Clowns in Palestine Cry: The Occupied Bodies and Lives of Jerusalem’s Children

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VOL. 45


No. 2
P. 268
Commentary: Jerusalem at Boiling Point (Online)
Clowns in Palestine Cry: The Occupied Bodies and Lives of Jerusalem’s Children


“Don’t call me by my name,” says ten-year-old Nisrin to her teacher. “Please don’t say our names. When they hear my name they call me while I’m walking to school.” Nisrin is referring to the Israeli soldiers, who are present throughout the Old City of Jerusalem. “They will say I threw stones and bring the police and army to arrest me. Maybe they’ll demolish our house. Please, don’t call me by my name. Call me Salwa, Aida, whatever you want. But don’t say my name.”


* * *


“They called out my name when we were walking to school today, and we had to run,” adds Reham, her classmate. “I couldn’t stop crying I was so frightened. I don’t want to be shot and left in the street bleeding until I die. They kept calling our names. Maybe we should call each other by numbers. Like eighteen.”


“Why eighteen?” asks the teacher.


“When I’m eighteen,” Reham goes on, “I can become a university student, educate myself, and help my family leave the Old City. I want to get out of here. I can’t sleep at night. I don’t even look up when I’m walking in the street, I’m so afraid to see them with their big rifles. They walk on our roofs every night. Last week, they invaded the neighbor’s house and arrested Ahmad. He is only four years older than me, and he is still under arrest.”


* * *


IN OCTOBER AND NOVEMBER 2015, the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem witnessed two months of systematic brutality, during which over 800 Palestinians were arrested, more than 100 of them minors. [1] Claiming this was a security requirement, Israeli soldiers raided Palestinian homes at night to detain children for allegedly throwing stones. By arresting a large number of children in such a short period of time, Israel explicitly threatened other children, reminding them that they were under constant surveillance and at risk of incarceration. While such threats might have the potential to snuff out protest movements and erode resistance, I shall demonstrate through the personal stories I recount here that threats of violence also foster steadfastness among the Palestinians of Jerusalem, both in covert and overt ways.


In the Old City of Jerusalem, the architecture of violence erected by the Israeli regime portrays and constructs Palestinians as dangerous and a threat to security, a depiction that is as old as the State of Israel itself. Throughout the early years of the Nakba, the state implemented a “shoot-tokill” policy against Palestinian refugees attempting to return to the homes from which they were driven, portraying them as “infiltrators.” [2] Now, almost seventy years later, Israeli legislators have approved draconian measures, which in the name of national security allow the perpetration of atrocities against Palestinians that include extrajudicial killings, child arrests, and a wide array of individual and collective punishment practices.


I read the Old City of Jerusalem in the invisible spaces where safety has been erased but where power is also being reclaimed: the walk to school, the schoolyard, the streets, the whispered stories among children. The state often perpetrates its cruelty in children’s spaces, first by invading them, and later by marking them with militarized power as happens when it attacks the children’s family members, teachers, siblings, and friends, and thereby destroys their sense of safety. Terrorized on a daily basis in their homes, on their way to school, and within the walls of their classrooms, Palestinian children like the ten-year-old Reham and Nisrin (quoted above), and younger, manage their experiences in whatever way they can, including asking their teachers not to use their names and expressing aspirations of a future when they can save their families from the horrors of occupation.


In this essay, I will share what I have heard, witnessed, and encountered during the autumn of 2015 as a resident of occupied East Jerusalem when my neighbors and I daily accompanied children on their morning walk to school from their homes in the Old City. Doing so, I witnessed the lived experiences of young Palestinians, particularly the ways in which ubiquitous and militarized occupation and settler-colonial violence exercised their power over the world, the lives, and the bodies of children.


Clowns That Cry


At about seven in the morning, and like every other day, we are in the streets of the Old City, each heading to her or his destination. I walk in silence, to voice our right to normalcy, togetherness, and safety in our streets. As we walk, we salute and smile at each other, speak in low voices, sometimes whisper, and interact only when necessary. But mostly we remain silent and try to move normally through the streets packed with Israeli military equipment, armed settlers, and army and security personnel. Under such conditions, our morning ritual is imbued with fierceness as we Palestinians reclaim our hijacked spaces by simply walking in them. I talk to my neighbors and to the young children we accompany, responding to their queries about whether school will be open, whether others who were subjected to body searches on their way to school are safe, whether the teachers will make it to school that day, or whether the school was closed or invaded by the military the day before.


