EAST JERUSALEM, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 30 April 2012 – The winding lanes of Silwan are among the most ancient and picturesque in East Jerusalem. But Silwan is also one of the most densely populated Palestinian neighbourhoods, where poverty and violence are part of daily life.
“People literally live on top of each other, which creates a lot of friction and tension,” said Abeer Zayad, the head of the Ath Thuri Women’s Centre. Today about 30 women and children are crowded on sofas and plastic chair in its main room.
“We are crowded in our houses, we are crowded in our neighbourhood, we are crowded in our schools,” said 12-year old Iman*. “In Silwan, we have no library and no safe area where we could play like other children in the world.”
Muna*, one of the mothers, described the neighbourhood. “In Silwan, the trash is not collected, rats run between the houses, the streets turn into pools any time it rains, and there is no parking. The only way we can fix the crumbling streets is to collect money in the neighbourhood and do it ourselves,” she said. “The Israeli authorities have not built any safe play areas and because schools are not in sufficient numbers, many children, especially boys, hang out on the street where they are exposed to sexual abuse and drugs.”
The women’s centre is part of network of 16 psychosocial support groups that offer support to Palestinian women and children suffering from stress or violence. With support from UNICEF and the Palestinian YMCA, and with funds from the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), the centre’s workers have been trained to identify signs of stress, provide support and refer cases to specialized services as needed.
“All our children experience heightened violence because of poverty, rivalries between local families, drug trafficking and Israeli settlements pressing into our dense Palestinian neighbourhood,” another mother reported. “There is a general lack of law and order because Israeli Security Forces rarely take action against drug traffickers or criminals. They spend most of their time patrolling around settlements only,” she complains.
Living under threat
The development of settlements, coupled with evictions orders, has heightened tensions in Silwan.
“Children are scared to walk alone to school because of the settlers,” Muna explained. Some settlers and their armed guards are known to harass or even attack children. Last year, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy in Silwan was killed by a settler and many other children were injured in other confrontations.
In addition, it has become extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain building permission from Israeli authorities in Silwan. Confronted with a serious shortage in housing, many have had no choice but to build without permits, leaving many families vulnerable to eviction and their buildings vulnerable to demolition.
“Some children put toys or clothes in their school bags instead of textbooks,” Ms. Zayad said, “in case their house is knocked down while they are at school… A 9-year-old girl told her mother not to worry, that she was going to look for a tent so the family would not be left under the cold rain.”
The centre tries to help children and their parents cope with these uncertainties. The centre also helps children understand they have a right to protection from violence.
“There is a general climate of violence in Silwan,” Ms. Zayad said. “Families fight each other and their children do the same at school. Most youngsters I’ve talked to think it is normal to beat up one’s wife or fight with one’s neighbours. The centre teaches them how to solve their problems without resorting to violence.”
* Names changed to protect residents’ identities