What I saw in Issawiya was the collective punishment of thousands of people

Ask Google Maps for directions from the Old City of Jerusalem to Issawiya, a Palestinian neighborhood in the occupied eastern half of the city, and the app will tell you it’s a 14-minute drive. Just take the road below the ancient walls, climb past the Hebrew University, and swoop down the long curve that descends from French Hill — and you’re there.

As I found out Saturday morning, the journey is not quite so simple. The road from French Hill was blocked by six square chunks of concrete; no traffic was allowed through. Cars and buses approaching from the village dropped off people heading to work on the other side of the blockade; from there, they walked. Israeli police with assault rifles slung across their chests manned the checkpoint, calling forward Palestinians to be searched one by one. Google hasn’t yet caught up with what it’s like to enter or leave Issawiya today.

Jerusalem has been the epicenter of the latest round of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. There have been almost daily clashes between the Israeli police and stone-throwing Palestinians since the murder last year of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the 16-year-old boy abducted and killed in retaliation for the deaths of three Israeli teenagers in June 2014 (which eventually sparked last year’s conflict in Gaza).

But since the beginning of October, there has been a dramatic increase in Palestinians targeting Israeli civilians, police and soldiers in stabbing and shooting attacks. Israeli forces have responded by shooting at and killing many of these attackers, in some cases using intentional lethal force where it was not necessary. The Israeli authorities have also ramped up security in response to this series of attacks.

The Israeli authorities have a duty to put in place proportionate security and other measures to protect people. However, what I saw on Saturday was disproportionate, and fundamentally an attempt to punish Palestinian civilians in general for attacks by a few.

As I walked down the hill, the sound of car horns became louder and louder. A long line of cars, vans and buses extended hundreds of yards toward the town’s single remaining exit open to vehicles.

Queue of stationary traffic at a roadblock in Issawiya ©Amnesty International
Queue of stationary traffic at a roadblock in Issawiya ©Amnesty International

I talked to drivers to find out where they were going and how long they had been waiting. I heard the same stories again and again. A woman who had already missed an appointment at the doctor by half an hour, and wasn’t sure when she’d get there, and if they’d be able to see her. An architect trying to get to work. Another woman trying to get to the dentist. All had been stuck for nearly an hour.

At the bottom of the hill, the Israeli police were conducting stringent checks on each car. Tensions were high, and community leaders were working to direct traffic and prevent furious young men from confronting the police. At one point, a policeman started shouting at me in Hebrew, chased me up the road and threw a sound bomb at my feet.

At the head of the line, people had been waiting for two hours. Cecile, a French national married to a Palestinian from Jerusalem, had come from Ras al-Amoud to Issawiya to drop off her two-year-old son at her in-laws’. The drive back normally takes 10 minutes. “I’m five months pregnant,” she told me, “and for the last five days I’ve been unable to get to work because of the clashes and closures. The tear gas makes me afraid for the safety of my baby.”

Again and again I heard how the checks meant people lost out on business and were denied access to essential services. More than 60 disabled students who attend a school for children with special needs were also caught up in the traffic, sitting for hours in buses as the noonday sun beat down and temperatures shot into the 90s. 

For Huda Muhammad Darwish, 65, the wait seemed to have tragic consequences. She was pronounced dead at the hospital in the early hours of Monday after suffering breathing difficulties. Her family had tried to rush her to the emergency room, but were delayed at the checkpoint by about 30 minutes, local media reported.

These roadblocks and closures are discriminatory and unlawful, violating Israel’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement and other human rights violations cannot be justified in the name of security.

What I saw in Issawiya was the collective punishment of thousands of people — there is no other way to describe it.

Jacob Burns is Amnesty International’s Research and Campaign Assistant on Israel/Palestine.

This blog was first published by Global Post