By EA Hannah
Salaam Rayan has been celebrating. On Friday her 20-year-old son, Amir, was released from prison, having served a one-year sentence for throwing stones. This is a common charge against young Palestinians, but Amir’s family told us he was innocent. His family were very excited to have him home.
Amir received a homecoming party where residents of the village came to the house to celebrate with the family. The men sat outside on plastic chairs and shared pitta bread and hummus, while the women sat inside drinking grape juice and playing with the children. Every so often a husband or brother ran into the kitchen for more plastic cups and napkins, or more trays of food. Flags lined the street outside the house, and fireworks were released while drivers honked their car horns in celebration.
The following day, Saturday, Salaam had a second reason to celebrate. Her 22-year-old daughter, Hala, graduated from university with a degree in English Literature. Bouquets of flowers from friends and family fill the corners of the living room congratulating Hala on her success. Hala’s English is very good, and she was able to translate how her mother felt about Amir’s release from prison. In the future Hala hopes to travel to use her English skills for work, inshallah.
But after a weekend of celebrations, the family was woken at 2:30am on Tuesday morning by the sound of soldiers outside their house. Salaam says that they did not arrive in vehicles as this is too noisy; instead they came on foot. On seeing their silhouettes through the window, Salaam went outside. “I said ‘Ahlan wa-salhan’ to them” Salaam explains: “Welcome”.
Ten soldiers entered her home while many more surrounded the house. They had come to arrest Ahmad, her 15-year-old son. The reason for the arrest was not given. Ahmad told his family “I am a man, do not worry about me” but Salaam knows he will be very scared inside. The family tried to hold onto Ahmad in the living room but when the soldiers pointed their guns they had to let go. Ahmad was taken outside, handcuffed, and marched off to an army jeep. The family was instructed not to follow.
When asked how she is feeling today Hala replied “I don’t know. I feel happy because I graduated, but now they’ve arrested my brother”. The bouquets of flowers and the celebration flags now feel out of place.
Prison sentences are very common among boys and young men in the West Bank. Defence for Children International reports that, in 2018, the average number of children between 12 and 17 years old being held in Israeli detention at the end of each month is 323. According to Military Court Watch 53 per cent of child arrests take place during night raids, between the hours of 10pm and 5am. Each Palestinian child is tried in an Israeli military court, whereas an Israeli child arrested for a similar offence is tried in a civil court. The conviction rate of Palestinian children in Israeli military courts is 99 per cent.
Salaam is scared because “[Ahmad] is only 15 years old – when he is released in the future he will be a different man”. Most children are charged with the offense of throwing stones, for which a child of Ahmad’s age could receive a maximum of 20 years in prison, according to the No Way to Treat a Child Campaign.
In 1991 Israel signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child signalling a commitment to minimum protections and guarantees for children, including during events such as arrests. In 2002 and 2013, the UN found Israel to be in violation of this international law due to its unacceptable treatment of child prisoners.
Defence for Children International, in its 2016 report No Way to Treat a Child: Palestinian Children in the Israeli Military Detention System explains that:
“International juvenile justice norms are built on two fundamental principles: the best interests of the child must be a primary concern in making decisions that affect them and children must only be deprived of their liberty as a last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
Ahmad has been given three court dates so far, but each time the case has been delayed further so he has not yet been sentenced. During this time he has been detained, and Salaam has only been able to see him twice very briefly after court. She will be entitled to her first official visit three months after the arrest, and it will last 45 minutes.
Support the work of organisations like Defence for Children International and Addameer, which work to support child prisoners and their families by providing lawyers and legal advice. Watch this video from the No Way to Treat a Child Campaign and contact your elected representatives, asking them what the government is doing to hold Israel to account over these breaches of international law.