Israel arrests 14-year-old US citizen

Mohammad Khaleq is one of more than 8,000 Palestinian children held by Israel since the year 2000.

Clashes near Israeli military prison Ofer
Ofer prison has seen harsh responses to protests held in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners within [EPA]

Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories – On April 11, in one of the trailer caravans that house the Israeli military courtrooms at Ofer prison, three boys sat in the brown Israeli Prison Service shabas uniform. Their feet shackled, their eyes darting between the judge, their lawyers, and their families.

The youngest was 14-year-old Mohammad Khaleq, a short, skinny boy with a light brown birthmark under his right eye and a heart murmur since birth. Mohammad was arrested from his home in the village of Silwad, near Ramallah, in a 2:00am raid on Friday April 5. Eight heavily armed soldiers burst in to the modest home, waking the Khaleq family – the two parents and six children, the youngest just six years old – and gathered them in one room.

Mohammed was born in New Orleans [Addameer]

“The soldiers thought they had come to arrest me,” Mohammad’s father, 46-year-old Abdelwahab, told Al Jazeera. “When they saw that Mohammad was just a kid they felt embarrassed, but they still took him away.”

Mohammad, who was born in New Orleans and holds US citizenship, was reportedly beaten up inside the Israeli military jeep and taken to an illegal Israeli settlement named Ofra, where he says he spent twelve hours blindfolded, handcuffed, and shackled at the legs. Israeli soldiers would roughly move him from one area to the next, and in one instance he says, pushed him so hard he fell on a rock and broke his dental braces.

At 2:00pm, he was taken to the Benyamin police detention centre, where he was interrogated for a further two hours without the presence of a lawyer or his parents. By that time, Abdelwahab had arrived at the detention centre and was demanding to see his son. Mohammad heard his father’s voice, and told Al Jazeera that Israeli interrogators “tricked him” into confessing to throwing rocks in exchange for being able to see his father. Mohammad says he confessed, but was not allowed to see his father.

A Israeli military spokesman said no abuse complaints had been filed at the time of his detention, according to the Associated Press news agency.

Legal aid?

“The soldiers thought they had come to arrest me. When they saw Mohammed was just a kid they felt embarrassed, but they still took him away.

– Abdelwahab Khaleq, Mohammed’s father

It wasn’t until two days later that a lawyer had access to Mohammad, who was moved to Ofer prison in Betunia, northwest of Ramallah. Four days after his arrest, a representative from the United States consulate saw Mohammad. The US official later called Mohammed’s father. “There is not much we can do,” Abdelwahab was told.

“What do you expect from the US government?” asked Abdelwahab, who moved to the occupied Palestinian territories in 1999. “They’re obligated to do something for a US-born child with American citizenship, but they won’t.”

The US State Department confirmed the arrest of the US citizen by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank. “We expect any government that arrests a US citizen to ensure the US citizen is treated fairly,” read a statement issued the day before Mohammad’s first hearing. “Our role in an arrest case generally includes monitoring cases with a view to whether US citizens are treated properly, ensuring that they have access to a list of attorneys, and facilitating communication with family and friends.”

Arresting children

Mohammad Khaleq, an honours student in the ninth grade, is one of 236 Palestinian children in Israeli jails, according to UNICEF. Having a foreign passport in addition to his Palestinian identity papers does not grant Mohammad any special treatment, and he is set to be tried in a military court that does not fully differentiate between children and adults. 

An estimated 700 children are arrested by Israel every year, according to a recent report [PDF] released by UNICEF, where many suffer beatings, verbal abuse, psychological intimidation and sleep deprivation. Since the year 2000, more than 8,000 children have been arrested, with the Israeli military court conviction rate standing at 99.74 percent.

This image, representing a Palestinian prisoner in an
Israeli jail, went viral on social media in 2012
[Hafez Omar]

The most common reason for arresting Palestinian children is for throwing rocks, yet Defense for Children International lists other purposes, such as to recruit future collaborators and informers for the Israeli government, to obtain information that could incriminate others, to threaten and intimidate those who actively resist the Israeli occupation, and to use the children as bargaining chips to pressure communities or politicians.

Under Israeli military order 1644 (2009), a military juvenile court was established. This followed international criticism of Israel over children as young as 12 being tried in adult courts for the previous 40 years. The changes are largely cosmetic, say analysts, as children are still tried in military courts and are subjected to four days’ incarceration without seeing a (military) judge. They can be held for 60 days in detention without being charged, and up to 90 days without seeing a lawyer.

“Under Military Order 1651, children aged 14-15 years old are classified as ‘young adults’ and therefore minors,” explained Randa Wahbeh, an advocacy officer with Addameer, a prisoner rights organisation.

“They can serve a maximum sentence of 12 months in prison, unless the offence carries a maximum penalty of five years or more. So, in the case of Mohammad, who is being charged with throwing stones at a moving vehicle, the maximum penalty is 20 years – so, theoretically, he can be sentenced to the maximum penalty of 20 years.”

Stone throwing

Firas Sabbah, Mohammad’s lawyer, said that the 14-year-old was being charged with throwing rocks between September 2012 until April 2, 2013.

“Theoretically, he can be sentenced to the maximum penalty of 20 years.

– Randa Wahbeh, Addameer

“It’s impossible to release him on bail,” Sabbah said. “The best case is to cut a deal. The problem is that Mohammad himself confessed to throwing rocks five times a week at [yellow-licensed Israeli] cars on Route 60, and on April 2 on Israeli military jeeps as they entered Silwad.”

His father says that is not possible.

“There’s no way he threw rocks that frequently,” argued Abdelwahab, who studied a pre-medical programme at the University of Colorado. “Either I or his mother pick him up after school and take him home. Throwing rocks will not do anything against the Israeli occupation except burying the kid six feet under. Resisting in my opinion should be through knowledge and college.”

Mohammad’s case, first adjourned to Sunday, April 14, was again deferred to Wednesday, April 17 as the Israeli prosecutor requested an extension to examine the boy’s case further. As Mohammad got up to leave, he flashed a small smile in the direction of his father, who advised him to organise his time well in prison, to keep reading, and to stay away from the inmates who smoke, which might aggravate his heart murmur.

“Do not under any circumstances take any medicine from them,” his father warned. “I don’t trust them. Take care of yourself, son.”

Follow Linah Alsaafin on Twitter: @LinahAlsaafin

Source: Al Jazeera