Monday, November 30, 2020

The price of occupation: child prisoners in Israeli jails suffer lifelong trauma

By Lili Martinez - June 15, 2016
Section: [Main News] [Features] [Behind Bars]
Tags: [child arrests] [Violence against children] [Occupation]

 When 12-year-old Dima Al-Wawi returned from 75 days in an Israeli prison, she wasn’t the same. “We can’t interact with her normally the way we do with the other children, because it might affect her emotionally,” her cousin Ali Janazreh said to Palestine Monitor. “Every word we want to say to her, we weigh it, think about it before we say it, think about how it might affect her. We have to be very careful.”

Dima is the youngest Palestinian girl ever to be detained by the Israeli army. She was arrested on Feb. 9, 2016 on charges of attempting to stab Israeli soldiers at a settlement near Hebron. Since Oct. 2015, a systematic campaign of arrests has increasingly targeted children for offenses such as stone-throwing and carrying knives, creating a new generation of children deeply traumatized by time in Israeli jail. In February, the month Dima was arrested, the Israeli army detained a total of 406 children, one of the highest averages since 2008. And the numbers are rising: according to the most recently available statistics published by Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem, as of April 2016, 414 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli prisons as security detainees and prisoners.

Palestinian children arrested in the occupied West Bank face difficult, confusing and hostile circumstances from the minute their hands are tied with plastic restraints and they are blindfolded and sent to interrogation in a metal truck, the air-conditioner blasting icy air no matter the season. Child detainees like Dima report being interrogated without a lawyer or parents present, forced to sign confessions in Hebrew, subjected to torture and abuse by soldiers, and kept in solitary confinement.

Sahar Francis, Director of Addameer, a prisoner support and human rights association in Palestine, told Palestine Monitor that this type of treatment can scar children for life. “Whenever you’re arrested, after a couple of hours you’re a totally different person,” she explained. “This has a huge impact on the children’s lives. I think it never leaves them [...] and this is why in all of the cases I think they need special treatment after they are released, and there are some cases when it’s very hard to get over such experiences.”

The trauma of such aggressive interrogation tactics often causes detained children, who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, to confess after just a few hours, Francis said. “In most of the cases, they […] finish the interrogation in the detention center because this process of abuse and harassment would cause the child, especially if he is 14 or 13 and its his first [arrest], to confess within the first two hours or less than that.” Lawyers also often encourage families to accept a plea deal, effectively affirming the guilt of the child, in order to speed up the trial process, which can take over a year if it goes to a full court.

It’s rare that a case goes to a trial, and even more unusual for a Palestinian accused of any crime to be acquitted. “Most of the time the court agrees or accepts the arguments of the police and interrogators […] that [the child] was fully aware of his confession and gave it freely. And then there is nothing to fight against in these cases,” said Francis.

To add to the confusion, Israel uses two separate judicial systems to try Palestinians, depending on whether the accused person is arrested in, the Occupied West Bank or in Israel proper. Palestinians who live in or are arrested in the West Bank are tried under Israeli military law, which gives military courts the authority to “try any person located inside the occupied territory as long as they are 12 years or older,” according to Defense for Children International. Palestinians living in Israel and East Jerusalem, on the other hand, if arrested there, are tried in Israeli civil court. Dima, who was arrested in the West Bank, was sent to a military court, as are almost all children arrested there. What should be an exception — trying civilians in a military court — has become the rule.

The Israeli army arrests young Palestinian boys between the ages of 13 and 18 on a regular basis, but it is rare to see a female detainee as young as Dima, who was just 12 when she was arrested. “It was so embarrassing for them to justify arresting a 12-year-old girl,” said Francis. Dima was originally sentenced to four months and ten days in prison, but after a concerted international media campaign that put pressure on the Israeli government, she was released after two and a half months.

