Thirteen-year-old Mohammed Saadi was kidnapped, blindfolded, beaten and threatened with a gun to his head by five men in his hometown of Umm al-Fahem.
It was May 20 and Saadi was among thousands who gathered for a funeral procession held for Mohammed Kiwan, a 17-year-old boy who was shot by Israeli police a week earlier.
At the time, tensions escalated in occupied East Jerusalem over Israel’s planned forced expulsion of Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, and Israel’s military assault on Gaza, leading thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel to protest on a near-daily basis across towns and cities in Israel.
The five men had been near the march for Kiwan in Umm al-Fahem, a town in central Israel that is predominantly inhabited by Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.
They covered their faces with masks and scarves and were dressed like any Palestinian in Israel participating in a sit-in.
Except they were armed and belonged to a part of the Israeli police’s Musta’ribeen unit – an undercover unit made up of Israelis disguised as Palestinians. Its agents usually attend Palestinian protests with the intention of arresting demonstrators.
In the past, they have even killed Palestinians.
When the march ended, at around 8pm, Saadi and his 15-year-old brother headed home. They approached a roundabout packed with police and army soldiers.
“Out of nowhere, five men stormed out from a silver car nearby and surrounded us. I couldn’t see any of their faces,” Saadi told Al Jazeera, days after he was released.
“They assaulted me and were shoving me around and forced me into that same car. Thankfully, my brother managed to run away, so they only got me.”
Inside the car, Saadi was blindfolded and was threatened with death. He did not know where he was going, and did not know what he had done wrong.
“They threatened to kill me and constantly used foul language. They insulted my mother, my sister and my whole family,” he said.
“I asked them to stop, but with every attempt to respond I was met with a beating.”
“They hit my whole body – my head, my arms, my legs. My face was swollen but I would have rather died than be humiliated,” Saadi said.
‘Worried about my family’
Upon arriving at the police station, his arms and feet were cuffed together. Even though his head was bleeding, he did not get any medical attention.
For three hours, while in pain, he was not allowed to contact members of his family or a lawyer.
“I wasn’t scared, I just didn’t want them to punish my parents for something I may have done. I was really worried about my family, more than anything,” Saadi said.
A female police officer who spoke Arabic interrogated him. According to Saadi, she tried to make him confess for things he said he had not done.
“They accused me of assaulting a police officer and throwing rocks – but I didn’t do any of that.”
His father, Shadi Saadi, told Al Jazeera he received a call from the station about his son “three hours after his arrest”.
He was released at 3am, hours after his father arrived at the station with a lawyer.
Agents with the Musta’ribeen unit are usually fluent in Arabic and are familiar with Palestinian culture. They pose as Arabs and carry out operations inside Palestinian communities.
Similarly, in Haifa, 15-year-old Youssef was arrested on May 12 by police from the Musta’ribeen unit, according to his lawyer, Janan Abdu.
A video provided by Abdu shows the moment Youssef was arrested.
Youssef’s lawyer requested Al Jazeera not to use his last name, fearing reprisals.
That night, Youssef spent time at a friend’s house where he heard that far-right mobs, mostly made up of Jewish settlers, were attacking Palestinians and their homes.
As he walked home, he saw a group of men with their faces covered, running towards him with sticks and metal rods.
He ran, thinking they were members of the far-right gangs.
According to Abdu, a Haifa-based lawyer with the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel who has volunteered to defend imprisoned Palestinians, the men ran after him, pinned him to the ground, and beat him with the rods “until his head started bleeding”.
“They ended up breaking his nose,” Abdu, who is planning on filing a formal complaint on Youssef’s behalf, told Al Jazeera.
She said a large number of children have been singled out by the police’s Musta’ribeen unit in recent weeks.
“These extreme cases are becoming the norm,” she said.
‘Intentionally targeting minors’
The arrests of Saadi and Youssef appear to be part of the Israeli police’s “Operation Law and Order” campaign announced on Sunday.
