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Yazan Al-Jundi, a slender 16-year-old Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem, loves taking selfies, chatting on Facebook and playing soccer.
Though in many ways a typical teenager, Al-Jundi is also especially vigilant for his age: Last year, he was arrested three times by Israeli security forces.
Al-Jundi is one of at least 700 Palestinian minors who were arrested in Jerusalem during 2014, according to the UNICEF office in Jerusalem. In addition to the 860 Palestinian minors arrested in the West Bank last year (according to data given to Al Jazeera America by the Israeli military) 1,560 Palestinian children in total were taken into Israeli custody.
Al-Jundi was detained for the first time last June while leaving Al Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem after afternoon prayers. He and five friends were forced to stand for two hours in the sun, Al-Jundi said, before they were transferred to a police station. One by one, they were handcuffed, their legs were shackled and they were individually taken for interrogation.
“My turn came and there was a Druze investigator,” Al-Jundi recalled. “She tried tricking me, saying that I threw stones… she shouted at me, but I wouldn’t cooperate, so she threatened to bring the ranking officer to beat me.”
At 1 a.m., Al-Jundi was taken to the police station in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound where he was ordered to strip naked. After he was permitted to dress, he was put in a dirty cell with three other boys. “The smell of the blankets was deadly,” he said.
Al-Jundi was released without charge that afternoon, but was banned from Al Aqsa for 15 days.
Palestinian children in Jerusalem fall under Israeli civil law, and are technically protected by Israel’s Youth Law, which is intended to safeguard the welfare of minors. Civil rights organizations, however, claim that the law is often applied discriminatorily. “In the Youth Law, there are supposed to be general norms, with certain exceptions in extreme circumstances,” says Farah Bayadsi, an attorney for Addameer, a prisoner support organization. “But [with Palestinian minors] the exception becomes the norm.”
Palestinian children in the West Bank, who are subject to Israeli military law as opposed to civil law, are not entitled to any protection from the Youth Law. Palestinian minors under military law have only two rights: against self-incrimination and to consult a lawyer, says Ivan Karakashian, advocacy unit coordinator of DCIP, “and they’re seldom advised of their rights.” DCIP’s statistics for 2014 show that in 94.4 percent of West Bank cases involving minors, no lawyer was present. Israeli children, whether from a settlement in the West Bank or inside Israel, including Jerusalem, all fall under the Israeli civil system, and therefore, if arrested, face an entirely different process than their Palestinian counterparts do in the West Bank.
Taken into custody
One night last February at 3 a.m., 10 balaclava-clad Israeli soldiers entered the West Bank home of 17-year-old Abdurrahman An-Najjar. He says that one soldier grabbed him, slapped his face and pushed him against the wall. They handcuffed and blindfolded him, and led him to a military jeep without informing him why he was being arrested or where they were taking him.
“We were very sad and worried. We kept living in anticipation of knowing his whereabouts,” says An-Najjar’s mother. In the military court system, children can be held between 24 and 96 hours before appearing in front of a military judge, says Karakashian, and longer if there are exceptional circumstances such as a “ticking time-bomb situation.” Children are not allowed access to an attorney until they see a judge. “In some cases, particularly if it’s a night arrest, and the child is first transferred to a military base before reaching the police station for interrogation, the parents have no idea why their child was arrested, or where he’s being taken,” Karakashian says.
Palestinian minors in both the West Bank and Jerusalem face physical violence from Israeli soldiers and police during arrest, transfer and interrogation, but it’s more widespread in the West Bank. Although the IDF strongly disputes allegations that the treatment of minors constitutes "abuse," according to data provided by DCIP, 55 percent of detained Palestinian children from Jerusalem reported physical violence in 2014; in the West Bank, it was 75.7 percent.
Soldiers ordered me to strip down to my underwear to search me. They ordered me to sit and stand many times. They wanted to make fun of me.
Thabet ‘Edaily, 16-year-old Palestinian
Last July, 16-year-old Thabet ‘Edaily awoke in his village near Nablus at 1:30 a.m. to soldiers banging on his front door. He recalls being led out of the house, where “a soldier tied my hands in front with a plastic cord that he tightened so hard and blindfolded me.” A military jeep drove him to an interrogation center. “Soldiers ordered me to strip down to my underwear to search me,” ‘Edaily swore in an affidavit to DCIP. “They ordered me to sit and stand many times. They wanted to make fun of me.”