One morning, Marah, a girl of about eight, says, “Kaman el-yom? Bikhawfuni!” (Again today? They scare me!) She is referring to the soldiers, police, and security agents that swarm the street. We’am, the other little girl beside her, advises Marah to walk fast—“before they throw the gas bombs at us, like yesterday,” she adds. I ask them to tell me about it. “Yesterday they suffocated us (khana’oona) with the tear gas near our house. Then they sat on the stairs of the school building and ate their food there. Can you believe it? Even the teacher was worried and kept leaving the classroom to check if they were still on our stairs. They stayed until noon, we couldn’t even go out at recess. They’ve already taken everything, even our neighbor Ahmad! Now the school stairs too?!” It is through such unnoticed and undocumented violent acts, exemplified by what Marah described as the occupation of the school stairs, that Israel not only sacralizes its mandate to violate every right possible (including the basic right to a demilitarized educational setting) but also couches such violations in the colonizer’s right to “self-defense” and its “fear” of little children. [3]


Displays of aggression toward Palestinian children and their schools certainly did not start in September or October 2015. Israeli assaults on everyday life, intimate home and school spaces, as well as individual Palestinians are old and well-worn practices. One teacher who brought her second graders crayons and urged them to feel a sense of freedom by drawing whatever they wanted in whatever way they liked, recounts that one of her charges drew pictures of the sky, with birds, the sun, and so on, and underneath it blood and tears. When she asked him about the picture, the child said, “The world goes on. They have sunshine, birds, balloons, and games, and they don’t notice that Ahmad was shot, that his cousin was killed and became a martyr.” One day on the way back from school, I asked a nine-year-old student what he had drawn that day. “I drew a clown, but a Palestinian clown.” I asked him what he meant. Showing me his drawing, he explained, “This is a Palestinian clown. Clowns in Palestine cry.”


Palestinian teachers in Jerusalem work hard to maintain a facade of business-as-usual in an attempt to show the students that they are in control and able to protect them from Israel’s daily cruelty. But their eyes and body language betray pain, frustration, and anger, which are all too visible to an observer like me. Teachers in the Old City and in other parts of East Jerusalem are also Jerusalemites whose own families also experience abuse and violation on a daily basis. One teacher told me that she has to force herself to come to school. “I don’t want to leave the house because I worry that my family will be attacked. Sometimes I think it would be better to keep my children at home. But do you think our homes are safer than our streets and schools? There are days supposedly dedicated to celebrating children—Palestinian Children’s Day, Arab Children’s Day, Universal Children’s Day. But our kids are aware of the big lie. Who is a child? Can we really protect our children?”


This teacher’s mention of the protective role of educators brings into focus the difficulty of being an educator in a colonized space where the colonizer’s use of violence is a daily occurrence. During our conversation, which took place as we walked some children home, she informed me of the physical toll that the violence had taken on teachers: “Three of us, all under the age of thirty-five, suffer from high cholesterol and a new twenty-eight-year-old teacher has diabetes. I would rather stay home and not teach. What kind of a teacher am I, anyway?”


One day, an Israeli soldier started to harass teachers who were part of the group walking to school that morning. In broken Arabic, the soldier asked the middle-aged male teacher, “How is your wife? Is she pretty? Btibestak? Does she please you?” Then, turning to another, he asked, “And you, is your husband good to you? Is he managing with you? You’re pretty. I like your eyebrows.” Both individuals ignored the comments and continued walking, along with their students, hurrying so as to avoid a possible confrontation—as one of them explained to me later on, to avoid giving the soldiers the opportunity “to shoot at one of my students.” Safety is relative—I know that no place is safe in the Old City, and I want the children and their teachers to arrive at school safely. So we all pretend that things are normal and do not challenge the soldier’s sexual harassment. The children hurry, jostling and pushing, calling out to each other, crying, joking, and trying to get to school, as if it’s business as usual.


It is exactly at such moments of tremendous fear of the un/anticipated that I walk purposefully, talk in a loud voice, engage with everyone around—children, market sellers, teachers, workers, mothers, and fathers—and then stop and stare at the soldiers in silence, hoping that my gaze will deter them from resorting to violence. And so, I remain silent. My silence (and that of the two teachers harassed) was a choice: we chose the relative safety of the children in an act of steadfastness. Of course, I was disgusted by the sexually violent rhetoric but when I learned that the children had all reached their school safely, without tear gas or stun grenades, and that the streets were calm, I felt content. Palestinian children in Jerusalem are not always so lucky.