The wave of mass detentions is aimed at punishing Palestinian citizens of Israel for their participation in protests against settler violence, the Israeli forces’ crackdown on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the military’s 11-day bombardment of Gaza, legal experts and rights groups told Al Jazeera.
In a statement, the Israeli police said more than 1,550 Palestinians have been arrested since May 9.
More than 300 have been detained this week alone across towns and cities in Israel including Haifa, Yafa, Lydd, al-Jalil (the Galilee), and al-Naqab (the Negev).
To date, 140 indictments have been brought against 230 people, the majority of whom are Palestinians, including minors. They have been charged with assaulting police officers, demonstrating, and throwing stones.
Most of the time, when children are indicted, they are charged with throwing stones – a crime that comes with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
In Haifa, children make up 20 percent of the arrests, according to Abdu, who has documented the detentions with other volunteer lawyers.
“No protest ever ends without arrests,” she said. “They are intentionally targeting minors.”
Daily figures released by the public prosecution do not include the number of children arrested.
But there has “definitely been an uptick in the number of child arrests”, Ayed Abu Qtaish, the accountability programme director for Defence for Children International – Palestine (DCIP), told Al Jazeera from Jerusalem.
“There is usually an uptick in the number of children arrested when political tensions are high,” he said.
Though Palestinian children are protected by international law, in reality there is a “gap between the standard and the application”, Abu Qtaish said.
According to the most recent figures, which date back to September 2020, there were 167 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons. At its peak in March 2016, the number of children detained stood at 440.
Meanwhile, Raafat Abu Ayesh, an activist in al-Naqab, said Palestinians “are being shot at in the streets”, referring to the recent violence hardline Jewish gangs inflicted on Palestinians.
The mobs have been backed by police, according to local media reports and at times the far-right activists have assisted in arresting Palestinians during confrontations.
“The way they apply the law to Palestinians is completely different from how they apply it to Jewish citizens,” Abu Ayesh said. “Their ‘democracy’ only applies to Jewish citizens.”
There are some 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel and they make up about 20 percent of the country’s population.
While they hold citizenship and have the right to vote, they have long faced discrimination. To date, many Palestinian communities inside Israel are also under-funded and marginalised.
Abu Ayesh estimated at least 150 Palestinian children in Israel have been arrested in the past two weeks. Their arrests, he said, are a “punishment tool used to silence us”.
“Here in the Negev, for instance, targeting kids is done to scare and place pressure on their families.”
It is also easier for the police to obtain false confessions from minors as opposed to adults, Abu Ayesh explained.
According to Abdu, 15-year-old Youssef’s lawyer, violations take place inside interrogation rooms, especially those run by the Shabak – Israel’s internal security service, also known as Shin Bet – which is notorious for the controversial methods it uses against Palestinian prisoners.
While “tens of minors” have been indicted so far, some – instead of being released – remain in prolonged detention even if the judge calls for their release, Youssed al-Zayed, a lawyer in al-Jalil, said.
“This happens when the public prosecution appeals to the judge and they are forced to keep the child in custody.”
Al-Zayed said most children he sees at the police stations have signs of being assaulted and spend hours without any access to a lawyer
“Under Israeli law, police are obligated to inform those detained of their right to obtain legal advice,” he told Al Jazeera.
But when the Shin Bet are involved in interrogations, he said, it is hard to know if the child was informed of their rights simply because lawyers are barred from accessing their clients.
‘Crush their spirit’
At times, children are prevented from seeing their lawyers for up to 48 hours under the pretext of “security”.
“I’ve seen children as young as 10, 11, and 12 years old held in custody. It’s the first time I see children being arrested in huge numbers and with such monstrosity,” al-Zayed said.
The arrests are a way to “terrorise an entire generation from speaking out”, he said. “It’s an attempt to crush their spirit.”
But children such as Saadi say they will never stop speaking out for “what’s right” and supporting the Palestinian people.
When asked if his experience in detention would stop him from participating in upcoming marches, Saadi said: “On the contrary.
“I will take to the streets again, and again, and again.”