Palestinian children live life of hardship in Israeli lockup

More than 350 Palestinian children are behind Israeli bars, where human rights groups say they endure mistreatment.

Omar''s photos at home [Shatha Hammad]
Some Palestinian children have been tried in absentia, while the majority receive what rights groups call unreasonably harsh sentences [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Omar al-Rimawi has not been home since he was arrested by Israeli troops more than two years ago, but his photos line the walls of the halls and rooms of his home.

Although just 16 years old now, Omar could be sentenced to life in prison stemming from his arrest on February 18, 2016.

Samir Mahmoud al-Rimawi, Omar’s 49-year-old father, and Lana, his mother, have attended more than 40 court sessions in that time.

Sitting with Omar’s siblings in their home, Samir and Lana struggle to hold back tears as they recall the painful details of their son’s imprisonment.

Omar's parents have attended more than 40 court sessions since 2016 [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Omar’s parents have attended more than 40 court sessions since 2016 [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Coming back from yet another court hearing, they had no new information for Omar’s brothers and sisters.

Omar is a bright boy, was a model student at an upscale private school in Ramallah, and he excelled in football, swimming and karate, his parents tell Al Jazeera. His family dreamed that he would one day become a doctor.

Samir recalls the fateful evening when he learned of Omar’s arrest.

On that night, his son was meant to be attending an English-language course, but Samir received a shocking phone call from Israeli intelligence demanding that he come to the interrogation centre where Omar was being held at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The voice on the other end of the phone did not explain why Samir was being summoned, but within a few minutes, he learned from Israeli media reports that Omar and his friend Ayman al-Sabah, both of whom were 14 at the time, had been shot at a Rami Levy supermarket near Ramallah.

The boys were accused of carrying out a deadly stabbing attack. 

Israel’s widespread arrests and imprisonment of Palestinian children have been broadly condemned by human rights groups and watchdogs.

Omar and Ayham are among more than 350 Palestinian children who are currently in Israeli lockup, according to a joint statement recently published by the Palestinian Committee for Prisoners Affairs and the Palestinian Prisoners Club.

Bleak picture

Thus far in 2018, Israeli forces have arrested more than 353 children, and at least 102 – most of whom are from occupied East Jerusalem – were placed under house arrest between December 2017 and February this year.

The joint statement painted a bleak picture for Palestinian children in Israeli custody. The allegations include the use of brute force, restraining children in cruel ways, withholding food and water, violence and verbal aggression during interrogation and forcing confessions, among others.

Some of the children have been tried in absentia, while the majority have received what rights groups call unreasonably harsh sentences and expensive fines.

Ayed Abu Eqtaish, the accountability programme director at Defence for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P), argues that Israeli courts fail to respect established rules for detaining and trying children in court.

Although Israel is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it ignores that agreement’s restrictions when dealing with Palestinian children, Abu Eqtaish tells Al Jazeera.

Rather than seeking alternatives to prison, Israeli courts regularly impose lengthy sentences on the children and impose costly fines on their families, Abu Eqtaish adds.

And despite Israel’s use of forced confessions and other apparent violations of international norms, Abu Eqtaish fears that Israel has been allowed to operate with impunity.

Dreaming of freedom

In the wake of Omar’s arrest, a flurry of contradictory stories began to circulate. Some of the rumours purported that the boys had been killed, while others alleged they were seriously injured by the gunshot wounds.

Omar and Ayham are among more than 350 Palestinian children in Israeli lockup [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Omar and Ayham are among more than 350 Palestinian children in Israeli lockup [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Israeli authorities, however, refused to update the Rimawi family about their son’s health, Samir says. It was only six days later that they were finally permitted to visit Omar.

“Omar was in the intensive care unit, his hands and feet were restrained, and he was surrounded by three Israeli soldiers,” Samir remembers grimly, explaining that Omar was subsequently carted from one prison to the next.

“I only saw him for five minutes, but during that time I found out that he had been paralysed because one of the three bullets that hit him had lodged in his spine. Another one had stopped near his heart, and the third had hit his arm.”

During that brief visit, Samir learned that Omar would need upwards of six years of physiotherapy if he were to ever walk again. He credits Omar’s strong, athletic physique with allowing the boy to walk after a mere six months.

Samir accuses Israeli authorities of mistreating his son, alleging that Omar was left in the rain on a gurney outside the court where he had his first hearing only a few days after his arrest.

Since 2015, Israel has lowered the minimum age of criminal responsibility, allowing Palestinian children as young as 12 to be arrested and charged and making it easier for judges to hand down lengthy sentences to minors.

Ayham and Omar are both awaiting a verdict that could land them behind bars for life. Omar’s family say his lawyer expects that Omar will “most likely” receive a life sentence as Israel’s military court system has a 99 percent conviction rate. 

A slew of reports in Israeli media outlets called for the boys to be severely punished, and Samir says the Israeli prosecutor’s office has refused to negotiate with Omar’s lawyers. Their appeals for compassion based on the boy’s age have fallen on deaf ears.

Meanwhile, Samir and Lana are allowed to see Omar only once every three months, and Omar is barred from calling or writing to them.

“We visit with him behind a glass barrier; we can’t hug or kiss him,” Samir says. “Every time we see him, he’s grown, he’s taller, and his mind has matured more.”

Birthday behind bars

On June 22, Mohamed Tayseer Taha will turn 17. He will celebrate his birthday in prison, because, like hundreds of Palestinian children, he languishes behind bars.

His mother, Hanan, and father, Tayseer, sit in their home in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. The television is switched off; the home is silent and still, and photos of the absent teenager line the wall behind them.

