How Ahed Tamimi Became the Symbol of Palestinian Resistance to Israeli Oppression
NABI SALEH, WEST BANK — As if anyone needed reminding, even on the day of her release from prison, Israeli authorities seemed to want to show Ahed Tamimi, her family, and her many supporters that they control Palestinian lives.
Ahed and her mother, Nariman, were supposed to be freed on Saturday after serving an eight-month sentence in an Israeli military prison, but because Saturday is not a work day in Israel, their release was postponed. On Sunday, their family was told that they would be freed at 7 a.m. at a military checkpoint in the northern West Bank, nearly an hour and a half drive from their village, Nabi Saleh. When relatives and friends arrived there, the military sent them, as well as dozens of members of the press, to a different checkpoint, nearly two hours in the opposite direction. When they reached there, Bassem Tamimi was told, again, that his daughter and wife would be released at the first checkpoint. As the convoy of cars turned around one more time, they received another call telling them to head back to the second checkpoint.
“They were playing cat and mouse; they were trying to break everyone,” Manal Tamimi, Ahed’s aunt, told The Intercept. “They don’t need to give any justification. They just do what they want.”
Hours after Israeli officials confirmed that Ahed and Nariman Tamimi had been released from prison, Bassem Tamimi was still trying to figure out where they were. At one of the two checkpoints, where crowds had gathered to wait for the two women, a settler, flanked by soldiers, waved an Israeli flag, soon joined by others, yelling, “Ahed is a terrorist” and “death to Arabs,” a relative told The Intercept. Ahed’s supporters responded by singing and waving Palestinian flags.
Then someone spotted the two women in a military jeep, which didn’t stop at the checkpoint but drove straight through toward Nabi Saleh. Everyone rushed to follow it.
But if Israeli soldiers were hoping a show of force would remind Palestinians who’s in charge, Ahed Tamimi responded much like she did last winter, when she slapped and pushed a soldier who had broken into her backyard. “The resistance continues,” she declared shortly after her release, as she visited the family of another young member of the Tamimi family, killed in June by soldiers. Swarmed by hundreds of cameras that followed her every step, she then paid tribute to the grave of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, before returning to a village that had been decked out with dozens of posters of her and her mother — but mostly her. Children, teenagers, and elderly relatives waited for her return among hundreds of activists and journalists, as music blasted from loudspeakers and relatives chronicled the family’s long history of resistance to the Israeli occupation. When Ahed finally arrived home, the crowd broke into triumphant cheers, dancing, and hugs.
Ahed Tamimi caught the world’s attention when a video showing her slapping the soldier went viral last December. The episode followed a day of heated protests in Nabi Saleh, during which soldiers shot her cousin Mohammed at close range with a rubber bullet, severely wounding him. Mohammed had part of his skull removed following the incident — as Israeli military officials falsely claimed that the boy injured himself when he “fell of his bike.”
Days after the slapping incident, which Ahed said in court was in response to the soldiers injuring her cousin, the military raided her home and arrested her. Shortly after, they arrested her mother and another cousin, Nour, also pictured in the video. In March, Ahed, who turned 17 in prison, agreed to a plea bargain and an eight-month sentence. Her mother was convicted of incitement for sharing the video, and also sentenced to eight months in prison. Several people have compared the sentence to that of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, who served nine months in prison for executing wounded Palestinian Abdel Fattah al-Sharif. Leaving court after her sentencing hearing, Ahed defiantly declared, “There is no justice under occupation and this court is illegal.”
Ahed’s story drew rare attention to the plight of Palestinian children held in Israeli military prisons — an overwhelming majority of them over stone-throwing incidents or for participation in protests — and the sham court proceedings, abuse and threat-filled interrogations, and extracted confessions to which they are subject. In the weeks before Ahed’s release, The Intercept spoke with more than a dozen formerly imprisoned children, parents of children currently in prison, attorneys and advocates, as well as several members of the Tamimi family. They shared similar stories of predawn raids during which soldiers separated children from their families, physically and verbally assaulted them, blindfolded and handcuffed them, and drove them to interrogation centers where — almost always without an attorney or parent present — they were subjected to further abuse and forced to confess, before being summarily sentenced to months in prison.
The Israel Defense Forces, which were responsible for Ahed’s arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, as well as the detention of hundreds of other Palestinian minors, declined to answer The Intercept’s questions on the record.