‘Edaily’s interrogator, a man named Jackson, made the boy sit on a low metal chair for hours with his hands tied to the back of the chair and his feet tied to its front legs. “It was really painful to sit in such a position,” said ‘Edaily, who endured this on multiple occasions.
For 25 days, ‘Edaily was held alone in a small, window-less cell. His only contact was with Jackson and a guard who “would open the cell, enter with another jailor, handcuff me behind my back, shackle my feet and keep me lying on the floor while brutally beating me.”
‘Edaily felt frustrated and depressed, especially while in isolation. “I didn’t know day from night. I had to sit there and talk to myself. Sometimes I’d sing or laugh for no reason. I acted strangely and worried I might go insane.”
In 2013, 21.4 percent of West Bank child detainees were held in solitary confinement for an average duration of 11 days, and in 2014 for an average of 15 days. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture found that even a few days of social isolation can cause lasting mental damage in adults and be considered a form of torture. “So imagine, 15 days for a child,” says Karakashian, who believes Israel uses solitary confinement for strategic purposes. “In the US, isolation is used to separate minors from the adult population, or to punish misbehavior. In Israel, it’s used to coerce a confession.”
The Israeli military court system has a 99.7 percent overall conviction rate, and according to Karakashian, “almost all the confessions [routinely used to convict minors] are coerced in one form or another.”
‘Edaily denied accusations that he threw stones at an Israeli car until his fourth interrogation session, when he said Jackson threatened to have his parents arrested and killed in front of him. Terrified, ‘Edaily gave the interrogator what he was looking for. “I confessed to throwing stones several times at a settler car.”
Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli police’s foreign press spokesman, explains youth arrests in East Jerusalem in terms of maintaining law and order. “The arrests that were made were due to the fact that Palestinian minors were involved in riots and disturbances,” Rosenfeld says. In a statement, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) says that youth arrests in the West Bank are in response to “violent and illegal acts committed by Palestinians, such as rock and Molotov cocktail hurling.”
But the children themselves offer other explanations.
“They’re trying to instill fear in our minds so we won’t defend our homeland when we grow up,” ‘Edaily says.
Karakashian says it’s about control. “The Israeli military wants to control a population of thousands without needing hundreds of soldiers. You can’t arrest everyone, so you arrest the soft targets, the most vulnerable, the children — and then everyone falls in line.”
Violations such the use of solitary confinement, and the prosecution of 12- and 13-year-olds, lessened in the West Bank in 2014, possibly due to a pledge to implement reforms by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That came in response to a report released by a delegation of distinguished British jurists in 2012, and a UNICEF report from the following year, though the IDF says it reviews its policies regarding minors in the West Bank "irrespective of any report." Though night arrests still occur both in the West Bank and Jerusalem, in 2014, some Palestinian children did receive summons. Even so, rights groups say that the reforms have not been substantial. Last February UNICEF released a statement saying, “reports of alleged ill-treatment of children during arrest, transfer, interrogation and detention have not significantly decreased.”
“If you look at the system overall, it’s still extremely abusive,” Karakashian says.
Al-Jundi’s second arrest was on Sept. 23 of last year, when special forces soldiers grabbed him outside his school in Jerusalem. This time, Al-Jundi’s father Sami was permitted to witness the interrogation. “The interrogator was pushing Yazan to say he threw stones from his school window,” Sami says. “I told the officer, ‘You’re trying to make him confess to something he didn’t do.’ He said I was damaging the interrogation and kicked me out.”
“When parents are there, the children are less intimidated,” says Bayadsi, the attorney who works for the prisoner support organization. “When parents aren’t there, they’re more afraid, and it’s easier for the interrogator to use any means to get the child to confess. Sometimes they ask them about other children, and try to make them informers.”
Al-Jundi was released again the following afternoon without charge, and sentenced to five days of house arrest.
Though there are no available statistics about repeated arrests of Palestinian youth, advocates and attorneys agree that minors are at risk if they live near settlements, military installations or in heavily policed neighborhoods, as Al-Jundi does. “They get caught up in the system because of their proximity to it,” says Karakashian.
