The children in Israel’s prisons

A mother, weeping with joy and relief, holds her teenage son tight, as if determined never to let him go again.

“I can’t describe to you how I’m feeling right now,” she said, her face and voice reaching millions around the world through the cameras of international news organizations such as CNN.

“I honestly can’t believe it. I feel like I am in a dream. My son is finally with me. I thank God and pray that every mother will be able to feel this joy,” she added.

In the unfolding drama of hostage releases that began on Friday, such globally televised scenes of joy have become almost commonplace as Israeli families have been reunited with their loved ones, including children, held captive by Hamas since Oct. 7.

But Hunaida Tamimi is not an Israeli. She is a mother from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

Until his sudden release on Saturday, as part of the reciprocal deal struck between Hamas and Israel, her 17-year-old son Wissam was one of thousands of Palestinians imprisoned by the Israelis, many without charge or trial and some of whom have been locked up for years.

In a breaking-news report screened by CNN on Saturday, the American reporter was unable to keep the sense of surprise out of her voice as she reported that “over 3,000 Palestinians are held now under administrative detention, meaning no charges have been laid against them, and no ongoing legal process.”

Wissam Tamimi, 17, reunited with his mother Hunaida and his younger brother and sister.

Wissam Tamimi, 17, reunited with his mother Hunaida and his younger brother and sister.

Suddenly, a world accustomed to hearing only Israel’s side of the complex story of the conflict between Israel and the frequently demonized Palestinians, is seeing Palestinian families for what they really are – normal mothers and fathers, just like them, trying to do their best for their sons and daughters in abnormal circumstances.

And, equally importantly, as details begin to emerge of the treatment of the thousands of Palestinians held for years in Israeli jails without any form of judicial process, the world is also seeing Israel in a new, darker light – as a state that abuses the rights of children, imprisoning them, often for years, without charge or trial.

Israel, caught flat-footed by the sudden media interest in the other side of the story, has made efforts to keep news crews away from released Palestinian prisoners and their families, but with only limited success.

In East Jerusalem, where Palestinians have been ordered not to celebrate the homecomings publicly and threatened with hefty fines, a Sky News team was turned away by police officers as detained minors returned home at the weekend.

Eventually, though, the news crew found a way through the narrow streets to talk to Ghannam Abu Ghannam, 17, who had been held for a year, without charge, for allegedly throwing stones.

Ghannam Abu Ghannam, 17, held for a year without charge: “We were treated like dogs.”

Ghannam Abu Ghannam, 17, held for a year without charge: “We were treated like dogs.”

He said: “Prison was humiliating. They came in and beat us ever since the war began. We were treated like dogs.”

“Prison was humiliating. They came in and beat us ever since the war began. We were treated like dogs.”

The disgraceful treatment of Palestinian children detained by Israel may be coming as a surprise to many in the West, but not to international NGOs such as UK-based charity Save the Children, which has been providing support to Palestinian children affected by the ongoing conflict since 1953.

The charity, which is currently running a Gaza appeal to raise money for emergency medical supplies, food baskets, family hygiene packs, and school-in-a-bag kits, has been attempting for years to highlight the systemic abuse of children’s rights by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories.

In July, the charity published its latest damning report, titled “Injustice: Palestinian children’s experience of the Israeli military detention system.” It was a shocking indictment of Israel’s treatment of underage detainees, but when it was published it garnered very little international coverage.

In the light of the current releases of under-age prisoners, however, it makes sobering reading.

The report shares the experiences and voices of children, mainly boys, who were aged between 12 and 17 when they were detained over the previous three years.

Kahlil, who was 13 when he was taken, told the report’s authors that “a soldier threatened to kill me when he arrested me for the second time. He asked me, ‘Do you want the same fate as your cousin?’ as he had been killed.

“He promised me that I would have the same fate and die, but that he would send me to prison first. He told me that he’s coming back for me — and every day, I wait for that day to come.”