Dusty Hands in an Occupied Land


Mahmoud, a ten-year-old from the Silwan neighborhood, told me that he and his friends were playing soccer across the street from his house when a military patrol stopped suddenly and yanked them into their vehicle. “I screamed but they closed my mouth shut, so that not even our parents could hear my cries. I yelled, and said to them, ‘We haven’t done anything, we were just playing soccer,’ but they hit us, kicked us with their boots, slapped us, and beat our heads, maybe a hundred times.” He paused for a moment, then continued. “They wanted us to show them our hands. ‘Iftah!’ (Open!) ‘Iftah!’ they kept saying, and it took us a while to understand what they meant. Although we didn’t know why, we opened our grimy hands for them to examine. They were dusty and dirty. The soldiers spoke to us in Hebrew and claimed that we were throwing stones at them. We were shaking with fear and insisted that we were only playing soccer in front of our house. We swore that the dirt was from throwing the ball to each other, but they did not believe us.”


Mahmoud’s experience is a good example of the relations of power and the cruelty that underpin institutionally legitimized attacks on children. The group’s detention and their subsequent disappearance for the next four hours were a clear demonstration of their categorization as nonchildren. Criminalizing the dusty soccer hands of Mahmoud and his friends, Israel’s soldiers expose the invisible sites of racism where all Palestinian children are born criminals.


The legal and social narratives that produce such state brutality and its enactment in the streets, neighborhoods, homes, and schools of East Jerusalem are not new. The Israeli criminal justice and security systems routinely target Palestinian children, and violence against them is deemed lawful even when it violates Israel’s own laws. The Israeli legal system sets the age of criminal responsibility at twelve years old (for all children) and it provides for minors (below eighteen) to be accompanied by their parents during interrogation. [4] But Palestinian children younger than twelve are routinely detained on suspicion of stone-throwing and interrogated in the absence of their parents. [5]


On 31 December 2013, at a hearing of the Knesset’s Committee for Public Petitions on the arrest and imprisonment of Palestinian minors in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the representative of the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Naama Baumgarten-Sharon, stated, “The police have failed to provide any information concerning a number of night arrests. The exceptions of arresting children during the night, of not allowing parents to attend the interrogation, and unlimited house arrests that prevent the minor an opportunity to attend school have, in recent years, become the norm.” [6] During the hearing, chairwoman and Knesset member Adi Kol reported that from 2011 to 2012, the number of child arrests doubled from 206 to 400. [7]


Notwithstanding such public awareness and discussion of the severe violations of children’s rights among Israel’s political establishment, former member of the Knesset and current justice minister Ayelet Shaked promoted the killing and arrest of Palestinian children in the summer of 2014 [8] and went on to draft a bill allowing children under the age of fourteen to be treated as adults in the Israeli criminal justice system. [9] Nor has criticism of the growing number of attacks against children stopped Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat from erecting new police checkpoints inside the city’s Palestinian neighborhoods, where they are placed close to schools, which not only terrorizes the children but allows the military and police to arrest them even inside their classrooms. [10]


A Marked World, Marked Bodies, and Marked Lives


Looking at the structure of violence targeting children in Jerusalem it is clear that children’s rights are not merely violated by their arrest, kidnapping, and other assaults on their homes and living spaces but by their very access to and opportunity for education. Official data reveals that out of 105,405 Palestinian students in Jerusalem, only 41 percent are enrolled in official municipal schools, 17 percent are enrolled in private schools, and another 41 percent are enrolled in recognized unofficial schools. [11] While recognized unofficial institutions receive some government funding, there is no oversight for their operations, which translates into subpar facilities and mediocre education. According to Ir Amim, an Israeli nongovernmental organization dedicated to the affairs of Jerusalem, during the 2013–14 school year only 42,792 of a total 103,391 Palestinian pupils attending school (kindergarten through high school) were enrolled in the city’s official education system [12] with some 43 percent of current classrooms defined as inadequate. [13] Moreover, at least 8,100 Palestinian children in occupied East Jerusalem were not able to attend school at all due to a lack of adequate classroom availability. [14]


In addition, according to B’Tselem, in the decade from 2004 to 2014, some 2,028 people, including 1,108 minors, lost their homes to demolition in occupied East Jerusalem, some of which were carried out by the city’s municipality and others by the Ministry of Interior. [15] In 2014 alone, 98 residential structures were demolished and 208 residents were uprooted from their homes including a majority of children. [16] That year, Israel also renewed its policy of targeting the homes of alleged terrorists for punitive demolition. According to a report published by the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions citing European Union figures, “as of the end of 2009, more than 60,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem (20 percent of the Palestinian population in the city) were at risk of their homes being demolished due to unlicensed building.” [17]


The terror of being a child in East Jerusalem extends beyond the walk to school, beyond the confines of the school building, and even beyond the threat of arrest. I have also seen terror in the eyes of a child during the court case that followed his arrest, when the court denied his request to have his parents come closer to where he could see them. The children I have interviewed who have been arrested over the past year, and especially in the last two months, told me that they were physically abused and sexually harassed after being blindfolded and having their hands tied. An instance of how Palestinian children’s bodies are used to write the power of the colonial story is apparent in the video of the November 2015 interrogation of thirteen-year-old Ahmad Manasra, which went viral. In the video, we see and hear the child pleading for the interrogation to stop, his repeated cry of “Mish mitzakker, mish mitzakker” (I can’t remember), and his appeal for a doctor to tend to his injuries. But the interrogators continue demanding information as they stand over him shouting questions.


