US-funded project for children demolished in East Jerusalem

Demolition of the cafe and sports field (Photo: MECA)

Palestinian ‘Cultural Café’, playground and sports centre is to be rebuilt after Israeli forces bulldozed the East Jerusalem community space for children, say American non-profit organisations who helped fund the project.

Published in Ahram Online

Israeli bulldozers entered the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem on Monday and demolished a US-funded community space known as “cultural café”, says a recent press release by the California-based Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA).

In their 15 February announcement, MECA stated that, “the Jerusalem Municipality and the National Parks Authority carried out the demolition with Israeli police officers closing off the street and preventing some nearby families from leaving their homes while the demolition was underway.”

The destructive act that took place on 13 February angered Playgrounds for Palestine, a Pennsylvania-based organisation, and MECA who both helped fund the construction of the space that was to include a children’s playground, art facilities and a sports field. An additional reason for building the play area and sports centre, the groups say, was to protect the land from being taken by Israeli settlers.

Sports field after the demolition (Photo: MECA)

After visiting the demolished space, Josie Shields-Stromsness, MECA’s program director, commented that she was horrified adding that “people in the US make donations so children have something as simple and basic as a place to play. Then the Israeli government, that gets millions of US tax dollars, turns around and destroys it.”

Sports field prior to the demolition (Photo: MECA)

Shields-Stromsness recalled being in Silwan just two weeks before the demolition, when she had watched children playing football on the sports field before going into the café for refreshments.

“On Tuesday [14 February] instead of the sounds of children calling out to each other for the ball and cheering when someone scored a goal, I watched as residents quietly volunteered their time to sort through the rubble trying to see what materials were salvageable. It was a simple project but an important one and it provided some joy and recreation for children and young people that are facing many hardships,” Shields-Stromsness told Ahram Online.

Sports field prior to the demolition (Photo: MECA)

“The demolition was officially carried out because the café was built without a permit and this area, like much of Silwan, is considered national park area and so it is illegal to build. However we believe the real motivation for the demolition is to eventually take the land for a parking lot which was in one of the Jerusalem municipality’s plans for the area,” she added.

Jawad Siyam, director of the Madaa Creative Centre in Silwan, which runs the cultural café and the sports field, emphasised that the area was a rare space in the neighbourhood where people could meet. “It was the only place for children in Silwan. The children in the neighbourhood were very upset to see their treasured place destroyed,” he added.

The demolition has affected the children who were prevented from leaving their homes and so unable to go to school. “On the afternoon that the demolition took place, some children came to the sports field and played soccer among the rubble because they have nowhere else to go,” Shields-Stromsness commented.  “The children in Silwan are already suffering from many arrests and physical and verbal abuses by Israeli police. Children as young as six years old have been arrested,” she revealed to Ahram Online.

Shields-Stromsness believes that this demolition was a message from the Jerusalem Municipality to the local Palestinian community in Silwan and East Jerusalem, that although they pay the same taxes, Palestinian families are not entitled to the same rights and quality of life as Israeli Jewish residents.

However, MECA confirmed that the local community are keen to rebuild the cultural café and that the organisation is hoping to reopen the space on 21 March, 2012 in order to coincide with Mother’s Day celebrations.

“The community in Silwan refuse to give up their right to have safe spaces for their children to play and to allow their land to be taken for parking lots when they have many needs. Madaa Centre in Silwan is consulting their lawyer about possible legal action since the demolition took place without any prior warning and they were not even shown the demolition order at the time,” Shields-Stromsness said to Ahram Online.

Cafe before the demolition (Photo: MECA)

Founded in 1989, MECA is a registered non-governmental organisation working for the rights and the wellbeing of children in the Middle East, including organising a number of aid shipments to Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon.

On 24 September, 2011 MECA successfully launched an exhibition entitled ‘A Child’s View From Gaza’ in Oakland, USA despite pressure from pro-Israeli groups who had tried to get the event cancelled. The exhibition showcased artwork, including drawings and paintings, created by children living in Gaza.

Playgrounds for Palestine is an American not-for-profit organisation supporting children living under Israeli military occupation by providing tools to allow them to play and to express themselves. Playgrounds for Palestine has worked on projects in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian refugee camps across the region.

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