Other children released this week have spoken of suffering beatings and starvation, and increasingly aggressive treatment following the Oct. 7 attack.

“The conditions of our detention in the occupation prison were very harsh,” one of the released prisoners told the media on Monday.

“When the occupation authorities arrested me, I was 15 years old, and the detention room had 12 prisoners, even though it was intended for only six,” Omar Al-Shwaiki said.

“It was very harsh, and there are many children aged between 13 and 15 being held by the occupation.”

Save the Children’s investigation unearthed a catalogue of abuse, including that 42 percent of detained Palestinian children had suffered injuries during arrest, “including gunshot wounds and broken bones,” suffocation, and dislocated shoulders.

Nearly all had experienced “appalling levels of physical and emotional abuse, including being beaten (86 percent), being threatened with harm (70 percent), and hit with sticks or guns (60 percent).”

Three out of every five had endured periods of solitary confinement, ranging from 24 hours to 48 days, while during their arrest and detention 92 percent of children reported having been blindfolded and 93 percent were handcuffed.

Children were also regularly denied food and healthcare: 70 percent said they suffered from hunger and 68 percent did not receive any healthcare.

More than half (58 percent) were denied visits from or communication with their family while they were detained.

Unsurprisingly, concluded the report, the “enormous toll on children, including on their mental health and emotional wellbeing, continued to present after children were released.”

It said 73 percent reported suffering from insomnia, 53 percent had nightmares, 62 percent frequently felt angry, and 48 percent felt like they always needed to be alone.

On Sept. 21, just under two weeks before the Hamas attack on Israel, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories reported the case of a 21-year-old Palestinian who was struggling with mental health issues after having spent almost two years in solitary confinement.

Khulood Badawi said the Israel Prison Service had requested an extension of Ahmad Manasra’s isolation for another six months, “in brazen violation of international law — prolonged solitary confinement lasting more than 15 days violates the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”

Manasra was 13 when he and a cousin were attacked by settlers. His cousin was killed but in circumstances that remain unclear it was Manasra, and not his attackers, who ended up in prison, where he has been ever since.

Ahmad Manasra, now 21, left struggling with mental health issues after two years in solitary confinement.

Ahmad Manasra, now 21, left struggling with mental health issues after two years in solitary confinement.

Israel’s Lod District Court postponed the scheduled hearing because Manasra, diagnosed with serious mental health conditions, including schizophrenia and severe depression, had been taken to the mental health unit at Ayalon prison.

“Israeli authorities have treated Ahmad Manasra with inhuman cruelty, intent on pushing him past breaking point,” Badawi added.

“He is now so gravely unwell that he could not attend his own hearing.

“Yet when Ahmad is discharged from the clinic, prison authorities will return him to solitary confinement and reschedule the court hearing. Ahmad’s nightmare goes on and on.”

He is not alone.

On Nov. 20, while negotiations for the release of prisoners in exchange for Hamas hostages were still underway, B’Tselem — the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories — reported that, as of the end of September 2023, among the 4,764 Palestinians being held in detention or prison on what Israel defined as “security” grounds were 146 minors.

Although Israel’s secretive military courts system makes facts hard to come by, some agencies believe at least one in 10 minors, held for months or years, are never charged or tried.

On Sunday, Save the Children revealed that “prior to the ongoing escalation, about 500 to 700 Palestinian children were subjected to the Israeli military detention system every year.”

Since Oct. 7 alone, around 145 Palestinian children had been detained by Israeli military authorities.

“A large number are being held without charge, trial, or due process guarantees, which does not meet international juvenile justice standards,” the organization said.

“Palestinian children are the only children in the world who are systematically prosecuted in military courts, with an estimated 10,000 Palestinian children held in the Israeli military detention system over the past 20 years.

“Denying children access to legal representation and to see their family, are both longstanding measures imposed by Israeli authorities,” it added.

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