Childhood in chains

Zainab’s fifteenth birthday was not at all what she had expected. There was no candle-lit cake, no drinks, no decorations - just a few pieces of bread and some half-cooked potatoes.



    Age is no bar to arrest in occupied

    There was no family to envelop her with the usual warmth and shower her with presents, just a sad fellow prisoner, with whom she was forced to share a 14-square-metre cell.


    Several hundred miles to the south, Zainab’s mother, Sama, sets the table for 10, just as she always has, bitterly aware that this year one of the chairs will be empty. 


    Every night, Sama’s prayers float past the barbed-wire fortified military outposts surrounding northern Israel's Ramleh prison.


    It was exactly 11 months ago that Israeli soldiers arrested Zainab as she walked to school in the town of Al-Khader near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, dragging her into the back of a military jeep and whisking her away to what seems like an eternal confinement.


    The last goodbye


    Days later an Israeli court sentenced her to 22 months in jail for hurling a “Molotov cocktail” at a military vehicle.


    “I had just made a sandwich for Zainab, kissed her goodbye and wished her good luck because it was the last day of exams. It was exactly a quarter to seven when she left for school,” Sama’ recalls.


    Minutes later, Zainab found herself facing armed soldiers, and being bundled at gunpoint into the back of a jeep, leaving behind her a crunched-up mound of books and pens that was once her bag.



    Taking the same road to work, her father’s cousin noticed the commotion. As they drove off, Zainab managed to fling
    open the rear doors for long enough to let him know she was being taken away.


    Zainab is one of 323 children who have been incarcerated by Israel over the past year and are currently being held in overcrowded, under-serviced jails, sometimes without trial or charge.


    An agonising wait for the
    loved ones in Israeli jails

    This practice, dubbed “administrative detention” is a euphemism for a notorious act first put into practice by the British Mandate, under which Israel can pass down sentences that are extendable by six months at a time, a discretion exercised liberally by Tel Aviv.


    UN convention flouted


    Many of the children incarcerated by the Jewish state are as young as 14, says the renowned Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem. One named Wa’el, is just a few months old. His mother, Mervat Taha, gave birth to him in jail.


    Under Israeli military regulations in force in the occupied Palestinian territory, anyone over the age of 16 is considered an adult. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is signatory, all peoples under the age of 18 should be treated as minors.


    The convention also states that the arrest, detention and imprisonment of minors should be done as a last resort and for the shortest possible time. And, it says that children should not be locked up with adults or criminal convicts.


    Like all 10 minors in Ramleh prison, Zainab is held alongside adults. Along with fellow Palestinian security detainees, she is also incarcerated with Israeli criminals, some of whom are convicted drug-dealers and murderers.

    Zainab’s lawyer says her detention is in clear violation of the UN convention.


    “There are no juvenile courts to try minors, who are often held and serve their sentences with criminal prisoners and are also not separated from adults. Both actions are illegal under international law,” says Mahmoud Hassan of Addameer, a Ramallah-based human rights group.


    Lost childhood: Palestinian children
    grow up fast

    According to Addameer and other human rights groups, there are 60 female detainees in al-Ramleh, including 10 under the age of 18.


    Two, including Zainab, turned 15 in prison, while Taha’s baby came into the world in the prison’s hospital and is being brought up in confinement.



    Minor offences


    According to B’Tselem, many children have been locked away for minor offences, such as stone-throwing. A small number is detained for more serious offences, including throwing Molotovs, or membership of political organisations the Israeli occupation forces have banned


    More disturbing however is the fact that 15 percent of convicted children have been sentenced to over three years in jail. Seventeen-year-old Mahdi Al-Nadi from Nablus was convicted for 20 years on a murder charge.


    Hassan believes the conditions under which minor inmates are held are inhumane.

    “The situation [in al-Ramleh prison] is miserable and I fear that the detainees’ conditions are deteriorating. The girls are constantly subject to collective punishments and routinely strip-searched without prior warning,” he said.


    In most cases, detainees’ families have been forbidden from providing their loved ones with basic food, such as tea and herbs, as well as schoolbooks and newspapers.


    “They are not even allowed the proper clothing items they are entitled to under law. The girls are often so desperate, they use each other’s underwear and clothes,” reveals Hassan.


    No basic amenities


    The advocate is also regularly informed by the female detainees that they lack basic items like shoes, warm clothes, blankets, and heaters. These are regularly provided to the other Israeli convicts by prison authorities.


    Zainab’s parents have tried to send her clothing items, letters, and books. Many of the items were returned and sometimes they reached their daughter too late.


    “At the beginning I was not even allowed to send Zainab any of her clothes. When I was, which was on rare occasions, the winter clothes I sent her were only given to her in the summer and her summer clothes reached her in winter,” says her mother.


    Sama longs to hear her daughter’s voice, a right snatched from her by administrative detentions rules.


    Calls barred


    According to Addameer, in Israel a convicted criminal can make telephone calls, but Palestinian prisoners are prevented from doing so for so-called “security reasons”. Even in humanitarian emergencies such as bereavement, prisoners are not permitted to pay their respects by phone.


    These days, the only news Sama receives about her daughter comes through their lawyers and the parents of other detainees who have been allowed the odd visit.


    In her desperation, Sama has also resorted to a local Palestinian radio station to try and get a few words of comfort to her daughter. If she is lucky, Zainab will have
    access to a radio on the same day.


    “I know we can’t hear her,” she says. “But at least she can hear us and that is good enough for me.”



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