center at the al-Maqdese for Society Development NGO, an organisation that works to protect and defend Palestinian rights particularly in Jerusalem.
In March, another incident of disproportionate force was caught on camera when 19-year-old Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was filmed executing a disarmed Palestinian man who was lying wounded on the ground, although he appeared to pose no threat after allegedly conducting a stabbing attack.
Azaria was charged with manslaughter after the episode, which took place in Hebron. Consequently, thousands of Israelis took to Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on April 19 to rally in support of Azaria shouting, “He’s a hero”.
According to Jweihan, the show of force is used to send a message to Palestinians: “You are Arabs and you are all suspects”.
Majd Zughayar, another young Palestinian man residing in Jerusalem, says he stopped going to the Old City as much due to the militarisation of the space. ” Whenever I walk past the soldiers, I subconsciously start to expose my hands more to show that there’s nothing in them,” said Zughayar.
Before the legislation was passed, several opposition members in the Israeli Knesset expressed their reservations about the racism the law would arouse against ‘weakened groups’, and the ”free reign’ it would give the police.
“Today, they hear a person speaking Arabic on the phone, they swarm around him or her in seconds and that person has reason to fear for their life,” said Allayan.
Over time, Jweihan, who works with many Palestinian youths, believes the constant body searches, which are often violent and degrading, can lead to psychological problems for Palestinian youth – especially young men – as it strips away from their masculinity.
“A young man’s behaviour may become violent towards those that are weaker than him, for example, his wife or kids. It can also lead them to take drugs.”
Those who do try to resist inspection can be arrested on the basis of trying to stop a soldier from carrying out their duty, or on accusations of trying to assault a soldier, despite not carrying any weapons. Jweihan says they have come across tens of cases in which unarmed men who tried to resist ended up being arrested.
“He has two choices. Either he remains silent and surrenders to all the provocation, or he could get arrested if he tried to fight back,” said Jweihan.
Despite the veneer of control, the fact that Israel is left unquestioned about its constant surveillance and dehumanisation of Palestinians under the pretext of security is a serious issue, according to rights groups.
“The police see Palestinians as a threat,” said Allayan. “The way they treat them is not to safeguard the security of the Palestinians. It is a treatment between the occupation forces and a people under occupation.”