Photo courtesy of Sahar Abbasi Baidon
"They left me in the room for five hours with my hands tied behind my back and my legs tied to each other. When I refused to confess, they slapped me and tightened the hand ties more and more." -15-year-old Palestinian.
Sahar Abbasi Baidon is a children’s rights activist in East Jerusalem and the deputy director of the Madaa Silwan Creative Center. She has been touring the United States with an exhibition that is a mix of staged photos and actual pictures depicting the violations of Palestinian children’s rights in East Jerusalem, and features written testimonies from the children themselves. Photos also document life in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, where “administrative demolitions” leave families homeless, violent attacks by Israeli settlers are common, and hundreds—including children as young as six and many, many teenagers—are routinely arrested, beaten and tortured by Israeli police.
A Silwan native, Baidon has dedicated herself to improving life for children and women. Working directly with children who are arrested, her interviews and research are the basis for her exhibit. During a recent visit to Madison, Wisconsin, Baidon spoke with me about conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. Even informed Americans, she told me, lack knowledge of the plight of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.
“We are suffering from occupation and illegal settlement,” says Baidon, “We are being forced into segregated Palestinian neighborhoods.” But Baidon’s biggest concern is children who are picked up by Israeli soldiers and suffer extreme violence.
“There are different reasons why children are picked up,” says Baidon. “It can be for throwing stones, gathering information or simply to intimidate other family members.”
An Israeli law protecting the rights of the youth is flouted regularly. “Israeli security knows the impact of targeting children,” she says, and their techniques includes torture, and physical and psychological abuse. In addition, fines for these offenses can be a huge financial burden on the children’s families. “Keep in mind that 70 percent of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line,” she says. “Palestinian children are released from custody often only after their parents pay a huge fine. Who can afford it?”
A Human Rights Watch report from July backs up Baidon’s assertions. “Israeli security forces have used unnecessary force to arrest or detain Palestinian children as young as eleven,” the report states. “Security forces have choked children, thrown stun grenades at them, beaten them in custody, threatened and interrogated them without the presence of parents or lawyers, and failed to let their parents know their whereabouts.”
For Baidon, this is also a personal issue. She has four children.
“Sometimes I don’t know if my children will come home alive or not. Kids are being killed on the spot by Israeli security as criminals.”
Baidon says that the current bout of unrest started because Palestinians felt a threat to the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites worldwide for Muslims. Palestinians are also incensed by the killing of a one-year-old boy by a rightwing Israeli whose punishment was six months of house arrest and two years social service.
Baidon is pessimistic about where things are headed.
“This can’t last,” she says. “It is getting worse and worse.”
She blames detention conditions on the current Israeli government.
“There can be no peace at all under them,” she says. “They are blaming the Palestinians for everything and feeding the violence.”
Baidon emphasizes nonviolent resistance. “We preach nonviolence first and foremost,” she says. “Palestinians, including children, have the right to resist, but should do so nonviolently.”
Baidon has an appeal for the international community.
“Help our children,” she says. “We don’t want them to be killed.”
For Americans, Baidon has a more specific message.
“The American people are a wonderful people, and it is the government, not American citizens, to blame for the policies toward Israel,” she says. “But they need to consider this: Wouldn’t the billions being given to Israel be better spent at home in their own country?”
Baidon admits that the status of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is at least formally better than in the Occupied Territories, since Jerusalem’s citizens enjoy at least some basic health care and education services. But even this may change, as officials in the Netanyahu government have talked about changing the status of entire East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhoods.
“These are thousands of people we’re talking about,” she says. “How would they do this? Build walls all around?”
In the end, Baidon says, the Palestinians and Israelis are not very different.
“We have our children, and they have their children,” she says. “We have dreams and visions, too.”