The Children of Nabi Saleh
Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian village of about 600 residents in the occupied West Bank, has long been at the forefront of what is arguably the greatest impediment to a peaceful resolution in the region: the ongoing encroachment of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. There are 129 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and 101 additional outposts not recognized by the Israeli government, according to the settlement watchdog group Peace Now. (These statistics do not include settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.) Up to half a million settlers live in the West Bank, alongside nearly 3 million Palestinians. The Israeli government continues to approve the building of new settlements and recognize existing outposts — both of which are illegal under international law.
Settlements are a common sight across the occupied West Bank, their tidy rows of red-roofed houses sitting atop hills, usually towering above Palestinian villages below and distinguishable by the fences and security towers that surround them, as well as the absence of the water tanks that are the hallmark of Palestinian rooftops. (Israel controls access to water, and Palestinians, who are plagued by shortages, get their water supplies delivered by trucks.) Over the decades, settlers have moved closer and closer to Palestinian villages, taking over more of the villagers’ land. In Nabi Saleh, the nearby settlement of Halamish is so close that if you squint, you can almost look inside its backyards. From Halamish, a surveillance aerostat watches over Nabi Saleh at all times.
For years, Nabi Saleh’s residents taught their children what to do should soldiers detain them. They brought lawyers to the village to explain to them their rights to silence and counsel, and former prisoners to share their experiences in detention. But in February, two months after Ahed’s arrest and in anticipation of increased military activity against the village, they took the training a step further: They gathered a few dozen children in a hall used for community meetings, handcuffed them, blindfolded them, and blasted a recording of a real interrogation through loudspeakers. Then they removed the blindfolds and cuffs, asked the children how they felt, and talked to them about their rights.
Just days after the training, the youngest child in the room that day — 13-year-old Suhaib – was detained by soldiers. Taken before interrogators, the child refused to speak. When a psychologist was brought in, per his lawyer’s request, he again refused to speak. And when an Israeli activist close to the Tamimi family was allowed to call him to encourage him to speak to the psychologist, the child thanked him for his concern but told him he’d exercise his right to silence.
“I wish that instead of giving them training about interrogations and their rights in prison and what to do if you get arrested, I wish I could take them to swimming training, or karate, or basketball,” said Manal Tamimi, who has four children, including two currently in prison. “But this is our life, and they should be strong enough to deal with this life.”
“The most common question I get is, why are you putting your children in danger, you have to protect them, you are not a good mother,” added Manal Tamimi, who is a well-known activist in Nabi Saleh and has often traveled to speak about the village to foreign audiences. “We tried to do everything we can, we tried to learn how to save children, but at the end, it’s not about us. … I don’t know what else we can do to protect them.”
“When they arrested Ahed, it was a lesson to the village,” she said. “We’re going to punish you through your children.”
In 2009, the residents of Nabi Saleh joined other villages similarly situated near expanding settlements and launched a nonviolent, popular resistance movement to protest the occupation and settlement expansion. Every Friday for nearly a decade, village residents, sometimes accompanied by foreign and Israeli activists, would march toward Halamish waving Palestinian flags, trying to reach a water spring that had once belonged to the village and was now annexed to the settlement. Every Friday, they were detained or turned back by soldiers, who fired tear gas and sometimes live ammunition at them.
The residents kept tabs on the cost of their protest. Three people have been killed in Nabi Saleh since the weekly marches started. About 550 people were injured at least once, and many dozens of times — a tally that only takes into account hospital visits. Fifteen were shot at with live ammunition. Some 350 people were arrested in connection to the weekly protests, including more than 50 women, 48 children under 18, 10 children under 15, and two under age 12. By the end of 2016, when the protests started to lose steam and ultimately ended, 22 Nabi Saleh residents were in prison.
Since the beginning, the children of Nabi Saleh — most of whom are related and share the Tamimi surname — took part in the protests. “When we started, the first question in our mind was, what with the children?” Ahed Tamimi’s father, Bassem, told The Intercept. “We had two options: to keep them home and scared of the army, or to let them participate.”
“If we scare them, they will be psychologically broken, in trauma, they may lose their self-confidence and their trust in their families. They won’t be able to solve any problems they’ll face,” he explained, comparing the logic to the practice of immunizing children against snake bites by administering a small dose of poison. “To make them scared is more dangerous than to let them confront it. So we decided to let them be part of the struggle.”
