On a sunny day in spring 2014, two people were arrested by soldiers in a village’s field near Bethlehem. Two days passed. Their families still didn’t know in which prison or military station they were kept. They also didn’t know what the accusations were. The concern was visible in every family member’s eyes. Brothers and sisters surrounded their parents while they were telling us about their sons: Ali, 13 years old and Mohammed 15 years old. Names are changed by the author.
UNICEF states that around 700 Palestinian children aged 12 to 17 years are arrested yearly by Israeli forces. Occasionally, children younger than 12 years are detained as documented by the human rights organization B’Tselem and others. Generally, the children are charged with stone throwing; sometimes the accusations are more severe: flying Molotov cocktails or possession of a weapon.
The parents of Mohammed and Ali expressed their concern and their helplessness to us. Ali is suffering from health problems. According to his father and mother he underwent several surgeries on his stomach in the recent past and needed to see a physician the following week. He did not have his medicine with him, when he went to the fields with his friend. Mohammed’s father mainly worried about his son missing out on school and dropping his education after returning from jail.
We didn’t ask about other fears but I remembered the UNICEF report of 2013 and B’Tselem’s “No Minor Matter” (2011). They speak of Palestinian children being ill-treated in Israeli prisons. Beating occurs, solitary confinement is used as a punishment or means of exerting pressure and verbal threats, including threat of sexual nature are amongst experiences released child prisoners tell of. In any case, being handcuffed and blindfolded is already a traumatic experience for children. They react differently to it than adults and are more affected by violence, also if it is of psychological or verbal nature. The language barrier leads to another problem. Palestinian children’s native language is Arabic. During interrogation by military personnel, however, they are often forced to sign a confession in Hebrew. A confession they only sign to get out of jail and which might contain falsified information or can be used against them without their knowledge. The presence of a lawyer or parent during interrogation is often denied.
A bit more than a week after our first encounter, we met the family again – together with the released sons. We met them separately but the two friends told similar stories in a similarly taciturn way. We asked Ali about his health first. No medical treatment in prison, he informed us but he had already seen a doctor since his release and said he felt alright.
As Mohammed’s release papers confirm, Mohammed and Ali were brought to the detention centre in the Israeli settlement Gush Etzion first but were transferred to Jerusalem’s interrogation centre the next day after a court hearing. The actual trial was held in the Westbank city of Ramallah eight days after their arrest. They were released the same day – in Jerusalem.
Detention of Palestinians in Jerusalem makes it very difficult and often impossible for family members to visit because a permit to enter Jerusalem is required for every person with a Palestinian ID. In this case, the parents were not even informed their children were kept beyond the separation barrier. Only at the trial in Ramallah did they see them and assumed they would be released from Ramallah’s Ofer prison.
In addition and paradoxically, Ali and Mohammed would normally not be allowed to go Jerusalem without a permit from Israeli authorities. To drop them off alone in the otherwise unreachable city made it particularly difficult for them to return. According to the parents, a bus driver and friend of the family found them and drove them home.
Mohammed’s release papers don’t give any details on the accusation but mention obstruction of the army. The boys both stated they had been accused of burning tires. Mohammed as well as Ali denied the crimes when talking to us but said to have signed a confession in Hebrew during time in prison.
Asked about prison in Jerusalem, they said they were put in the same cell together with four other boys. Mohammed described conditions with a few words: mattresses to lie on, no blankets though, no opportunity to walk around at any time of the day and no window, meaning no natural sunlight for days. Ali’s story matched his friend’s description. He added that they were given three meals a day consisting of cheese, yoghurt, rice and on Friday there was also some chicken.
It was not our intention to put the children under pressure and so when they refused to talk about more details of their time in prison we did not insist. However, Mohammed and Ali both shook their head when we asked if anyone has beaten them during interrogation or later.
Mohammed’s release documents tell us that Mohammed’s lawyer was Palestinians, his judge Israeli and the court a military one but for juveniles. The prison section was intended for juveniles as well and the sentence, negotiated in a settlement, included a fine of 1000 Shekel (about 210 Euros) and the days they had already spent in custody.
Since the two friends are out of jail, the case seemed to be closed. At that time, the long-term effects of their experience were difficult to predict. However, a very sad father’s fears had already come true. Mohammed refused to go back to school without giving a reason. The situation was similar at Ali’s. His mother and father were happy to have their son back but worried because the 13 year old refused to rejoin his classmates.
Data and reports
- B’Tselem statistics on Palestinian minors in custody of the Israeli security forces (2014)
- B’Tselem’s „No Minor Matter“ about violation of the rights of Palestinian minors arrested by Israel on suspicion of stone throwing (2011)
- Defence for Children International report about children in Israeli detention (2012)
- UNICEF report about children in Israeli military detention (2013)