“It’s hard to see a child being re-arrested,” says Bayadsi. “Sometimes I see a released child going back to the station to bring clothes to his [arrested] brother. I hate seeing this cycle of criminalization inside the family. As if they want to keep the family afraid.”
A few weeks after his previous arrest, soldiers were waiting for Al-Jundi outside his home. The interrogators wanted information about his classmates and cousins.
“The third arrest was really scary,” recalls Al-Jundi’s mother, Fadia. After her son was taken to the station, seven undercover police officers searched the home. “When they left, I started crying. Each day when he didn’t come home, I began to cry again … I was afraid Yazan would go to jail. Because he’s young and they will make him confess to something he didn’t do, because he’s afraid.”
While waiting to see a judge, Al-Jundi was brought to court every day for four days. At the end of each day, his case was postponed. “They sent me back to the Russian Compound and the Jewish kids who were waiting with me went home,” Al-Jundi says.
After five days, Al-Jundi was released without charges. His face gaunt and haggard, he hugged his mother upon returning home. “He said, ‘I missed you,” Fadia recalls. “I told him, ‘me too.’”
This was eight months ago, and insecurity lingers. “At any moment they might take me again,” Al-Jundi says. He insists, however, that he’s not afraid.
You don't have to be a radical left-wing activist for the arrest of a child to resonate.
Sahar Vardi, Jewish Israeli activist
“He wants us to think he’s brave,” Fadia says. “He’s trying to pretend that he’s not scared, that it’s no big deal, but it’s not true.”
“After being released, a lot of children feel they’ve become men. It’s a rite of passage,” says Karakashian. “But after some time, they realize they’re traumatized. They realize the homes provided no security, their parents were completely powerless and they were entirely on their own.”
Activists are working to ensure that detained children are not entirely on their own. Fadi Quran, a Palestinian activist in El-Bireh who is a senior campaigner for the civic organization Avaaz, has developed a training program that educates and prepares children on how best to protect themselves if arrested. “Our program teaches children their basic rights, simulates the experience of arrest, and fully prepares the children emotionally and mentally so that they remain strong and safe,” Quran says. "Israel's detention policy towards children is designed to fragment our society and create terrifying trauma ... Our goal is to reach every child in Palestine, because none of them is safe from arrest."
Sahar Vardi is a Jewish Israeli who, with a group called Free Jerusalem, began organizing awareness campaigns around children’s arrests in East Jerusalem five months ago. “When you hear about a kid getting arrested, you have a moral obligation to do something,” says Vardi. “You need to organize, strategize, mobilize — not just feel bad about it.” Free Jerusalem recently launched a 24/7 hotline that will allow Palestinian community organizers to contact Israeli activists whenever a child is arrested. When that happens, activists immediately go to the station where the child is being held, both in order to monitor the police, and to demand that specific Youth Law protections are upheld. Vardi feels that arrests of Palestinian minors are an issue that could mobilize a segment of Israeli society to take action. “You don't have to be a radical left-wing activist for the arrest of a child to resonate,” says Vardi.
Every time I go to bed, I check the house and the surroundings to make sure there are no Israeli soldiers nearby getting ready to storm the house.
Abdurrahman An-Najjar, 17-year-old Palestinian
After 20 days, ten of which were spent in isolation, An-Najjar was released without charge. If he had been charged, he might have had to plead guilty in order to reduce his jail time. Most cases end in plea deals regardless of innocence, Karakashian says. A child awaiting trial under the military court system is often imprisoned longer than if he were sentenced.
An-Najjar is still scared and anxious, especially while sleeping. “Every time I go to bed, I check the house and the surroundings to make sure there are no Israeli soldiers nearby getting ready to storm the house. I have nightmares that they arrested me all over again, and that I’m at the frightening jail alone.” He’s afraid when separated from his family, and has difficulty concentrating in school.
‘Edaily was sentenced to two years, and is expected to be released in July 2016. In the meantime, his family is waiting. “Thabet was very affectionate and always brought joy to the house,” says his father, Abed. “His laughter is what I miss the most.”