“Sometimes parents don’t have any choice,” he added, noting that even outside the Friday marches, soldiers regularly raided the village, barging into homes in the middle of the night, sometimes multiple times a week, and taking people away while leaving behind a cloud of tear gas. “There is no safe space in Palestine.”
And so Friday after Friday, and as the demonstrations periodically caught the attention of international audiences, “the world saw the Tamimi children grow up,” said Manal. “Since the beginning, the children were involved to break the wall of fear inside them.”
Ahed was just one of the many children of Nabi Saleh — but long before the video of her slapping a soldier went viral last winter, her encounters with the military had led to iconic moments and earned her global fame.
In 2012, when she was 11, Ahed waved her skinny fist at a soldier — a gesture that was caught on camera and captivated the world’s attention. Three years later, at 14, she bit another soldier who was holding her brother. That image, too, went viral.
Her father, who was standing nearby when Ahed bit the soldier, was terrified but not surprised at his daughter’s reaction and remembers the moment as one of his hardest as a parent, as he found himself paralyzed between wanting to intervene — putting the whole family at an even greater risk of violence — or walking away, thus showing his children that he was powerless to protect them.
But there were other moments, outside the spotlight, when Ahed showed her character, her father told The Intercept, his blue eyes beaming somewhere between pride and incredulity at his own daughter’s strength. One evening, the family was held up at a military checkpoint into the village. As often happened, the soldiers aggressively kept them from going back to their homes. Ahed, who was 15 at the time, started calling the army commander at the checkpoint a “terrorist.” “Why are you holding these weapons? To kill all the children?” her father recalled her asking. The commander replied that he had the weapons to defend himself and didn’t want to kill anybody. Ahed shot back, “Are you sure you’re not going to kill anybody? So if I just go through, you won’t shoot me?” She then proceeded to walk across the checkpoint, astonishing both the soldiers and her parents. Her father joked, “I told her, come back and get us!” — then added that the commander was so stunned, he just let the whole family go.
In 2012, after the raised fist incident, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, invited Ahed to visit Turkey, where she was met at the airport by scores of children wearing T-shirts with her face on them. When Erdogan told Ahed he stood with the Palestinians, she thanked him and then asked why she had needed a visa to travel to Turkey when Israelis didn’t. Erdogan’s face reddened, Ahed’s father said with amusement. Relentless, Ahed asked Erdogan to go visit Syrian refugee camps with her.
But last year’s slapping incident catapulted Ahed into worldwide fame in ways that the earlier incidents had not. While she was in prison, a huge mural with her face was painted along the separation wall built by Israel around the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, and her photo was paraded at rallies in the United States and Europe. (Two Italian artists who painted the mural were arrested by Israeli authorities on Saturday and ordered to leave the country.)
Ahed was likened to Arafat and Che Guevara.
In private, Bassem said, Ahed is not the way that people who have watched her on video expect her to be. She is shy, quiet, and protective of her three brothers. But she also has great self-confidence and poise, and a “poker face,” which she inherited from her grandfather. “You cannot guess what she’s thinking,” he said, noting that she’s also a typical teenager who will sometimes cry and fight with her parents. “I can’t control her, nobody can control anybody,” said Bassem. “She is free. And she is brave. But that can be a danger to her.”
Speaking to The Intercept from Nabi Saleh a week before his daughter and wife’s release, Bassem Tamimi alternated between his roles as lifelong activist for the Palestinian cause, and as a father and husband. He was renovating the family’s stone house at the top of the village — a surprise for his wife — and joked about how he would be in trouble if the construction mess wasn’t cleared before her return.
But mostly, he worried about Ahed’s future — anticipating the questions she’d be faced with upon her release, while recognizing that she’d have to make her own choices about how to handle them. Should she go greet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he mused, noting that she would inevitably face criticism either way over a divisive figure in Palestine. “If she goes, it’s a problem – if she doesn’t, it’s a problem.” (On Sunday, Ahed did meet with Abbas, though she later said she requested a longer meeting with him in the future to discuss the needs of Palestinian political prisoners.)
And where should his daughter go to college? Ahed, who wants to be a lawyer, studied for her final high school exams while in prison, and used the time to read novels, improve her English, and work on a research project comparing her own interrogation and detention to the standards set by international law. Abroad, where she has received scholarship offers, Ahed would be safer and get a better education, her father said. At Birzeit, a Palestinian university near Nabi Saleh, she would be closer to her family and her people, but she would also be more likely to be arrested again. Her older brother Wa’ed, 21, is a student at Birzeit, but he is currently in prison, after being arrested by the Israeli military last May, his third time.