In another incident that took place in the Old City in October, two teenage girls—‘Abeer (age sixteen) and Wafa’ (age thirteen)—were walking to their grandmother’s house nearby when two Israeli vehicles pulled up next to them, forced the two girls to get in, and took them to the police station. After they had been gone for a while, the family began to panic and went looking for them everywhere. Meanwhile, the police invaded and searched their home and after holding the girls from 4:00 P.M. until 2:00 A.M., they finally called the family and informed them that the girls were in their custody. I cannot imagine the families’ terror during those hours. The girls reported that the police had tried to accuse them of carrying a knife, but all they had were the ten shekels they had taken with them to buy bread for their grandmother. In addition to terrorizing them, the two girls’ disappearance for over ten hours served as a warning to their peers that they could be violated at any time. In the Old City, all the discussions in the community around their disappearance emphasized the entanglement of sexual and racial violence in the Israeli security apparatus.


Violent Israeli practices include storming schools, undermining the authority of the principals before their pupils when they arrest children on school grounds, forcing children to strip in public, and humiliating school teachers in front of their pupils. I once overheard eleven-year-old Tariq telling his friends the following story on their way to school. “They invaded the school in Silwan, and arrested a boy from there. But I am not afraid. A soldier stopped me at Damascus Gate . . . he made me take off my shirt, pants, and socks . . . I am not afraid of them [the soldiers], but I think I caught a cold. Even though the weather has changed, they are still making us undress.” Making a person strip in public, an act that is both humiliating and proscribed, is yet another example of the exercise of power that is carried out in the legal framework of what is ostensibly a concern for security. Such violence not only reinforces surveillance and optimizes Israel’s control; it also fosters a spirit of resistance in a child such as Tariq as evidenced in his claim to immunity from fear (if not the cold). Such acts inevitably provoke rebelliousness on the part of those who experience the violations. 


Living in the Old City and walking through it every day, I constantly ask myself questions. I saw three soldiers stop a Palestinian youth of between sixteen and eighteen years old one day. “Halt and do not move!” they screamed at him. He stopped and immediately raised his hands. Although not much older than him, they pushed him against the wall, told him to empty his pockets, and made him take off his shirt, socks, and belt, open his fly, and expose his underwear. The soldiers were loud and rough, cocking their guns at the Palestinian youth, basically marking his body as devoid of any humanity. “I can’t breathe, I am not doing anything, I can’t breathe,” the young man pleaded. I asked the soldiers to search him more humanely. There was no need to push and shove and rough him up, I said, he was clearly having difficulty breathing. But they remained unmoved.


They finally stopped when they saw me pick up my phone and heard me speaking in Hebrew. “Shalom, mishtara?” (Hello, is this the police?), I asked. They harassed him a little longer, but then they let him go. “God sent you today,” he said, thanking me. He smiled, but his eyes were red as he walked away. I lingered a while, watching the soldiers and wondering how they could endure such violent lives. How could they deny that the young man was unable to breathe? I called my friend Aida to share what I had just witnessed, and she asked me if I had taken photographs of the attack. I had not.


Sometimes we take photos to disrupt Israeli perceptions of the Palestinian body as violate-able and rape-able. A photograph documents the humanity of the person being violated and bears witness to the brutality of the soldiers and the Israeli system as a whole. As such, it presents a subtle form of resistance. But in the heat of that moment, I used my knowledge of the system to protect the young man, utilizing yet another one of our infinite means of resistance. This time, I used the threat of Israel’s own police apparatus to disrupt its military one, rescuing the young man from the soldiers’ brutality. This time, we got lucky.


Changing the Landscape


Living in the Old City of Jerusalem, and witnessing the settler-colonial regime’s institutionalized violence, I wonder how we can understand a system that structures the world for Palestinians as unlivable places and strips Palestinian people of their humanity. The notion that settler colonialism could somehow be underwritten by law is not only absurd but clearly belied by the recurrent and continual violation by the State of Israel of its own legal system as regards the rights of Palestinian children who are its colonized subjects. The law in this particular instance is a sword rather than a shield, simply a tool of colonial oppression.


