Kids Behind Bars: Israel’s Arbitrary Arrests of Palestinian Minors
By Julia Amalia Heyer
Jonas Opperskalski / DER SPIEGEL
Last year, approximately one thousand Palestinian children were arrested by Israeli forces, often for no reason. Advocates point to systemic abuse, including beatings and forced confessions, but the Israeli military remains steadfast.
When the soldiers came to get him, Mahmood says, he wasn’t afraid. He crumples a handkerchief in his hand while shaking his head. Maybe a little bit afraid, he mumbles, when the six soldiers pointed their assault weapons at him. Or when they bound his wrists with zip ties, covered his eyes and shoved him on the floor of their four-by-four.
On that warm summer night in early June, Mahmood recalls, he was walking down the village road with his friend Hussein. The two of them were discussing whether it would be possible to smoke rolled-up tobacco leaves like cigarettes. They saw the two military vehicles from far away, but they’re not an unusual sight in Ya’abad; the Jewish settlement of Mevo Dotan is located on an opposite hillside and the Israeli army patrols through the surrounding Palestinian villages in order to protect the settlers. But then the vehicle suddenly stopped next to them.
Mahmood remembers his palms getting sweaty. But he didn’t run away. Why should he? “I hadn’t done anything,” he says. The soldiers didn’t answer when he yelled, “Why are you arresting us?”
Mahmood Bassim Ghanim, 14, relates his story from the sofa in his parents’ house in Ya’abad, a village near the Palestinian city of Jenin. An air-conditioning unit, a point of pride for the family, blasts cold air into the room and the father’s engineering diploma hangs above the sofa. Mahmood folds the handkerchief flat and smoothes it out. He has the face of a child, the body of an adolescent, and the large hands and feet of an adult.
Mahmood was arrested twice in the space of two months. The first time he spent four days in jail; the second time he was beaten, interrogated and brought back home the next morning. On neither occasion did there seem to be any reason for his arrest. Perhaps the soldiers were bored. Maybe they made a mistake.
Altogether an Ordinary Case
Mahmood has also told his story to Military Court Watch, an organization that collects the testimonies of Palestinian children that have been arrested. Activists with the group have heard many stories like Mahmood’s, and they believe him. His case is altogether ordinary.
Every year 700 Palestinian children are arrested by the Israeli army. In 2013 it was more than one thousand. Most of them are accused of throwing rocks — at vehicles, at soldiers, at Jewish settlers. According to the Israeli military law applied to Palestinians in the West Bank, children above the age of 12 are considered criminally accountable for their actions and 12- and 13-year-olds can face a penalty of up to six months in prison for throwing a rock.
This year, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), released a report about Palestinian minors in military detention. It describes serious violations of the UN’s Convention of the Rights of a Child: Abuses seem to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the process” from “the moment of the arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing.” The abuses listed in the report range from strangulation using restraints to solitary confinement to threats of physical and, in rare occasions, even sexual violence.
On June 12, exactly one week after Mahmood’s arrest, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and later killed on the other end of the West Bank. Their disappearance set off a wave of arrests by the Israeli military, prompting Hamas to launch rockets, and ultimately resulting in the most recent Gaza war. But this all happened after Mahmood was taken from Jaba by the soldiers.
Kicked, Sleep-Deprived, Threatened
In the car, Mahmood recounts, the soldiers sang Hebrew songs and occasionally slapped the two Palestinians in the face or pushed them from their seats. The two teenagers’ eyes were covered. Around 11:30 p.m., they were brought to a police station near the Mevo Dotan settlement. Mahmood says a doctor asked him about allergies and illnesses, and that they received water but nothing to eat. They spent the night tied up, with eyes covered on a plastic cot. They had to sit upright and were not allowed to sleep. Every time one of them nodded off, a soldier kicked them.
At 2 a.m., Mahmood was interrogated by a man who spoke good Arabic. He asked: Why were you on the street last night, what were you doing there? Going on a walk with a friend, Mahmood answered. The man became angry, Mahmood says, and threatened to beat him.
Human rights organizations claim the Israeli army’s actions in the West Bank are partly a strategy of intimidation, to scare children away from participating in future protests. The army also hopes to obtain information about family members actively working against the occupation.
Most of the mistreatment of Palestinian minors takes place in areas like Hebron, where Israeli settlers and Palestinians live in close proximity. Children living in villages along the separation barrier are also frequently arrested because that’s where most of the protests against the occupation take place.
Since 2011, an Israeli organization named B’Tselem has been drawing attention to the “serious violations” of the rights of Palestinian minors arrested under suspicion of throwing stones. The army has released a counterstatement arguing, for example, that a “harsh reality requires a harsh answer.”
‘It’s Just a Little Kid’
A few hours after his interrogation, Mahmood and his friend Hussein were brought to Meggido prison. “I was weak from sleep deprivation and very hungry,” says Mahmood. His wrists were hurting from being bound and he was concerned that his family was worried about him. Because Hussein was already 18, he was placed in different wing. Mahmood shared his cell with nine boys: There was a cooking area but no window, only an eye slit in the door and cement slabs to sleep on. The youngest prisoner was just 12 years old. They had to prepare their food themselves, receiving their ingredients from the guards: rice and yoghurt.
On the fourth day, Mahmood was led out of the cell and into a different room, where he was once again interrogated. The man didn’t give his name and didn’t wear a uniform, Mahmood says, and above all he was angry. He wanted to know details about his family, and asked Mahmood why he threw stones.