“She’ll be in more danger here, she’ll be in jail again soon,” Bassem said. “I wish there was no occupation and she could be a dancer or a football player, or whatever she wants. … But it’s hard to plan for the future here.”
Awaiting her return, Bassem mostly seemed to be coming to terms with his new role, as much of a spectator of his daughter’s life today as he was when she bit the soldier as a 14-year-old. Ahed grew up before her age, he said, and she now would face the challenges that came with her symbol status. She would have to navigate people’s opinions and agendas for her, and be watched closely by enemies and supporters alike. “This will bring more responsibility and more danger,” he said. “They’ll think she’s even stronger than she is. She is a child.”
“I feel my responsibility now is to be an adviser,” he added. “She needs me to support her, not to plan her life. She can decide, and I must be the person she trusts.”
Hundreds of Aheds
If Ahed’s story brought some awareness to the plight of Palestinian children in Israeli military jails, it didn’t stop the detention, interrogation, and imprisonment of scores of others. At the end of May, 291 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli prisons as “security detainees,” including 49 children under the age of 16, according to figures by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Between 500 and 700 Palestinian minors are detained by the Israeli military every year, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine, a human rights group that has long monitored abuses against Palestinian children at all steps of the detention process. Since 2010, at least 8,000 Palestinian children have been detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military system.
An overwhelming majority of these children are detained over offenses that range from participating in demonstrations and clashes, to social media posts or “insulting the honor of a soldier,” said Ruba Awadallah, a research and advocacy officer with DCI. While some minors are arrested for more serious, violent offenses — like stabbings or attempted stabbings — most are accused of what has become the de facto symbol of Palestinian resistance: throwing rocks.
In Nabi Saleh alone, about 50 people, including several minors and young adults, have been arrested since Ahed slapped the soldier, including Wa’ed and Manal’s two oldest sons. Fourteen of them, including three minors, remain in prison. Mohammed Tamimi — the cousin who was shot by soldiers at close range in December — was arrested in February despite his critical condition, and released only following public pressure. “Now he’s better, so we expect they’ll come take him any day,” said Manal.
As Manal spoke, her husband Bilal unrolled a poster the family made, with photos of 19 recently detained members of the Tamimi family displayed as rays around the image of a sun and the words “Nabi Saleh” and “resist.” One of those photographed, Wiam Tamimi, another 17-year-old cousin of Ahed, was released two days before my visit. I met him while he and other relatives FaceTimed with his father, who lives in New York. Wiam didn’t talk much about his five-month stay in prison — but an uncle said that soldiers had barged into his home in the middle of the night and taken him away. It was his second detention by the army, but the first time he was sentenced to prison time. In prison, Wiam said, he was mostly bored. “I wasn’t scared,” he said with a shy smile. “I had heard what would happen from everyone else.”
The Tamimi children are not only experienced with interrogations and prisons: They have also watched Israeli soldiers kill some of their relatives. The latest, 20-year-old ‘Iz a-Din Tamimi, was killed in June, shot from the back as he fled after throwing rocks at soldiers who had come into the village. The Israeli military’s open-fire regulations allow the use of lethal fire only when security forces or others are in mortal danger and no other alternative is available. B’Tselem, which investigated Tamimi’s death, said his killing failed to meet those standards, and was “illegal and unjustified.”
‘Iz a-Din was killed just outside Manal’s home, at the entrance of the village. Her youngest children, 14-year-old Rand and 11-year-old Samer, were home at the time and ran outside when they heard the gunshots, to find a soldier kicking their cousin’s body. The soldier pointed his weapon at Samer and told him, “You have one second and if you don’t leave, I will shoot you like him,” Manal said. So the kids went back inside and watched from the windows as the soldiers took the body away and threw stun grenades at the crowd that had gathered.
Samer, who listened in as I spoke with Manal, has been having a hard time sleeping since that day, Manal said. “Nobody wants their 11-year-old child to see their cousin being killed and kicked and bleeding in front of him and being afraid that he’ll be shot,” she said. “It’s not easy to see your cousin die in front of you. They are children.”