“I wish I could serve his sentence in his place. I would do it rather than have him spend another minute in jail,” Tayseer says before collapsing in tears and leaving the room to dry his eyes.

'I wish I could serve his sentence in his place,' Mohamed's father says [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
‘I wish I could serve his sentence in his place,’ Mohamed’s father says [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Mohamed, 14 at the time, was arrested on January 31, 2016, along with 16-year-old Monther Abou Miyala.

Accused of stabbing an Israeli settler in Jerusalem’s Old City the day before, the boys had gone into hiding before eventually being arrested.

Fearing for the children’s lives, their families had been searching frantically for them. “An Israeli officer called me [on January 30] and said I had to hand over Mohamed or he would shoot and kill him wherever and whenever he found him,” Tayseer says.

When Mohamed came home the next day, his family had no choice but to deliver him to Israeli authorities.

A year later, an Israeli court sentenced Mohamed to 11 years in prison and imposed a roughly $14,245 fine on his family.

His mother was shocked and stricken with grief.

“I never expected that ruling against Mohamed, every session I was expecting Mohamed to come home with me,” Hanan says.

“The initial demand was that he be jailed five years, and we were shocked in that last session when the judge sentenced him to 11 years instead.”

Tayseer and Hanan are allowed to visit their son twice a month. But, like the Rimawi family, they can only communicate with him through a thick glass barrier.

“The visits are hard,” Hanan explains. “We’re searched very thoroughly; then we have to wait for hours before we’re able to get in and see him. When I finally do see him, everything I planned to say to him flies out of my mind, and I am happy just gazing at him.”

‘He always tries to be strong’

Mohamed tries to put on a happy appearance for his family. He avoids talking about his tribulations behind bars, and arrives for every scheduled meeting in tidy clothes, with well-groomed hair and a broad smile on his face.

But Hanan suspects Mohamed is trying to shield them from the pain he endures. “I feel that Mohamed is hiding a lot from me, but he always tries to be strong in front of us [and] to only tell us the good news.”

Behind bars, Mohamed told his family, he had become a barber for the other children where he is imprisoned in Megiddo prison.

On several occasions, his fellow prisoners have visited the Taha family after being released from jail. They tell Tayseer and Hanan about how widely respected and loved Mohamed is, and one brought Hanan flowers at Mohamed’s request.

Despite Mohamed’s efforts, he cannot always hide his sadness from his mother. Sometimes he confides that he struggles with complex feelings of both happiness and despair when his cellmates are released, and fears that he will never be free.

Mohamed tries to put on a happy face for his family [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Mohamed tries to put on a happy face for his family [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Throughout his two years in prison, Mohamed has asked his parents to bring photos of his four siblings and his nieces and nephews as well as the family pets, including their dog, Rambo, and Mohamed’s flock of pigeons.

For Tayseer, just being at home is a constant – and piercing – reminder of his son’s imprisonment.

“I can’t stay in the house with Mohamed not here,” he says. “I spend as much time as I can outside the house and come back at night to sit here and look at his photos and cry.”

They recently filed an appeal in Mohamed’s case, but it was rejected, and his 11-year-sentence was upheld.

‘Childhood stolen’

Nourhan was 16 years old when she was arrested in Jerusalem for allegedly attempting to stab an Israeli settler with scissors.

She had been a successful student, and continued her studies in prison, receiving a 94 percent score on the standardised high school exams. But rather than being able to plan for university, where she hoped to study law, Nourhan has to continue serving a 13-year prison sentence.

On November 23, 2016, Israeli forces shot Nourhan and her 14-year-old cousin Hadeel after the alleged attempted stabbing. Hadeel died on the spot, and Israeli forces arrested Nourhan, who had been left gravely injured and bleeding on the ground.

Nourhan has remained an avid reader while in detention [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Nourhan has remained an avid reader while in detention [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

Four days later, while Nourhan was still in hospital and under the influence of powerful anaesthesia after surgery, Israeli interrogators questioned the girl, her mother tells Al Jazeera.

Her mother, Manal, says the family was stunned when an Israeli court later sentenced her to 13 years. They were also given an $8,000 fine.

“The lawyer told us that she would be sentenced to five years, but at the last session, we were shocked to hear the sentence – 13 years,” Manal recollects. “It was a terrible blow to all of us and to Nourhan. She fainted, and the rest of us ran out of the court crying and screaming.”

Remembering the arduous details of her daughter’s arrest and sentencing, Manal is gradually overcome with tears.

“In the blink of an eye, Nourhan’s childhood was stolen, she was wrenched from my arms and [she was] put in prison,” Manal laments.

“I miss her every minute of the day. Her siblings have grown accustomed to her absence; they don’t ask when she will be back – they ask when the next visit will be.”

Nourhan's mother: 'I miss her every minute of the day' [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]
Nourhan’s mother: ‘I miss her every minute of the day’ [Shatha Hammad/Al Jazeera]

In prison, Nourhan has remained an avid reader, always asking her month to bring new books when she visits.

“Every visit, Nourhan tells me about the latest book she read and gives me a synopsis of it,” Manal explains.

“She told me that she has learned Hebrew and speaks it very well now and is also teaching math to the other imprisoned girls.”

Ever hopeful that Nourhan will eventually come home, Manal nonetheless has endured an array of punitive hardships imposed by Israeli authorities, including the cancellation of her husband’s work permit and the family’s reunification application.

Back in their Ramallah home, the Rimawi family knows Manal’s pain well – and share her steadfast resolve to never abandon hope for the future.

“I know Omar will be sentenced to life in prison,” Samir, Omar al-Rimawi’s father, says.

“But I dream that he will be liberated and get some of his childhood back, continue the normal life I always hoped he would have.”

Source: Al Jazeera