A few years ago Imad and his friends were driving home to Beit Fajjar from Bethlehem. As they approached Etzion junction, a prominent West Bank junction where Israeli settlers often hitch hike, Israeli soldiers opened fire on their vehicle for unknown reasons, shooting the driver, who became unconscious. The soldiers, assuming a runaway vehicle, continued to shoot at the car. Fourteen-year-old Imad was shot in the leg, arrested, and brought to an Israeli detention center.
Despite the bullet wound in Imad’s leg, he was denied medical treatment for two days. In addition, he reports being beaten, harassed, and spit on by the prison authorities. The lack of medical attention to his leg caused permanent damage and weakness.
As of July 1, 2012, there are 220 Palestinian children in Israeli detention, including 35 under the age of 16. In a recent report by Defense for Children International (DCI) entitled “Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted”, since the beginning of the occupation, approximately 7,500 Palestinian children – some as young as 11 years old — have been arrested by the Israeli Military. Throwing stones – an offence under Israeli Military Order 1651 punishable by up to 10 years in prison — is the most commonly alleged reason for arrest. But according to DCI’s reporting, six to ten months is the most common length of sentence.
These six to ten months can be extremely traumatizing for the child, beginning with their initial arrest, which often happens in the early hours of the morning. Children are often dragged out of bed, blindfolded, handcuffed with a plastic tie, transported to a military base and later to a prison for interrogation. During interrogation, neither a parent nor a lawyer is present. Interrogation often includes threats to the child’s family. Due to the interrogation tactics and the child’s hope of being released, 87% of those arrested sign guilty pleas, whether or not they are actually guilty of the offense.
Two years after Imad’s arrest he was released from prison. Because he faced physical challenges as a result of his weak leg and emotional trauma from his detention, MCC partner YMCA Rehabilitation Program made contact with Imad and his family. The YMCA works to support victims of emotional and physical trauma resulting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In particular, they work with released political prisoners and their families. The clinic provides its clients with physical therapy, counseling, and vocational training as they try to re-integrate into society.
Re-integration is no easy task. After experiencing the harsh conditions of prison and coping with a damaged leg, Imad reports experiencing depression and isolation upon his release. Because of the trauma he had experienced, Imad did not want to return to school when he was released despite having missed two years of school while in prison.
For its report about child prisoners, DCI interviewed Nader Abu Amsha, director of the YMCA. In the interview, Abu Amsha spoke of the difficulty children experience upon being released from prison,
“When children come out of prison they feel old and mature and they think they know it all. For the parents though, he is still the same child who left three, four or five months ago, so they tend to become over-protective. This causes problems and disputes within the family. Through our programme, we try to help both the child and the family so that the home remains a place where the child feels comfortable and safe.”
Despite the challenges of re-integration, the YMCA has been able to develop a dynamic program that is trusted by the community. However, no matter how much therapy and rehabilitation is provided, the prison experience will impact the child and the family for the rest of their lives. According to Abu Amsha:
“In general the programme is very successful. Most children recover from the trauma and re-integrate well into the community, but of course they never forget what happened to them. They will have flashback all their life, but they learn how to cope with these memories. In some cases the children get re-arrested, and as soon as they are released they immediately come back to our program.”
Today, Imad smiles as he greets YCMA staff. His physiotherapy has improved movement in his leg and kept the pain at bay. In addition, Imad has benefited from the YMCA’s vocational training and is working at a local coffee shop. However, despite the successful work of the YMCA, the best way to protect children is not just to bring an end to children’s detention or improve their conditions, but to bring an end to the occupation of Palestine.