Then she added — “It’s the worst thing to be a Palestinian mother.”
Children in Prison
As Ahed’s story captivated the world, Nabi Saleh saw an outpouring of international solidarity, even if it was sometimes based on questionable premises. A senior Israeli official — who had called the Tamimis “paid actors” — said that Ahed was chosen because of her striking, long blond hair. Manal dismissed the notion as ridiculous, but agreed that Ahed’s looks helped her popularity.
“To me this feels racist,” she said, noting that she received many messages from Europeans and Americans telling her that Ahed looked like their daughter. “To feel sympathy or solidarity with a child just because she’s blond, and turn a blind eye to other children’s suffering, this is racism.”
On Sunday, after Ahed’s release, Manal said that while she was elated to have her niece home, her return also brought about “mixed feelings” — not least because Ahed’s brother, and Manal’s two sons, remained in prison. Another young Palestinian woman, Yasmin Abu Srour, was released from an Israeli prison last week, also after serving an eight-month sentence.
“But nobody cares about her,” said Manal. “We are not the only family that has prisoners.”
In fact, if Nabi Saleh has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance and a recipient of international attention and solidarity, stories like Ahed’s and her cousins’ are common across the West Bank and East Jerusalem — though most remain virtually unknown to the outside world.
Nearly half of all detained children are arrested by soldiers who break into their homes in the middle of the night, according to DCI’s documentation. Sometimes children are separated from their parents in their own homes; other times, the parents are there but prevented from intervening. “It’s the beginning of breaking the parent-child relationship,” said Awadallah. “Because children feel that, my parents are not able to protect me.”
Sleep-deprived, alone, blindfolded, and handcuffed, children are then driven away — often forced to sit on the metal floor of military jeeps. Many describe that first journey as one of the most traumatizing phases of their detention, and the time when they are more likely to be verbally and physically assaulted.
The next step is an interrogation — sometimes the first of several. According to Israeli military law, children have a right to legal consultation before they are interrogated, but in practice that rarely happens. “Sometimes they will tell them, ‘You have a right to talk to a lawyer,’ but they won’t usually wait for the lawyer,” Yael Stein, B’Tselem’s research director, told The Intercept. “They’ll say, ‘Do you have the number of a lawyer? No? So no, it doesn’t matter.’”
Detained children are required by law to appear before a judge within 96 hours of their arrest (adults can wait weeks to see a judge). That’s when they get to see their families for the first time, though relatives sit across the courtroom and are not allowed to speak to them or touch them. Children come into court wearing brown prison wear, their feet in shackles, and all court proceedings are in Hebrew — with an interpreter translating into Arabic only questions posed directly to the child.
Most children are sentenced to between three and 12 months in prison, plus fines and probation. If their families can’t pay the fines, they get longer sentences. Probation, too, is problematic, because many of the children who enter the Israeli detention system live near checkpoints or the separation wall, where clashes and demonstrations are frequent. A child walking home from the store can easily be photographed by one of the many military watchtowers, and the military can then use the image as evidence he was in the streets during protests — a probation violation, said Awadallah. “It really restricts their life.”
After sentencing, most of the abuse ends. Children are given access to education in prison, though the lessons don’t follow the Palestinian curriculum — a 10th grader interviewed by The Intercept said the classes he attended in prison were “first-grade level.” Detained children receive no science instruction. “They’re thinking of these children as terrorists or bad people or so on, so maybe they’re thinking, ‘What would happen if we teach Palestinian children in prison chemistry?” said Awadallah. Often, children drop out of school after their release, and many are arrested again.
Mohammed Masaeed, a 16-year-old from the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, was 14 when he was arrested the first time, along with his 13-year-old brother Anas. The boys were accused of throwing stones at soldiers who had raided the camp. They were fined and sentenced to three months in prison. A year later, last January, Mohammed was walking to a sneaker store near his house when soldiers arrested him again. There had been clashes in the camp and again, soldiers accused him of throwing stones. Because Mohammed was on probation, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison, which he is currently serving.
His mother, Nisreen Masaeed, told The Intercept that on the day of his arrest, she rushed to the entrance of the camp to find him and other children on their knees with their hands tied behind their back. When the children fidgeted, a soldier would hit them in front of their parents. (Later, when Nisreen visited Mohammed in prison, he told her that he had been beaten on his legs and knees during the arrest, making the forced kneeling even more painful).
