Someone is pounding on the door. It is 3:45 a.m. The pounding gets louder. The father goes to open the door, and immediately they enter: two men dressed in civilian clothes, flanked by police officers bearing heavy guns. They go straight towards the boy, who has pulled on a baggy sweatshirt and stepped out of his room, snake their hands under his arms, and take him. “He will only be gone for a few hours,” they say. “Don’t worry.” Outside the house, the boy’s hands are tied with plastic packaging bands and he is pushed into the police car. He does not understand much Hebrew, but he knows enough to understand the officer who leans close to him and whispers:
“Fuck your mother.”
30 days later, after being beaten with a chair, held in solitary confinement, taunted with a knife, forced to stay awake, and otherwise abused, the boy is released from prison. He now has trouble falling asleep at night, and when he does he often has nightmares which feature his interrogators. And his punishment continues: He is under house arrest, indefinitely, and is not allowed to go to school. He is afraid that he will miss the end of his 9th grade year.
Suhaib Alawar, 14 and a half years old, is from Silwan, an East Jerusalem village directly South of the Old City. Silwan is home to a large and largely poor Palestinian population that is gravely underserved by state and municipal bodies (There are about 50,000 people living in Silwan. There are a total of eight elementary schools. There are zero public playgrounds). It is also inhabited by a small-but-visible Jewish settler population supported by Israeli governmental funds and services. Houses and other structures in Silwan are built without permits, because Palestinians are virtually never granted building permits (for example, in the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh, Silwan, pop. 5,000, there are under 20 recorded cases of permits being granted to Palestinians since 1967). There is sporadic violence from the Palestinians towards the settlers and police, mostly in the form of rock throwing youth, and heavy-handed responses from the police and army.
In all of these ways, Silwan is a microcosm of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian Territories writ large. There is one phenomenon, however, whose ubiquity sets Silwan apart from most places in the West Bank and East Jerusalem: child arrests.
In the middle of the night, on March 5th, 2012, Suhaib was arrested without warning, along with four other boys from Silwan. He had already been arrested twice before, the first time when just after his thirteenth birthday. Both times the police claimed that he was “throwing rocks.” 14 minors were arrested in Silwan in the month of March 2012 alone, according to Saleem Seam, a Palestinian activist from the Wadi Hilweh Information Center in Silwan, an organization that provides services and psychological care to youth in Silwan.
Suhaib was released from detention on April 5th but has remained under house arrest and is indefinitely barred from attending school. Last week, I went with Saleem to visit Suhaib and to hear his story. I am an Israeli, and I wondered about going to see someone who had recently suffered such serious abuse at the hands of other Israelis. I was greeted enthusiastically by Suhaib’s grandmother, who offered lemonade and coffee and brought me into the living room where Suhaib was waiting. He smiled hesitantly and held out his hand. I was mostly struck by how he looked: like a fourteen-year-old boy.
I asked him to tell me what happened.
Suhaib nodded, took a sip of lemonade, and began, the words spilling swiftly from his mouth. After the police stormed into his house and arrested him, along with the other boys, he was moved into the police car and then to a facility called Room 4. (Suhaib: “The interrogator asked me if I knew why it was called Room 4. I said I did not, and so he told me that it is called Room 4 because this is where you Arabs leave on all fours, crawling like a baby after we’ve finished with you”). There, the interrogators handcuffed Suhaib and hit his head, both with fists and with keys, calling him names and taunting him as their blows rained down. He was then made to sign a document in Hebrew stating that he had not been physically abused. Suhaib, who cannot read Hebrew, and signed the document.
According to Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem, the Israeli law known as the Youth Law mandates that a minor’s parents be present during any interrogation (this same law also forbids arresting children in the middle of the night and enacting violence against them while they are held). Suhaib told me that his father was not called in until 11:00 the next morning. When his father arrived, he was cautioned not to talk directly to his son. The investigation proceeded: they asked Suhaib a number of questions, all of which he declined to answer. Then, all the detectives left the room.
“I took the chance, and told my father that I had been beaten. I think that they were listening, because they came in right away and told my father to leave, and that the investigation was finished. I asked if I could go too, and they laughed. My father left, and the men started hitting me again, and saying that my mother is a whore. They left me in the room without food until midnight.”
Suhaib’s interrogation continued for the next ten days, during which he eventually found out he was accused of teaching other boys how to build Molotov Cocktails, which he denied. During these ten days, Suhaib was kept in a room that stank of feces and rotten food. He was hit with a chair and threatened with a knife. He was also told that if he did not admit he was guilty he would be “taken to an electric chair to help him.” On the fourth day, Suhaib was put into a police car along with another boy “to be taken to the electric chair.” The two exchanged some of their experiences and advised each other on what not to say. Video footage of this conversation was shown to him on the 10th day and was used as a confession. Suhaib continued to deny that he was guilty.
The detective extracted sentences from the conversation in the car, and forced Suhaib to sign the statement. After signing, Suhaib was held for twenty more days. During this period, he was moved into a cell with adults. “They were regular criminals, some of them were rapists and some were drug addicts, and they tried to beat me also.”
He was then moved into cell of his own, where the floor was wet from a small toilet which was overflowing with excrement. Next, he was moved back with another one of the boys. There the guards prevented them from sleeping.
“Whenever we would fall asleep, they would start banging on the cell door and screaming ‘Wake up, boys! You’d better watch out for the rats!’ Or they would point laser pointers at ours eyes until we woke up.” During the whole time he was held, Suhaib was not allowed to see his family again, and the police allowed him to call his parents only twice. After 30 days, Suhaib was released, having lost over 20 pounds during his detention. He was sentenced to house arrest at his grandmother’s house and his family was required to post a deposit of 50,000 Shekels (about $15,000) in case he violated the conditions of his house arrest. One of those conditions was that Suhaib, who should be in 9th grade, was prevented from returning to school.
“I like studying history,” Suhaib told me, smiling slightly, “and I want to be a human rights lawyer when I get older.”
The right to education is enshrined in Article 26 of the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights. Access to education is a sine qua non of democratic and liberal societies. The fact that Suhaib’s punishment includes his being barred from school indefinitely — in a neighborhood in which dropouts rates are, according to Saleem Seam, “astronomical” — raise a number of grave questions.
Are the arrests in Silwan aimed at remedying the violence present among many youth living in Israeli controlled territory, or are they part of a larger strategy to frighten the Palestinian population of Silwan in particular and East Jerusalem in general into submission? In other words, is the purpose of these arrests to reform violent youth, or is the arrest itself the purpose, to terrorize the village’s youth — whether violent or not — and to make an example out of a few so as to deter the collective? Whether Suhaib is guilty or not, will any efforts be made to investigate the horrible stories this fourteen-year-old boy has told of his 30 days in prison? If investigations are pursued, will their results be taken seriously, or will children continue to be arrested and abused en masse in Silwan? And, most immediately, will Suhaib be allowed to return to school and finish his 9th grade year?
This needs to end –“this” being both the Israeli occupation of Silwan and East Jerusalem in general, and, meanwhile, the maltreatment of the children living under occupation, including nighttime arrests, physical abuse, separation from parents and, as in Suhaib’s case, barring children from school and from any chance at rehabilitation or creating a better life