How do you demolish a playground?

By EA Belinda.

“The trucks came in the middle of the night, about twenty of them”, Aeed told us. They carried the building materials which the people of An Nabi Samwil needed to create a playground for the 50 or so children in the village. The trucks had to be brought in under the cover of darkness because it is illegal to build a playground or indeed anything at all in this village without a permit from the Israeli authorities, which are virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain.

Whilst Israeli development in occupied Palestine continues, the chances of Palestinians being granted permission to build are “slim to none” (B’Tselem, Israeli human rights NGO). With no other options, many choose to build without permission. Their structures are considered illegal under Israeli law and risk being demolished by the Israeli authorities. The villages of An Nabi Samwil managed to lay the playground last year and to build a fence around it so that children could play football there without losing the ball down the slopes.

Aeed in front of the An Nabi Samwil playground Picture: EAPPI/EA Belinda

No freedom to build

The villagers added a surface of artificial grass to the playground this summer. Israeli soldiers told the village council in August that if they didn’t remove the artificial grass, the soldiers would come back to carry out many demolitions in the village, not just the playground. They could not challenge this in court as the order was oral and there was no demolition order (formal written notice). No-one doubted though that the military would carry out their threat: they had already demolished the women’s centre, which Aeed’s wife ran as well as part of the mosque. Nearly every family had received a demolition order; Aeed alone had received 24 orders since 1996 of which 14 had been implemented.

An Nabi Samwil is believed to be the site of the tomb of the prophet Samuel. It is the highest spot in Jerusalem, 1000 metres above sea level with stunning views in all directions. It used to take little more than ten minutes to travel to Damascus Gate, the central point of East Jerusalem from here. Now, due to restrictions placed on Palestinian movement, it takes much longer, assuming residents can even get permission to go there.

No freedom to move

The situation for An Nabi Samwil residents is complex. The village is on the Jerusalem side of the separation barrier, which Israel built to divide Jerusalem (which they consider to be part of Israel) and the Palestinian West Bank. However, the village was not included within the boundary when Israel expanded, and illegally annexed Jerusalem after the 1967 war. Because of this, the residents of Ab Nawi Samwil are not eligible for Jerusalem identity cards and have West Bank IDs instead. This means they cannot move freely around Jerusalem without permission, and risk stop-checks by Israeli soldiers.

However, due to the separation barrier and Israeli military guarded checkpoints, they cannot easily reach the West Bank either. They need permission from the Israeli authorities to receive visitors (even family members) with West Bank IDs or to receive deliveries. Living here has been described as like being confined to ‘an invisible cage’ (Al Haq, Palestinian human rights NGO).

Palestinian villages near to, or within Jerusalem are very vulnerable. The strict and bureaucratic ID card system applies to Palestinians only and not to Jewish residents. The complex residency system, lack of building opportunities and threats of demolition make it a real struggle for Palestinians to build a life here.

No freedom to rest

The residents built a playground for 150 children on another hilltop, this time at Jabal al Baba, and here they’ve managed to lay down an artificial grass covering as well as add a pair of goalposts and a baseball hoop.  There is a large pole in the middle of the pitch but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Jaba al Baba playground Picture: EAPPI/EA Belinda

It was not easy to find a flat surface here on ‘Pope’s Mountain’, but they managed to make a playground in 2015, which the Israeli military later demolished. The community rebuilt it, but it was demolished again. This happened five times in all, including having to demolish it themselves (when the Israeli military carry out the demolition, they often issue a bill for all their costs, so some families reluctantly choose to self-demolish to avoid this.) The villagers rebuilt the playground again in 2016, this time on the part of the hilltop which belongs to the Vatican. The land had been a gift from the King of Jordan and the Pope visited it in 1964, before the Israeli occupation. 

Rebuilding has become a form of resistance, a way for Palestinians to express their own connections to this land and their right to a life here.

No freedom to play

The village of Silwan is close to the centre of East Jerusalem and there is no spare land so the playground in the Batan al Hawa branch of the Madaa Centre (a local Palestinian youth centre) is much smaller. It is built on the small courtyards of the building housing the centre.  Silwan is a highly militarised area, with a large number of Israeli soldiers protecting the infux of Jewish settlers who have moved here because they believe it to be the site of King David.

The Madaa Centre was first established in 2007 in another part of Silwan, Wadi Hulweh, and that Centre has been demolished and then reestablished, while its playground has become unsafe as a result of Israeli archaeological excavations.

The Batan al Hawia centre is open every day and is free for all ages to attend but mainly caters for children from the age of five. About 100 children come every day and, as well as the usual type of children’s activities, there are talks by lawyers for children and their families. This may seem strange until you realise that ‘most children over ten or 11 will have been arrested’, the centre’s director told us. Most are accused of stone throwing, but he told of a case when a seven year old boy was arrested for shouting at a settler woman. He had shouted ‘God is most great’ in Arabic, a language she did not understand. The UN reported last year that since 2012 it had documented more than 560 cases of child detention in Silwan, including Batan al Hawa.

Tensions in Silwan are not uncommon. Whilst large numbers of Palestinians in the village face demolitions and eviction from the area, the number of Jewish settlers continue to grow, often through the takeover of Palestinian homes.

“It is estimated that 199 Palestinian households currently have eviction cases filed against them, the majority initiated by settler organizations, placing 877 people, including 391 children, at risk of displacement.”

UNOCHA, 2019

Madaa Centre Photo: EAPPI/EA Belinda

The contrast between East Jerusalem (a largely Palestinian area) and West Jerusalem (a largely Israeli area) in the provision of public space and playgrounds is striking.  Ir Amim, an Israeli human rights NGO estimate that the number of playgrounds per capita in East Jerusalem is just 1% of the national standard. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory, refers specifically to the right to leisure and play.

A wall outside Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem. Picture EAPPI/EA Belinda

Children in East Jerusalem do not get the chance to exercise this right. This is either because of underinvestment in municipal facilities – the vast majority of the budget of the municipality of Jerusalem is spent in West Jerusalem even though the needs are much greater in East Jerusalem – or because communities are not given permits to build playgrounds on their land.

Israel as an occupying power is bound to abide by the provisions of international humanitarian and human rights laws.  Article 53 for example prohibits the destruction of property unless absolutely necessary because of military operations.

Take action

  • Learn more about life under the Israeli occupation in East Jerusalem by following the work of Ir Amin and B’Tselem.
  • Ask your elected representatives to call on the government to insist that the Israeli government complies with its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.