A teacher had once asked me, as we ran from a tear gas canister fired at us, “Can we change this landscape? Just look at us. Can we stop this? Can we end this occupation?”


So I ask myself, how can we change this landscape of violence? More specifically, how can we challenge the latent and manifest violence that is ubiquitous in our spaces, our bodies, and our lives; how can we reject it? Bearing witness to the violence enacted upon us and giving voice to our own experiences are some of the ways in which Palestinians challenge colonial practices. By tracing the modalities of the deployment of power, we interrogate the sustainability of violence that benefits both Israel and global capital.


Preventing the erasure of memory is also a way to process trauma, and this reflection on some of my recent lived experiences as a resident of East Jerusalem is an attempt to do just that. In addition, by bringing to light the quotidian violence against Palestinians that goes largely undocumented and unregistered, I hope to disrupt Israel’s cruel and aggressive violation of Palestinian children, as well as their communities, their spaces, and their lives, indeed their very bodies. Israel has created a system of violence that traps children in a world of perpetual dispossession, leaving them with little hope or even the possibility of dreaming of a safe future.


Reham and Nisrin want to grow up, educate themselves, and save their families from daily oppression and humiliation. But the question is, can they do so within the settler-colonial context? [18] The abuse of children is central to the logic of the settler-colonial regime and its need to establish and maintain relations of racial domination and subordination. [19] This is what we painfully experienced in Jerusalem in 2014–15.


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Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian is a Palestinian activist and scholar. She is the Lawrence D. Biele Chair in law at the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as faculty at the Paul Baerwald School of Social Work and Social Welfare there, and she heads the Gender Studies Programat Mada al-Carmel, in Haifa. Her latest book, Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear, came out in 2015.

1 See Ylenia Gostoli, “Oz: Israel’s Prison for Palestinian Children,” Al Jazeera, 28 October 2015,

2 Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “Infiltrated Intimacies: The Case of Palestinian Returnees,” Feminist Studies 42, no. 1 (2016).

3 Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). See also Lizzy Ratner, “Asher Grunis Discriminates His Way to the Top of the Israeli Supreme Court,” Mondoweiss, 11 February 2012, and Delegation of British Lawyers, Children in Military Custody, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, June 2012,

4 Jessica Montell, “Children under Twelve Cannot Be Arrested,” Jerusalem Post, 6 May 2013,

5 “Israel: Security Forces Abuse Palestinian Children; Chokeholds, Beatings, Coercive Interrogations,” Human Rights Watch, 19 July 2015, and Alma Biblash, “The Law Is Not Enough to Protect Palestinian Children,” +972 Magazine, 6 November 2015,

6 Protocol number 35, 2013: 8 [in Hebrew; author’s translation], Open Knesset, see

7 Protocol number 35, 2013: 5 [in Hebrew], Open Knesset; see

8 Ishaan Tharoor, “Israel’s New Justice Minister Considers All Palestinians to Be ‘the Enemy,’” Washington Post, 7 May 2015,

9 SeeNirHasson,“Israel Seeks to Jail Offenders as Young as 12,” Haaretz, 11 November 2015,

10 Peter Beaumont, “New Checkpoints and Fears Divide Jerusalem’s Jews and Palestinians,” Guardian,

14 October 2015,

11 “East Jerusalem2015: Facts and Figures,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel, updated 12May 2015,

12 Yonatan Rom, Aviv Tatarsky, and Oshrat Maimon, “Shortage of Classrooms in East Jerusalem: Annual Survey,” trans. Shoshana London Sappir, Ir Amim, August 2014,

13 For more on the chronic shortage and inadequacy of classrooms in East Jerusalem, see Children in Israeli Military Detention: Observations and Recommendations ( Jerusalem: UNICEF, February 2013),

14 “East Jerusalem 2015—Facts and Figures,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 12 May 2015,

15 “Statistics on Demolition of Houses Built without Permits in East Jerusalem,” B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, updated 7 September 2015,

16 East Jerusalem 2015—Facts and Figures,” Association for Civil Rights in Israel, 12 May 2015.

17 Emily Schaeffer, No Home, No Homeland: A New Normative Framework for Examining the Practice of Administrative Home Demolitions in East Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, September 2011),

18 For more on this question, see Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “Childhood: A Universalist Perspective for How Israel Is Using Child Arrest and Detention to Further Its Colonial Settler Project,” in “On the Continued Intractability of the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict: Perspectives on the Occupation,” special issue, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 12, no. 3 (2015): pp. 223–44.

19 Shalhoub-Kevorkian, “Childhood: A Universalist Perspective.”