Palestinian children behind Israeli bars

Palestinian children behind Israeli bars
Feature: As many as 700 Palestinian children are arrested by Israel each year according to an international rights group. Some are defiant. Others bear the marks.
6 min read
19 February, 2015
Malak Khatib, 14, made the headlines, but Israel regularly imprisons Palestinian children. (AFP)

Hamza Ramlawi is 13, but he doesn’t look a day over 10. So when Israeli undercover police chased and caught him in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways, they could not have taken him for anything other than a child.


“I squirmed out of their hands the first time,” Hamza says with more than just a hint of pride. “But they chased me again, grabbing me from the back of my pants. I screamed at them to let me go, that I would walk on my own.”


Over the next seven hours, Hamza was taken to a

     He is quieter now, more subdued. And he doesn’t like loud noises.

police station, kept in a holding cell and hounded by interrogators over security camera shots showing him and his friends throwing rocks.

That was in July 2014, during Ramadan. Hamza and his friend, who was also apprehended, were fasting.


“The policemen kept trying to force us to drink water,” he says. They kept saying: “Thank God, we are not Muslim”. Hamza, thirsty, but determined not to break his fast or his will to defy “the enemy”, shot back: “Good, we don’t want you.”


In the West Bank, 14-year old Malak Khatib has made global headlines in recent weeks after she was arrested in January. She was finally released from an Israeli prison last week after spending 45 days behind bars. Malak was arrested on charges of stone throwing in her Ramallah-area village of Biteen and also accused of wielding a knife with the intention of stabbing a soldier.

Walking down the street


“I did neither, I was just walking down the street,” the young girl said during an interview with Voice of Palestine Radio after her release. She said the soldiers threw her to the ground, hit her, cursed her and accused her of wanting to “kill Jews”, before carting her off to interrogation and slapping her with a 6,000 Israeli shekel ($1,500) fine and a two-month jail sentence.


The ordeals of Malak and Hamza are shocking, but not uncommon. Defence for Children International – Palestine says between 500-700 Palestinian children are arrested, detained and prosecuted by Israel’s military each year. Many are mistreated, blindfolded and held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. In part this is explained by Israeli military law. According to Military Order 132, a Palestinian child is defined as anyone under the age of 12, which means anyone over that age can be tried in a military court and any child 16 or above can be tried as an adult.


This only applies to Palestinian children, since they are ultimately under Israeli military rule. Not one Israeli child has ever stood trial in military court. The DCI report, released on February 9, documents the detention of 107 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 throughout 2014. “Unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian children have no right to be accompanied by a parent during interrogation. In 93 percent of cases, children were deprived of legal counsel and rarely informed of their rights,” reads the report.


Hamza, who lives in the Old City’s Muslim quarter, can corroborate this claim. While at the police station, Israeli interrogators did not wait for Hamza’s parents before questioning their son and demanding he sign a ‘confession’ to secure his release. The street-smart Hamza however, refused. “I told them, no way. I will not sign anything until my father comes.” His father was not allowed to see his son for the entire seven hours, during which Hamza was duly booked and fingerprinted. Luckily for this little boy, his run-in with Israel’s military did not last long and he was sent home later that evening on a surety bond of $785.


Fourteen-year old Ayman Abbasi did not get off so easily. Two years ago, Abbasi was arrested in the East Jerusalem district of Ras al-Amoud. Snatched from his family home in the middle of the night, Ayman was kept in detention for two weeks. “When they [Israeli troops] came, they told us they just wanted to take him for questioning and would let him go,” says his brother Anwar.

When he was finally released, Ayman, whose older brother Mohammed had also been arrested a week earlier, was made to pay a fine of $1,350 and put under house arrest for 10 months. No official charges had been brought against the boy. He could not get to school and missed out on the entire year.

Ayman's scars

Hamza's childlike but inflated self-image has taken no harm from Israeli detention. Others are not so lucky. (Photo: Joharah Baker)

However, Israel was not finished with the teen. Just weeks later, Ayman was arrested again, this time sentenced to a year and eight months behind bars. Recently released, at 16 and with so many gaps in his education, Anwar says the family is looking to enrol him in vocational training to guarantee him some sort of future.


Ayman, Hamza and Malak all have a strong family support system, friends and a loving community. Malak was greeted by hugs, kisses and congratulatory pats on the back from her parents and scores of supporters at the Israeli checkpoint where she was released. Hamza, dabbles with an iPhone, flipping through pictures of himself and his family, explaining where each one was taken.


There is enough attention on the issue for some Israelis to try and spin a different line from that of citizens of a country that actively and “legally” pursues and prosecutes children.  A February 15 article published in the Israeli daily Haaretz entitled: Israeli judge: Some Palestinian minors see jail sentence as way of escaping home, detailed claims by Israeli lawyers and judges that several Palestinian minors who clash with the Israeli army are looking to get arrested in order to escape problems at home.


Jerusalem attorney Farah Bayadsi of the Addameer Association for Human Rights dismisses such claims as bogus. “If anything, the reason these children go out on the streets is because of the harsh reality the occupation has created for them,” she says. “Israel’s police and army generate a lot of anger in them; they see violence and oppression every day.”


Bayadsi believes Israel has other motives for targeting Palestinian children, in Jerusalem in particular.


“Israel is exploiting their childhood, their innocence,” she says. During questioning, Bayadsi explains, Israeli interrogators mostly hound these children about information on other people, relying on their childish natures to tell all. “They ask them, ‘who was with you, who do you know?’ in the hopes of gathering information on the children’s older siblings or friends. An added reward, of course, is if the children are traumatized by the experience to deter them from participating in “resistance” in the future.


In the case of Hamza, Israel seems to have missed its mark. His slight stature is no indication of his roughhouse character and he has a childlike but inflated self-image. When asked if he was scared at any point during his arrest, he nonchalantly clicks his tongue on the back of his teeth, a nonverbal gesture in Arab culture indicating negation. “Me? No way. They didn’t scare me one bit.”


Ayman, whose prison experience is much more extensive, was wary to sit for an interview. Anwar however, offered a glimpse into his brother’s altered personality. “He has changed,” he says. When asked in what way, he pauses for a moment. “He is quieter now, more subdued. And he doesn’t like loud noises.”