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Scars of childhood

The arrest and detention of Palestinian children by the Israeli army inflicts long-term trauma on Palestinian society. Andrea D'Cruz travelled to Abu Dis to find out more

November 7, 2009
8 min read

Montasser Dandan is on the face of it an incredibly frustrating interviewee. Whenever possible he pares down his answers to a simple affirmative or negative monosyllable. He doggedly guards all but the bare facts of his experience, never tending towards elaboration, and any attempt to garner an insight into the emotional consequences of his ordeal is batted off with an unpersuasive ‘I’m fine.’ He is anything but.

At the age of 16, Montasser was arrested by Israeli soldiers from his house in the West Bank town of Abu Dis and sentenced to two years in prison in Israel. This widespread practice (each year, on average, 700 Palestinian children are prosecuted in Israeli military courts) is deeply troubling both in the plain fact and the particular manner of its occurrence. I travelled to Montasser’s home to speak with him, his parents and siblings in the hope of comprehending its effect on the child, the family and wider Palestinian society.

Montasser’s father, Talal, translates between Arabic and English for me. However, it is only later, when I speak to Ferdoos Al-Issa, a counsellor who works with child ex-detainees, that I am able more fully to decipher the exchange so that Montasser’s evasiveness instead becomes enlightening. His reticence, I discover, is revealingly symptomatic of the psychological scars typically left by Israel’s detention process.

Arrest and detention

For Montasser the process began in the early hours of a rainy January day in 2007. Talal recalls how ‘the soldiers came around one in the morning. They knocked hard on the door in their famous way and asked me to bring my children outside.’ With his hands tied and his eyes blindfolded, Montasser was bundled into a jeep and taken to an interrogation centre in the nearby settlement of Maale Adumim.

There he was interrogated by two officers who beat him all over his body. He was accused of throwing stones and being a member of a banned organisation. His cousin, Ahmad Attallah, now 19, had been arrested from Abu Dis at the same time. The officers told Montasser, ‘Listen, your cousin has confessed. He has signed already and is now with his father and your father is waiting for you outside. So sign and let me release you.’ Ahmad was spun the same tale about Montasser and they both signed the confessions, which were written in Hebrew, a language neither boy understands.

Although alarming when juxtaposed against basic conceptions of human rights and due process, Montasser’s account is run of the mill according to a June report by Defence for Children International (DCI): ‘From the moment of arrest, Palestinian children encounter ill treatment, and in some cases torture, at the hands of Israeli soldiers, policemen and interrogators. Children are commonly arrested from the family home in the hours before dawn by heavily-armed soldiers.

‘The child is painfully bound, blindfolded and bundled into the back of a military vehicle without any indication as to why or where the child is being taken. Children are commonly mistreated during the transfer process and arrive at the interrogation and detention centres traumatised, tired and alone. These children will generally not be permitted to see a lawyer until after they have provided a confession to the interrogator.’

Khaled Quzmar, the chief lawyer for DCI’s Palestine section, explains that ‘what they want the child to feel during the interrogation is an atmosphere that nobody else in the world can help you, only your confession.’ Quzmar believes the mere hour and manner of the arrest, which delivers a tired and traumatised child, are enough in themselves to invalidate any confession.

Further pressure to exact a confession comes in the form of torture, threats and trickery. Children as young as 12 are often beaten and painfully shackled for long periods. One boy was told, ‘I will shoot you in the head if you don’t confess and stick your head in a bucket of water until you choke and die.’ Another yielded after a knife was held to his neck. The DCI report also details the case of a 15-year-old who was shot and arrested and later deceived into signing a confession in hospital when officers convinced him the Hebrew was an approval for his operation.

The experience is worlds away from that of children on the other side of the separation wall. Indeed, Israel’s very definition of a child diverges across the divide: up to 16 years for a Palestinian but 18 for an Israeli. ‘They never arrest an Israeli child in the middle of the night, they wait until the day. And then they ask the father by phone to bring the child and they interrogate the child with the father there,’ says Quzmar. Israeli domestic law also requires that the interrogation be video recorded.

Montasser was sentenced to 26 months in prison and his cousin Ahmad to 30. They were detained in prisons in Israel, a practice in breach of the Geneva Convention and with the consequence that many children do not receive family visits as their relatives are denied permits to enter Israel. Ill treatment continues beyond interrogation into imprisonment, where conditions include harsh handling by prison guards, overcrowding, poor ventilation and access to natural light, and poor quality and inadequate amounts of food. Montasser’s diet consisted of mainly rice and potato soup, and for dinner mainly jam and bread.

Medical and dental care is poor – Ahmad lost his front teeth while detained – and educational provision close to non-existent. Children under 16 receive a few hours of teaching a week in a limited range of subjects. Geography, history, physics and chemistry are all banned for ‘security reasons’. Children over the age of 16 are not allowed to continue formal education. ‘They used to confiscate school books and we never had any teacher inside,’ Montasser recounts.

Back at home

Now back at home, ‘He insists that he is fine, but I can see that he is not,’ Talal confides. ‘He’s more aggressive now.’

‘He’s not close to his brothers anymore,’ adds Hanan, Montasser’s mother. ‘He gets nervous easily. He used to accept everything I said; now it’s completely different.’

Ferdoos Al-Issa explains this behaviour as typical of ex-detainees who have been stripped of all control over their own lives by the Israelis and are now responding to what they see as their family’s attempts to control them. ‘Because everybody is trying to control them and they feel they have no control, they try to control other people with their anger or by their withdrawal. They want to have their own identity, which the experience of torture has destroyed,’ she says.

Developmentally they are often frozen at the stage of their arrest and upon release are still children emotionally; they are traumatised and lack the mechanisms to cope with their trauma. But having gone through their ordeal they are seen as heroes in Palestinian society and feel an enormous pressure to live up to this image by acting like adults and refusing to reveal any emotional weakness. Adding to this the fact that the prison experience has inculcated a deep sense of insecurity, distrust and suspicion, it is hardly surprising Montasser is so taciturn in front of a foreign outsider like me.

Al-Issa sees the cruelty of the detention practices as systematic and institutionalised. ‘They target the children because they are the future for the whole society,’ she argues. ‘By depriving them of their schooling, they create a whole generation who don’t have a future. They are humiliated and destroyed and it affects their family too – a family can’t have any normal life if their kid’s in prison. So in this way they target the first unit of building a society. It’s the whole fabric of society that’s destroyed when they destroy that generation.’

Ultimately, child detention is just another sinister manifestation of the logic of occupation: destruction and control. This was the conclusion reached in an August 2008 report, The Social Rehabilitation of Palestinian Child Ex-Detainees, published by Save the Children Sweden and the YMCA in Beit Sahour, where Al-Issa helps co-ordinate the child ex-detainee rehabilitation program:

‘The practice and purpose of torture and cruel treatments by Israeli forces goes beyond the scope of obtaining information from the detained person. Rather it aims at affecting the well-being of children in the long term, at breaking down their personalities. Thus, violence by Israeli forces during detention represents just another form of control imposed on Palestinians. Confiscating land is a tool to control the resources of Palestinians, setting borders and checkpoints leads to controlling their movement, issuing military orders has the scope of controlling Palestinian lives, and practising torture and violence ultimately means controlling their minds.’

These interviews were made possible with the help of the Camden-Abu Dis Friendship Association, who run a child prisoners campaign. More info: www.camdenabudis.net

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