“I didn’t throw any stones,” said Mahmood. The man claimed there was photographic evidence but when Mahmood wanted to see the photos, he said it was not possible. His friend Hussein had testified that Mahmood threw rocks, the man screamed.
The interrogation lasted three hours. In the end, the man put a Hebrew document on the table. Even though Mahmood couldn’t read it, he signed it. To this day he still doesn’t know what his testimony says.
Israeli lawyers who frequently represent children in front of military courts claim the children are often forced to confess. They sign the documents because they are being threatened with violence or because they have been blackmailed with, for example, their father losing his permission to work in Israel.
Last summer, a video showing the arrest of a five-year-old boy in Hebron spread around the world. In the clip, six armed soldiers encircle Wadia Maswadeh, a little kid wearing shorts and an orange shirt, and then dragged him crying and screaming to the army vehicle. The reason for his arrest: A settler had accused the five-year-old of throwing a stone at his car.
An officer later reprimanded the soldiers, claiming that the event didn’t fit Israel’s national image. In the future, he said, they should make sure they’re not being filmed in such situations. A few weeks ago, a recording was also made of the arrest of a seven year old. It shows him, carrying his Spider-Man schoolbag, being dragged away screaming by three soldiers in battle gear. In the background a woman screams, “What are you doing there, it’s just a little kid.”
Two Different Rules of Law
Gaby Lasky, a human rights lawyer who has been honored for her work on the issue, says that innocent children are repeatedly arrested under false pretenses. Her office is currently representing five underage Palestinians that are in military custody. Lasky is fighting for the right of Palestinian children to be treated not merely as security threats, but as children. She wants the army to stop wrenching children out of their beds during their nighttime raids, saying that minors should be summoned in writing instead. Furthermore, Lasky is demanding that a parent be allowed to accompany them and that they not be interrogated alone. She also wants all interrogations to be recorded and documents translated into Arabic.
None of that is currently the norm. In the West Bank there are two different systems of law for Israelis and Palestinians: Israeli civil law for the one, military law for the other. A 12-year-old Palestinian can be arrested and interrogated without parents or a lawyer, and held in custody for twice as long as an Israeli of the same age. And while Palestinians are considered criminally responsible at age 12, Israelis are not liable until the age of 14.
Mahmood belongs to the second generation of Palestinians to grow up under the Israeli occupation, in a world dictated by checkpoints, inspections, curfews and nightly house searches. In the West Bank alone, 11 Palestinian children or teenagers were killed this year — 10 by soldiers, one by settlers.
Psychologists speak of a trauma that spans generations, saying that the constant conflict and violence has a serious effect on children’s psychology. “Even the youngest ones see that their parents cannot protect them, because, unlike an 18-year-old soldier, they don’t have any say,” says Sunny Gordon Bar, a psychologist that campaigns for support for children in military custody.
“Children fight against children here, and the older ones are the crueler ones because they have more pull,” says Avichai Stollay, a 30-year-old who works as a documentarian with Breaking the Silence, an organization founded by former soldiers. He describes the point of view of many soldiers as: “Every Palestinian is the enemy, and you need to defend your land.” He himself has kicked tied-up Palestinians in the back, and has thrown families out of their beds in the middle of the night and searched through their homes. He and his comrades have locked parents and children in separate rooms so that the soldiers could then watch a football game in the living room.
Over the past year, Breaking the Silence has collected about one thousand testimonies describing soldier violence and misconduct. Stollar just visited a 23-year-old who described to him his service at a checkpoint — how he locked children into wire cages, sometimes for hours, even in the cold and the rain, because they got on his nerves. “Such experiences aren’t uncommon — that is the reality in the army.”
Other soldiers describe how they tied up 12-year-old Palestinians with zip ties, lay them on the floor with their eyes covered and stepped “lightly on their testicles.” They describe how they threw shock grenades and tear gas into village mosques because they were bored.
The head of the Military Advocate General, a lieutenant colonel of the Israeli army whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons, never speaks of “children” — preferring terms such as “minors,” “suspects” or “the detained.” His office in the Ofer Military Base near Ramallah is a white container and he leads a friendly tour of the compound, which feels like a high-security camp ground. All the while, he complains about the UN.
The UNICEF report accusing his army of systematically abusing children is “100 percent false.” Just like the reports by organizations like B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence, which he describes as “self-hating Jews, worse than anti-Semites.” Stone-throwing is a serious crime that needs to be punished appropriately, he says.
‘Of Course, I’m Afraid’
Mahmood’s father, Bassim Ghanim, stands on the steps in front of their light-colored stone house. His son has changed, he says, and Mahmood now spends a lot of time alone. When the family sits together during dinner, Mahmood takes his plate and goes back into the kitchen. Most nights he sleeps at his grandparents’. “He is hiding,” his father says. He doesn’t even like having his brothers around him.
His mother Suha makes some tea and says Mahmood doesn’t hug her anymore, like he did before. When he sleeps at home, she can hear him screaming in his sleep.
Mahmood was never convicted, and came back home after four days, with a few bruises from the shackles and blows. But when a car drives by outside, or if he hears a loud motor, he jumps.
The 14 year old withdraws to his room, with its Mickey Mouse sheets and bright blue walls with Disney stickers. “Of course I’m afraid,” he says in his quiet bedroom.