But despite the longer sentence and the fact that Mohammed would be forced to miss 10th grade, Nisreen said the first arrest had been harder on the family — because at the time they had no understanding of the military court system, and they were unfamiliar with the long waits and curt treatment they’d receive during court hearings and prison visits. The first imprisonment, she added, transformed her children’s personalities. Mohammed never talked about it, and when his younger brother said he had been beaten, and that he had cried, he would deny it.
“It’s his personality to hide his true feelings,” said Nisreen. “He always says he’s fine.”
“It’s not normal life,” she added. But then she recalled what a school counselor told her youngest son, whose grades dropped as he reacted to his brothers’ first arrest. “As Palestinians, this is the situation we live in. You have to get used to it.” The family, she said, was getting used to it.
Soldiers Don’t Lie
Israeli military courts boast an astonishing 99.7 conviction rate. But the majority of those convictions, advocates say, are based on confessions extracted during interrogations. For both children and adults, verbal and often physical abuse at the hands of the soldiers who first detain them are followed by psychological abuse, intimidation, and threats by interrogators with Israel’s security services, the “Shabak.”
In 2017, DCI documented the cases of 161 detained children — an incomplete list — including six under the age of 13. Of those, 74 percent reported physical violence and 61 percent reported being subjected to verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats — with interrogators routinely telling them that they would arrest their family members or demolish their homes. Many reported being strip-searched, denied food and water and access to a toilet, being forced into stress positions, and held in solitary confinement. Most had no lawyer or parent present during their interrogation, and more than half were made to sign papers in Hebrew, a language most Palestinians can’t read. By that point in an interrogation, said Awadallah, “many children confess because they just want this traumatizing experience to end.”
Nasser Nassar and Usayed Mazyad, two 16-year-old cousins from the town on Anabta, in the northern West Bank, were detained in February while walking in the hills behind Usayed’s home, a quiet stretch of olive trees and rocky terrain. In separate interviews, the boys told The Intercept that they heard voices speaking in Hebrew, and before they knew it, they found themselves surrounded by two dozen soldiers, who pushed them to the ground, and handcuffed and blindfolded them. (In sworn statements later obtained by The Intercept, the boys also said the soldiers called them “dog” and “son of a whore,” and that they kicked and slapped them “whenever they felt like it.”) The soldiers then drove the cousins to a police station in a nearby settlement. During the transport, the abuse continued. At one point, a soldier stepped on Nasser’s feet shackles, making him fall onto the floor.
At the police station, adult Palestinian prisoners, noticing Nasser and Usayed’s young age, asked soldiers to give them water or let them use the bathroom. They didn’t. The cousins were finally brought before interrogators, alone, in the middle of the night.
Nasser said that the interrogator asked him why he was throwing rocks, slamming his fists on the table and pacing around him “to create an atmosphere of fear,” he said. When the boy replied that he hadn’t been throwing rocks, the interrogator “got up and slapped me and said soldiers did not lie and that they said in their statements they saw us throwing stones,” Nasser said in his sworn statement. When he told the interrogator that he wanted to file a complaint against the soldiers who beat him, the man responded that “the defense soldiers are polite and treat people well and act in accordance with the law.”
Usayed said he told the interrogator that he wouldn’t speak unless his handcuffs and blindfold were removed, and he could speak with a lawyer. The interrogator removed the blindfold but not the handcuffs, and told him he’d get to call a lawyer “when I’m done with you,” the boy told The Intercept. Then the interrogator handed him a piece of paper and told him, “These are your rights.” The boy read on the paper that he had a right to stay silent and told the interrogator that he would do that — but the interrogator started yelling at him, asking him, “Why do you think I brought you here? You have to say something.”
The boys didn’t see their parents until their first court appearance. There, Nasser’s mom worked up the courage to ask her son from across the courtroom how he was doing, but soldiers cut her off.
After the sentencing — to six months in prison and the equivalent of a $1,600 fine — the fear and mistreatment subsided, turning into boredom. Informal agreements with prison administrators allow adult Palestinian prisoners to care for the kids. Families can’t visit their children for the first three months — the average length of time it takes to obtain permits through the International Committee of the Red Cross — and even then, they can only see their children through a glass. “He looked so tired,” Nasser’s mom said about her first visit. “I just wanted to hug him.”
