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“I feel like I’m still in prison”, said Muhammad, as he described life after spending nearly five months in an Israeli jail. He sat nervously in his lounge as he answered questions about his ordeal, his baby-smooth face and teenager’s awkward gait in stark contrast to the severe punishment meted out to him as though he were a hardened, adult criminal.
In February, Muhammad was snatched, by a four-man squad of Israeli special forces while playing with friends near the security wall, a mile away from his home. He was subjected to a vicious beating by the men, who punched him repeatedly and smashed him across the face with the butt of a gun in broad daylight. “No one said a word to me during [the attack]”, recalled Muhammad, whose description of the assault bore marked similarities to Rodney King’s ordeal.
The difference, however, is that Muhammad is just 14 years old, yet was deemed a sufficient enough threat by the soldiers that he needed to be beaten to the point of almost losing consciousness. His crime? Allegedly throwing stones at the separation wall; something Muhammad strenuously denies.
Whereas Israeli youths are treated as children in the eyes of the law until they turn 18, Palestinians are not accorded such humane treatment, and can be imprisoned from the tender age of just 12. Since September 2000 Israel has arrested and detained almost 6000 children, with 700 under-18s arrested in 2007 alone.
Gerard Horton of DCI, an NGO which has taken up Muhammad’s case, pointed to the IDF’s flagrant violations of children’s rights as yet another example of Israel thumbing its nose at international law. “These abuses have been well documented for many years, yet our pleas for intervention have fallen on deaf ears”, he said. “The lack of will by the international community to uphold the rule of law when it comes to the Occupied Territories is deeply disturbing.”
After his violent treatment at the hands of the troops, Muhammad was taken to a police station for interrogation, where he was duped into signing a confession. “A man showed me a piece of paper in Hebrew [a language Muhammad doesn’t speak] and told me if I signed it I would be released, so I did”, he said. “Immediately he told me that I had just signed a confession, and that I should now expect a prison sentence”.
After receiving medical treatment for his wounds, which required an overnight stay in hospital, Muhammad was transferred to another jail until his court case in front of a military judge. He was not permitted to see a lawyer until five minutes before his trial, and throughout his entire ordeal (including his four and a half month prison term) was not allowed to see any member of his family.
His parents were sick with worry, according to his mother. “There was no official contact”, she said. “The only news we received were two calls from Muhammad on phones smuggled into the jail, and then an update from a released prisoner who told us when Muhammad was due to be let out of prison”.
Wheelchair-bound, his mother explained how Muhammad’s absence affected family life at home. “He is my firstborn, and used to help me around the house all the time”, she explained. “[On top of that], we were constantly worried about what had happened to our son, since we had no way of getting in touch with him”.
She described the changes that had come over Muhammad since his traumatic experience. “He has been affected in two ways”, she said. “He has lost an academic year of his studies, and also suffered greatly psychologically”. The family filed a complaint against the army, “but no action was taken in response”, she said flatly.
When he heard this, Gerard offered to send a DCI lawyer to follow up the complaint, but the chances of achieving anything significant on behalf of Muhammad and his parents are slim. The authorities have a history of treating criticism of their military policies as water off a duck’s back, leaving Gerard and his team incredibly frustrated at their lack of ability to bring the perpetrators to justice.
All that they can do is to document the abuses and beg for intervention by the international community, but – as witnessed by the EU’s recent upgrading of relations with Israel – their plaintive appeals appear to be in vain. As DCI’s June bulletin states, “The EU professes support for human rights principles [and yet has turned] a blind eye to grave human rights abuses for economic and political expediency”.
Israeli officials have flexed their political muscles before when accused of mistreatment of Palestinian detainees, including forcing Canada to remove Israel from a torture blacklist earlier this year. Against this backdrop, DCI and the other human rights groups working in the area face an uphill struggle to rid the occupied territories of such abuses.
While Muhammad tried to put a brave face on what happened to him in the name of Israeli justice, his mother was more realistic about the prospects for her family, as well as her community at large. “The Israelis do all of this to put pressure on us, in order to show that the army controls the Palestinians, and also to try to force us to leave – but whatever they do to us, we will remain here”, she said defiantly.
In the meantime, the silence of the outside world is deafening. With every passing week, and with every diplomatic door being opened for Israel, the authorities become more and more immune to the criticism on ground-level from the likes of DCI and their peers, and it is children such as Muhammad who pay the price.
Soldiers savagely beating a pre-pubescent youth would send shockwaves throughout any civilised country, but – when it comes to the occupied territories – such an attack is treated as just another day in the office.