When the Boys Return

A group of Palestinian youths try to come to terms with their experience of being jailed by Israel.

Filmmaker: Tone Andersen

In Hebron in the West Bank, 11 young Palestinian men come together each week in a room at the YMCA.

All of them have spent time in Israeli jails. They are just a few of the 7,500 Palestinian minors aged between 12 and 18 who have gone through the prison system over the past 11 years.

The arrests of these youngsters, undertaken by the Israeli army, often happen at night. The most common charge is stone-throwing and the average sentence is two years.

When the boys return follows the group over 10 weeks as they take part in a structured course of therapy, run by counsellor Nader Khallaf, aimed at helping them re-integrate into normal life.Upon release, many former detainees display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and almost all find it difficult to slip back into the position they occupied in their families and communities prior to arrest.

Among the group are 15-year-old Mohammad Jamil, who was newly-released from prison when filming commenced, and 17-year-old Hamze Mahfouz.

Mohammad spends some days at demonstrations and some nights wandering the streets of his neighbourhood, coming close to re-arrest several times during filming. Eventually persuaded to enrol in a vocational course in car mechanics, he begins at last to settle in, much to his own surprise.

Hamze is articulate and polite, but struggles with aggression – often demonstrated through physical assaults on his brother – and is desperate to be the first son in his family to sit and pass the Tawjihi (senior high school exam).

Mohammad, Hamze and the group live with the fear that they could be re-arrested and taken back into prison at any time.

This subtle, moving and well-crafted film lays bare the challenges the youths face as they try to rebuild their lives in the face of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank.


By Tone Anderson

I first found out about Palestinian child prisoners when a 16-year-old boy from a family I knew in the West Bank was arrested and jailed. The family suggested I cover the topic as a news story but I wanted to do something more comprehensive, like a film, with which I could do the subject justice.

I was working as a cinematographer in the West Bank from 2002 and moved back to my native Norway four years later. But I could not stop thinking about the plight of the child prisoners and was bothered by the ignorance of the mainstream media over the issue. Since 2000, more than 8,000 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli jails.

Why weren’t more people outraged?

I started working on the documentary in 2007 and went on several research trips back to the West Bank to speak to former prisoners, human rights organisations and other groups that worked with young political prisoners.

It was clear from my initial research that, despite all the harrowing stories I had heard about life in prison, the most interesting aspect of this issue was to look at how these children would cope after they were released. I found myself wondering what the long term psychological effects on the children would be once they were let out of prison, and how the widespread and arbitrary arrest of these young men would impact Palestinian communities as a whole.

I met with representatives of the local YMCA office in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour and was introduced to their extensive rehabilitation programme, which is aimed in particular at supporting minor ex-detainees and their families. It was here that I met the subjects of my film.

Having worked as a cinematographer for many years, and feeling quite strongly about the issue, I wanted to tell this story in my own creative way. I wanted to make this film stand out amongst the regular, often rough, footage that we are used to seeing come out of this region. My wish was to create a film that brought something new – both visually and content-wise – and to get close-up and personal in a poetic way.

While researching the film, I came across several clips posted online by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights NGO, and the Wadi Hilweh Information Centre, an NGO opposed to illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Both organisations gave us permission to use their footage in our film.

A rough life

The videos showed children being dragged away by soldiers and put into police cars, before eventually ending up in prisons among adult inmates and adding to the already-swelling statistics on child detainees. Every year, 700 children from the occupied West Bank are prosecuted through Israeli military courts after being arrested, interrogated and detained by the Israeli army. The children are commonly charged with throwing stones, a crime that is punishable under Israeli military law by up to 20 years in prison.

I stayed in the West Bank for almost four months during the autumn of 2011, shooting this film with my Palestinian colleague Raghad Mukarker. We joined the YMCA staff as they visited families of newly-released child prisoners – an opportunity which helped us meet with and select the most interesting subjects of our film. Having spent so much time with the YMCA, a mutual trust grew between us which also helped the boys open up to us.

The environment in which we were making the film was one of uncertainty and fear. The boys were receiving therapy for the traumas they had been through, while constantly worrying that it would happen again. Israeli soldiers would make mandatory visits to the boys’ houses after violent demonstrations in the area, as their friends and family members were also arrested.

During our production schedule we were worried about the boys in our group being arrested again, without being able to do anything. The stress of total unpredictability wore us down so we discussed our anxieties with the staff at the therapy centre, who told us the fear of being arrested was widely felt throughout the area, and that they too had been arrested by the Israeli army at least once or had family members who had been arrested.

Despite having to deal with the constant fear of being detained, I found that the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank were determined to carry on as normal. I discovered a striking energy and courage in the boys, their families and the staff at the YMCA.

Indeed what struck me most about this project was the unrelenting spirit of the Palestinians and their ability to move forward and never give up – whether they were rebuilding their roads, getting back to school, attending therapy sessions or planning a better future.