Nasser and Usayed blushed and sometimes chuckled as they told their stories, looking younger than their 16 years. They talked about the huge party held in their honor when they were released: a convoy of cars packed with friends paraded them through town as at a wedding. Nasser was a bit more talkative, while Usayed mostly nodded his answers. His mother said that when his older brother came home from prison, he didn’t want to talk about it. “He thought that if he tells us the details, we’ll be very sad,” she said. But when Usayed came home, she added, the family barraged him with questions about the way he was treated. “Because in our mind, he’s the baby.”
Justice Under Occupation
Like Nasser and Usayed, many of the children interviewed by The Intercept denied throwing stones or participating in demonstrations — but others readily admitted they did.
Ahmad Shamaly, a 16-year-old from Bethlehem, told The Intercept that when soldiers arrested him last January, he at first denied throwing stones. When interrogators showed him two videos that appeared to show him doing just that, he again denied it. Then, he said, an interrogator warned him, “If you don’t confess, we’re going to use another method.”
Ahmad had heard from friends that he would be held in solitary confinement until he confessed — or worse. “I knew the other method,” he said. “Since I knew what happened to other people, I said I’ll take the shortcut.” He asked to see the videos again and confessed to throwing stones only in the instance in which the video evidence against him was undeniable. He ended up serving four months in prison, getting out on the first day of his finals, which he passed without studying.
When I asked him whether he thought the punishment had been fair or proportionate, Ahmad hesitated. Then his older brother, who had listened in on the conversation, butted in. “You’re under occupation. You’re on your own land. You’re not guilty of anything.”
“We’re not saying that all Palestinian children are innocent; we’re not saying that no Palestinian child has ever thrown a stone or stabbed a soldier,” said Awadallah, noting the irony that the children of Israeli settlers frequently throw stones or attack Palestinians, often under the eyes of Israeli soldiers who do nothing to stop them. (Even though they live in the West Bank, settlers committing crimes are prosecuted under the Israeli criminal justice system, not the military one used for Palestinians.)
“What we are saying is that, no matter what they did, no matter their innocence or guilt, no child should be treated this way.”
In 2009, following a series of reports critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children, Israel instituted a separate military court for minors — but rights groups slammed it as a cosmetic change intended to appease public criticism. At Ofer, the military base in the West Bank where many court proceedings take place, the juvenile courtroom was virtually indistinguishable from the nearby adult ones. Like the others, it was held in an unceremonious structure that resembled a shipping container.
Stein, of B’Tselem, said the Israeli public hailed the creation of the court as proof of the country’s humane values and human rights standards. “When you get to the military juvenile court, it doesn’t do anything,” she said. “It looks better. The courtroom is bigger. The atmosphere is nicer. But it stops there. … But Israel is still proud of that. They do not let the facts bother them.”
As with adults, Stein noted, proceedings for minors rarely see the introduction of evidence or witnesses. Sentences are almost always decided in plea bargains, and extension of detention proceedings — by which the military extends children’s pretrial detention in order to obtain confessions or force a plea — continue to happen in adult courts. “All the cases are based on either the admission of the minor or framing by somebody else, usually another minor that was detained and interrogated and threatened,” said Stein. “It’s a twisted system. It’s hard to call it a justice system. … It’s called a court, but it’s something else.”
“All the military courts represent the interests of the Israeli occupation, not Palestinian society,” she added, noting systemic due process issues were only a reflection of a much broader problem with the courts’ very legitimacy. “A child who is throwing stones shouldn’t go to jail.”
On Sunday, Ahed and her mother called on the public not to forget about the hundreds of Palestinian children who remain in Israeli prisons — and those otherwise impacted by the occupation.
“Our children are the future, they are the future of our struggle, and we should always make sure that we support them in pursuing their freedom and in pursuing their rights,” Nariman Tamimi said at a press conference hours after her release. “Because the children are the salt of the earth, because they are our future, we need to stand behind them, and we need to make sure that they have the strength to continue and move forward.”
But in line with her message, she let her daughter do most of the talking.
“Of course, I felt extremely happy to be released from prison,” Ahed told the crowd, visibly exhausted by the emotions of the day, but powering through unperturbed, a natural in the spotlight. “But my happiness was not full because I have brothers and sisters who remain in prison.”
“My happiness will be fulfilled when they are released.”
[Alice Speri reports on justice, immigration, and civil rights. She is originally from Italy and lives in the Bronx.]
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