Amir al-Mohtaseb smiled tenderly when I asked him to tell me his favorite color. Sitting in his family's living room last Thursday afternoon, 4 March, in the Old City of Hebron, the ten-year-old boy with freckles and long eyelashes softly replied, "green." He then went on to describe in painful detail his arrest and detention -- and the jailing of his 12-year-old brother Hasan by Israeli occupation soldiers on Sunday, 28 February.
Hours after our interview, at 2am, Israeli soldiers would break into the house, snatch Amir from his bed, threaten his parents with death by gunfire if they tried to protect him, and take him downstairs under the stairwell. They would beat him so badly that he would bleed internally into his abdomen, necessitating overnight hospitalization. In complete shock and distress, Amir would not open his mouth to speak for another day and a half.
In our interview that afternoon before the brutal assault, Amir said that on the 28th, he was playing in the street near the Ibrahimi Mosque, on his way with Hasan to see their aunt.
"Two of the soldiers stopped us and handcuffed us," Amir said. "They brought us to two separate jeeps. They took me to the settlement and put me in a corner. I still had handcuffs on. They put a dog next to me. I said that I wanted to go home. They said no, and told me I would stay here forever. They refused to let me use the bathroom. They wouldn't let me call my mother. They blindfolded me and I stayed there like that until my father was able to come and get me late at night."
Amir's detention inside the settlement lasted nearly ten hours. "The only thing that I thought about was how afraid I was, especially with the dog beside me. I wanted to run away and go back to my house," he said.
Amir and Hasan's mother, Mukarrem, told me that Amir immediately displayed signs of trauma when he returned home. "He was trying to tell me a joke, and trying to laugh. But it was not normal laughter. He was happy and terrified at the same time," she said. "He wet himself at some point during the detention. He was extremely afraid."
Amir revealed that he hadn't been able to sleep in the nights following his detention, worried sick about his brother in jail and extremely afraid that the soldiers would come back (which, eventually, they did). Today, approximately 350 children are languishing inside Israeli prisons and detention camps, enduring interrogation, torture and indefinite sentences, sometimes without charge. The number fluctuates constantly, but thousands of Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 16 have moved through the Israeli military judicial system over the past decade since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. Israel designates 18 as the age of adulthood for its own citizens, but through a military order, and against international law, Israel mandates 16 as the age of adulthood for Palestinians. Additionally, Israel has special military orders (#1644 and #132) to be able to arrest and judge Palestinian children -- termed "juvenile delinquents" -- as young as 12 years old.
"This way, they have a 'legal' cover for what they are doing, even though this is against international laws," said Abed Jamal, a researcher at Defence for Children International-Palestine Section's (DCI-PS) Hebron office. "However, in Amir's case, they broke even their own laws by arresting and detaining him as a ten-year-old boy. These laws are obviously changeable according to Israel's whim. We have yet to see a prosecution for crimes such as these."
I asked Amir and Hasan's father, Fadel, to describe how one is able to parent effectively under this kind of constant siege.
"It's not safe for the children to go outside because we've faced constant attacks by the settlers and the soldiers," he explained. "This by itself is unimaginable for us. And now, we have one son in jail and another traumatized ... they're so young."
On Sunday, 7 March, exactly a week after Hasan's arrest and Amir's detention, the family and members of the local media made an early-morning journey to Ofer prison where Hasan had been held since his initial arrest. After a lengthy process in which the Israeli military judge admitted that the boy was too young to stay in prison, Hasan was released on the condition that he would come back to the court to finish the trial at a later date. This trial followed the initial hearing last Wednesday at Ofer, where Maan News Agency reported that the judge insisted that Fadel pay the court 2,000 shekels ($530) for Hasan's bail. According to Maan, Fadel then publicly asked the court, "What law allows a child to be tried in court and then asks his father to pay a fine? I will not pay the fine, and you have to release my child ... This is the law of Israel's occupation."
Consumed by their sons' situations, Mukarrem and Fadel say they are trying to do the best for their family under attack. "What can we do?" asked Fadel. "We lock the doors. We lock the windows. We have nothing with which to protect our family and our neighbors from the soldiers or the settlers. If a Palestinian kidnapped and beat and jailed an Israeli child, the whole world would be up in arms about it. It would be all over the media. But the Israelis, they come into our communities with jeeps and tanks and bulldozers, they take our children and throw them into prison, and no one cares."
DCI-PS's Jamal reiterates the point that international laws made to
protect children under military occupation have been ignored by Israel
since the occupation began in 1967. "Most of the time, we try to do our
best to use the law, the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention for the
Rights of the Child as weapons against this brutality," said Jamal.
"All of these laws exist, but Israel uses their own military laws as
excuses to defy international law. As Palestinians, we have to work
together to create solidarity against this brutality. Through our work,
we try to tell the international community what's going on with
Palestinian children to create a wide berth of support against this
situation. We believe that the only way this will stop is through the
support of the international community."
Amir slowly began speaking again 36 hours after the beating by Israeli soldiers. Zahira Meshaal, a Bethlehem-based social worker specializing in the effects of trauma in children, said that Amir's "elective mutism," a symptom of extreme psychological shock caused by his beating and detention, is a common response, but that it is a good sign that he began talking again. "This is a reaction of fear on many levels. Amir's house and his family are his only source of security," said Meshaal. "This was taken away from him the moment the soldiers invaded his home. It's easy to attend to the immediate trauma, but the long-term effects will undoubtedly be difficult to address. He'll need a lot of mental health services from now on."
Meshaal comments on the nature of this attack in the context of the unraveling situation inside Hebron. "We are talking about a place that is on the front lines of trauma," she said. "This is an ongoing and growing injury to the entire community. Parents have to be a center of security for their children, but that's being taken away from them. Especially in Hebron, the Israeli settlers and soldiers know this, and use this tactic to force people to leave the area. It's a war of psychology. This is a deliberate act to make the children afraid and force people to leave so that their children can feel safer."
At the end of our interview last Thursday, Amir sent a message to American children. "We are kids, just like you. We have the right to play, to move freely. I want to tell the world that there are so many kids inside the Israeli jails. We just want to have freedom of movement, the freedom to play." Amir said that he wants to be a heart surgeon when he grows up. His mother and father told me that they hope Amir's own heart -- and theirs -- heals from last week's repetitive and cumulative trauma at the hands of the interminable Israeli occupation.