It will be a long time before the full effects of her detention become clear to Dima or her family. “There are a lot of changes to her personality since the arrest. She had a shock,” confided Dima’s father, Ibrahim Al-Wawi to Palestine Monitor. “When she was in prison, those days were terrible days. People would come by and ask where she was, they wanted to talk to her or talk to us about her. We didn’t know what to do. At night, her sisters would have nightmares about Dima, what happened to her. If those children here who are with their mothers and fathers, in a safe place like this, [are traumatized], how was it for her when she was alone?”

Her personality has changed, too. “Dima before prison used to run and play with her sisters, now she sits in her chair withdrawn. Sometimes I feel she’s much older than she really is,” her cousin, Ali, said. “Sometimes we talk to her and she stays quiet, hides her head in her hands, as if she doesn’t want to be with us.” During her interview with Palestine Monitor, Dima was restless, twisting her hands in her lap and whispering pleas to her mother across the room. Do I have to say that? Do I have to talk about this again? She oscillated between ebullient — telling stories about the girl friends she made in prison, many of whom were seriously wounded — and quiet, withdrawn and thoughtful, burying her head in her arms and sighing when asked, for the hundredth time, to describe her experience.

To confront the growing phenomenon of child arrests, detention and killings by the Israeli army, the Palestine Medical Relief Society (PMRS) on Monday, June 6, launched a new campaign, “Don’t Kill Our Childhood,” aimed at protecting children in Palestine from trauma and suffering at the hands of the Israeli army, and reclaiming their childhood and innocence. According to Mustafa Barghouti, founder of PMRS, child imprisonment is one of the biggest challenges the new campaign will tackle. “Children who are imprisoned or detained are suffering. We’re talking about kids as young as 5 and 6 years old detained in Hebron, just for a few hours, but that few hours could shock their life and change their life forever,” he said. “I believe also that the suffering they have inside the prison and during the arrest and detention [...] the severe violence that is used against them, the humiliation that is done to them […] all of these have a very deep psychological impact on them.”

Barghouti explained that the recent violations of children’s rights, from the spike in arrests after the October 2015 stabbing attacks to the detention of Dima at just 12 years old, represent a systematic assault against children and childhood in Palestine. Thus, the campaign will focus not just on the cause of the problem — the Israeli occupation — but it will also work to stop the Israeli army and security apparatus from mistreating children on a more immediate level.

“I think after 49 years of occupation, I look around and see generation after generation of children who have lost their childhood. But worse than that, during the last years, they didn’t only lose their childhood — they are losing their lives.

“I was myself a child in 1967 when we were occupied. I think I lost my childhood that day. I remember that very well because I became an adult overnight,” Barghouti said. “I think after 49 years of occupation, I look around and see generation after generation of children who have lost their childhood. But worse than that, during the last years, they didn’t only lose their childhood — they are losing their lives. The idea came to us that the best way of meeting this anniversary of 50 years of occupation is by engaging in a humanitarian campaign for the sake of children.”

Despite systematic arrests and detentions, abuse and torture, collective punishment and house demolitions, Palestinians have remained steadfast in their opposition to the occupation and its harsh practices. Barghouti remarks that the Israeli security apparatus has long searched for the reason for this solidarity, but perhaps they have been looking in the wrong place. “As long as they keep looking for military and intelligence answers, they will not find the answers,” Barghouti explained. “Only when they understand the social fabric of the Palestinian people will they understand that that’s why we are resilient. We are still here, like many other people who suffered in other countries and finally achieved their freedom.”

As for Dima, she is determined to finish her education in Palestine, and she’s off to a good start. After her release, she began to catch up in school, doing well in her exams and moving into the eighth grade. She wants to become a journalist when she grows up, “so I can show a picture of prisoners in Palestine to the rest of the world.” Dima’s message to the international audience now? “I want to tell them that there are children in Palestine who can’t live out their childhoods. They want to live as children, but the occupation kills them, puts them in jail, and separates them from their families.”

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