On Sunday the 18th of December I witnessed a chaotic release of 550 prisoners from Israeli prisons to mark the last of the prisoner swap with Hamas. Every single person I asked in Ramallah was expecting to finally see a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend, or a family member. Hundreds of people gathered outside Ofer prison around noon on Sunday, awaiting their release. Throughout the day the time of release was pushed later and later.
At some point in the afternoon, boys began to throw stones at Israeli jeeps and soldiers behind Ofer prison’s gate. The army responded by tear gassing the entire procession, including the many families that were waiting. They then operated an armoured truck that shoots a sewage-like liquid at people. “This is nothing – ” a journalist tells me as we watch from a good distance, “when the first half of the prisoners were released they sprayed so much that every media’s equipment was ruined. Consider yourself lucky.” While, yes I’m quite glad I wasn’t drenched in Israel’s manufactured-sewage water, I don’t see why anyone, ever, in any case, should have to be a victim of it. Although it isn’t a weapon created to injure (though a friend was arrested after being sprayed, and not allowed to change for several hours and now has an unknown skin disease), it is the inhumanity of it that penetrates.
The “scream” also came into use, an incredibly loud siren that can direct noise at us while not effecting soldiers. So deafening that you literally feel you cannot near it. Rubber-coated steel bullets were another favourite. A foot in front of my eyes I saw a boy get hit in the arm by one of these. He ran to the ambulance screaming.
It is very dark and very chaotic when I arrive at 7pm. The area smells nauseatingly of sewage. The clash has been going on for almost seven hours and the night makes it an entirely more dangerous scene than usual. Soldiers can’t see what they are aiming at – though in my experience they rarely use discretion anyways. I stand with the media under a tent at the edge. A woman is clearly visible to soldiers under the camera light, and reporting into a microphone. She is hopping around on a cane because one leg is in a cast.
Suddenly one, two, three, and four tear gas canisters come buzzing at us. Everyone runs, but as I’ve learned: never turn your back. I’m still close when I notice that the woman hasn’t moved her spot, unable to run with a broken leg. Gas fills the air around her. Her cane falls to the ground. She begins to sway. And in the next moment, men are running for her and hurriedly pick her up to safer ground. To run after her in the line of fire, one of the men put his arms in the air. Others didn’t care and just ran for her. Some gestured with their arms: WHY?
There was no popular celebration planned for this release. It was the worse half of the deal. The first group of political prisoners released last October included many serving life sentences while this group was largely young prisoners with short sentences, only a few weeks or months before they would have ordinarily have been released.As the mother of a young man in prison tells us, “my son is sick. He goes to the hospital in the prison. He still has years left before he comes out. But it’s not about me and my son. The sick should be released first; it’s on principle. They can’t heal in prison.”
I have heard time and again the name Gilad Shilat. I have been hearing his name for five years.I know his face like I know my friends’ faces. I have heard about all the ailing Israeli parents who worry about their own children. I have been told he was only nineteen when he was abducted or kidnapped, while every day I don’t hear about the arrest of Palestinian boys and men. Why is an Israeli soldier spoken about more than a Palestinian civilian? A Palestinian woman? A Palestinian child?
55 Palestinian children between 14-17 were released on Sunday. I don’t know any of their faces. Of the 106 Palestinian children in Israeli prisons, how many names do you or I know? After some searching I found the Guardian had reported a story I have heard a thousand times: A child, arrested arbitrarily, accused of throwing stones (a charge that usually brings 6 months imprisonment, but has a maximum penalty of 20 years), is interrogated without a lawyer, forced to confess, forced to sign a confession in Hebrew without being translated, and essentially treated no different from any adult arrested:
“Al-Hasan Muhtaseb was arrested early in the afternoon as he and his 10-year-old brother Amir were walking home through Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, after visiting their aunt.
“Two soldiers came to us and told us: ‘Come over here.’ We went to [see] them,” said Al-Hasan, a slight boy, neatly dressed, who barely looks his 13 years. “They took my brother and I don’t know where they took him. I was sent inside the station and I never saw him after that.”
They were detained separately. Amir was released later that night, deeply traumatised. “He was in a very, very bad psychological state,” said his father, Fadel Muhtaseb, 45. “He had wet himself. He was terrified.” The boy said he had been held with his eyes covered by a hat in a room where there was also a dog, which he could hear panting.
Al-Hasan was interrogated at an Israeli military post in Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement in Hebron. “I was asked: ‘Did you throw stones? Did you hurt the soldiers or hit their vehicles? How close were you to the soldiers? Why were you throwing stones?’,” he said. Eventually he had admitted throwing stones, although in an interview last week Al-Hasan said it was untrue: on that day he had not thrown stones, although earlier in the week he had.
He had been made to sign a statement in Hebrew, a language he doesn’t speak or read. He was blindfolded and taken to Ofer military prison, where he arrived at 3.30am. “There were no other children,” he said. “I was afraid.” Three days after his arrest he appeared at a military court. But his father, who works as a tiler, could not afford the 2,000 shekels (£350) bail. “My father told them he couldn’t pay this much money,” said Al-Hasan. His father, who sat next to him through the interview, burst into tears.
Last Sunday the boy was freed under a bail arrangement in which his father faces arrest if his son does not appear at the next summons. “Even if he were throwing stones, he is only 13,” said Fadel. “They treated him like a terrorist. They claim they are democratic and human, but they are not.”” [Palestinian children’s rights violated Israel]
Israeli courts try Israelis as adults at 18, but Palestinians at 16. I wrote it in my last post, but I will keep repeating it: 99.74% of all Palestinians tried in Israeli military courts are convicted. Palestinians are tried for almost every crime in military court, where the judge and the prosecutor have all been soldiers, and the word of a soldier is proof enough to put you in prison. 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested and detained by Israel. 30% to 40% of the population have been in prison and between 3 and 4 out of 5 Palestinian men have been in Israeli prisons.
Palestinians live with the insecurity of knowing that they could be arrested at any moment. Nobody shares the confidence I had growing up that I am innocent until proven guilty. Here, if you can’t prove your innocence, you are guilty. If you even have an opportunity to speak for yourself or see a lawyer.
How many stories have you heard of these prisoners since they’ve been released? Do you know that there has been a price placed on the head of many of them? Do you know that many of them have been visited by the Israeli armies in their homes at 2 in the morning – a reminder that just in case they began to feel safe at home, Israel is still in control. Do you know that many were exiled to Gaza, Turkey, or Egypt instead of being reunited with their families?
As the hour nears 9pm, everyone gets excited, boys stop throwing stones: it was almost time for release. At 9:10, reporters began stating to their cameras that the time has been delayed to 10pm. Every fifteen minutes a friend waiting at the presidential compound in Ramallah, where the several buses will be letting the prisoners off, calls me and I tell them that they must wait a little bit longer.
Stones came up against weapons for the next hour as we huddled behind a van’s engine for heat. A group of boys run out from behind some cars carrying something on fire – a molotov? Nope – wave after wave of fireworks flew out of his arms towards soldiers. Everyone around me is on the ground laughing at how the tense moment was broken into flashing colours.
My favourite part is when you see them leave those gates my friend tells me. He has been imprisoned five times. Though he hasn’t looked through the names, he knows he will see many brothers today. He won’t get to see them leave the gates today. They’ve let them out through another entrance! They’re on their way to Ramallah! we hear people shouting. People are running into cars and zooming away. We hitch a ride without any issues, and I stop and pick up my camera before we go.
It is a sea of people searching for people. The prisoners are greeted the moment they come out, grabbed into an embrace, or lifted into the air. Women sing, men clap, everyone cries.