By Stephen Williams
‘Welcome to Palestine.’
‘What is your name?’
‘Where are you from?’
The questions came thick and fast, the handshakes frequent, as the teenagers crowded around me.
I had been wandering the narrow streets of Silwan and a group of boys had been watching me warily; but a smile, a “salaam alaikum” and soon the boys were practising English phrases learnt in school. I put my hand on my heart and said, “Falestini.” It was enough.
My hand aching from the handshakes, I said goodbye and continued my explorations. Returning to the road that leads to Al Bustan, I was greeted by a vendor who handed me some delicious felafal.
“Welcome to Silwan,” he said.
Everywhere I went there were smiles; yet Silwan is a community under attack, its future uncertain, threatened. Settlers are moving in with their armed guards. The Israelis wish to transform Silwan into a theme park in honour of King David and there is no place for the indigenous population among the tourists.
We all love our national legends, celebrating them in literature and music. Only Israel celebrates through ethnic cleansing.
Hundreds of children in the area have been victimised, dragged out of their beds at night, arrested, taken to the Russian Compound and subjected to vicious and humiliating treatment; one ten year-old, I learn, has been exiled to the West Bank. The youngest political exile in history?
Further along the road, primary school children were leaving their school for lunch break as the first tear gas grenade exploded behind me. I looked around, startled, and saw a Border Police vehicle and two officers firing up into the hills on the Al Quds side of Silwan. Among the rocks were young boys, hiding and running.
I looked back at the youngsters at the school; they batted not an eye- lid, not a glance at the action, barely fifty yards away. The tear-gas, the smoke, the explosions; an everyday event in their lives.
I returned the following day as prayers at the Bustan Community Centre were finishing. Seventy or so young men were sitting outside the tent on the walls that line the road. Tension was in the air. They were quiet, listening to the sermon. I sat next to a group but no on spoke. I was waiting to meet the leaders of the community and convey the greetings of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the British people. I had read the posters inside the tent.
“Jerusalem is our home. We shall be a shard of glass in Israel’s throat”
Eventually, an English- speaking resident was found and I wished the community victory in its battle for survival. We embraced. Then came a series of explosions, some of them louder than I had heard the previous day.
Returning to the road that leads to Al Quds, I saw a line of Border Policemen. Their weapons were pointed across the valley at the streets where I’d met the teenagers. They were firing a succession of tear-gas grenades at young- very young – boys who were running from place to place, reappearing at gaps between houses to chant and display their defiance.
Other groups of policeman were below us and were responsible for the deafening sound grenades. Behind me, next to the road to Al Quds, more youngsters had gathered: the Border Policemen were keeping a watchful eye on them.
I could hear, between the explosions, the rattle of stones against a metal barrier as the children fought back. The tear gas was landing not in the streets towards the top of the valley where the boys were, but in the roads below. The gas would drift upwards but those people who lived at the bottom of the valley were badly affected. A mother managed to escape, scrambling up the steep slope towards me with four children, the oldest no more than five. Their faces were covered in scarves but this was ineffective, I discovered, as the teargas drifted towards me and my eyes started streaming.
By now, there were other witnesses to this attack, not just internationals but Israeli activists who raced around the perimeter of the valley to reach the other side where the grenades were landing. One of them was able to film a Border Policeman throwing a canister inside a house, whereupon he was pepper-sprayed and arrested.
I marvel at the courage and persistence of the Palestinian nation; their refusal to submit to the power and wealth of those who would expel them from their ancestral lands; against every discouragement, every betrayal, the flame of freedom is kept alight, generation to generation. The children of Silwan are part of that resistance.
That afternoon I was at the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstration- more ethnic-cleansing there of course, though of a rather different nature.
We marched to the police station at Salahel-din in support of the activist who was being held there; five hundred of us, at least half of whom were Israeli.
The next evening I was having dinner with a friend in Ramallah- a brave, committed champion of human rights- while his thirteen year-old son practised his near-perfect English with me. He wanted me to teach him a new word with which to impress his teacher at school day and I wondered how I could express, in humility and admiration, the spirit of Palestine.
I told him that I had seen in Silwan that inextinguishable spirit of freedom and courage in the face of adversity that characterises his people. And the word I wanted him to share with his teacher was “resilience”.
It is this that, like a shard of glass the throat of Israel, enables Palestine to fight on.
– Stephen Williams contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.