Stop taking our children: When Palestinian children get taken in the night

This is for Hatem, who wrote to me: “Please keep promoting human rights for Palestinians.”

I was in the West Bank about a month ago visiting a number of primary schools schools. Entering the schools always gave me a sense of relief. They were always surrounded by thick, white concrete walls, most often covered with happy scenes of naively-painted children in their school environment: cleaning the compound, learning in class, playing sports together. Once in a while Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry decorated the walls for good measure. 

Driving into the school compounds gave me a sense of relief because the streets outside were hardly the kind of environment a child should grow up in: filthy streets, garbage strewn everywhere, the occasional poster of a martyr brandishing a machine gun, and a depressing amount of unemployed people (mostly men) busying themselves by doing a lot of nothing. 

Towards the end of my trip I visited a boys’ school for the first time. As I walked into the school, there was a palpable difference in the energy compared to girls’ schools: the boys were a lot noisier, the classrooms seemed to be fuller, and the students had a greater tendency to ignore me than to see me as an unusual guest. The school administration was different too: all the principals I’d met before were women. The principal of the boys’ school was a scraggly man with an unkept look, an office reeking of cigarette smoke, and an annoying habit of paying more attention to his ringing mobile than to my questions. He made me feel as though my presence was an inconvenience.

“We do have a problem with one of the students,” he said after putting away his phone. “He has had trouble focusing in class, and he went to the counsellor asking for help.”

“What happened?” I asked.

He rested his hands on his computerless desk. “Earlier this week, the Israeli soldiers burst into his house during the night and arrested his brother. The soldiers said his brother was accused of throwing rocks at them, so they took him in the middle of the night and dragged him from his home. His family has not seen him since.”

“Where did they take him?”

“To a detention centre. It happens all the time. The children are taken from their homes in the middle of the night, their hands tied, and they are not seen for days. The boy whose brother was taken has had trouble sleeping since this happened. This is what we have to deal with; these are the problems our children face. How can you talk about peace and human rights when they live in fear that they may be taken during the night? So we help his brother and his family whichever way we can, and offer our moral support.”

My initial impression of the principal was turned on its head: this was not an uncaring, dispassionate man. Here was someone faced with the unreal situation of having students at his school arrested during the night and taken away from their families. In its latest newsletter, Defence for Children International (DCI) chronicles the arrest of a young boy that is likely not dissimilar the one the principal is referring to: 

Saji O. (16 years) 
On 7 June 2011, a 16-year-old boy from Azzun, in the occupied West Bank, is arrested by Israeli soldiers from the family home at 2:00am:
Sixteen-year-old Saji was arrested by soldiers whilst still in his bed – his hands were tied behind his back with plastic ties and blindfolded – prevented from saying goodbye to his family – punched in the stomach before being placed inside a military vehicle – verbal abuse: ‘son of a whore’ – transferred on the floor of the vehicle – taken to Zufin settlement – given a cursory medical check whilst still tied and blindfolded – hands started to bleed – made to sit outside in the cold for approximately 30 minutes – transferred to Huwwara Interrogation and Detention Centre – strip searched and detained with two adults, in violation of Article 37(c) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – transferred to Salem Interrogation Centre – interrogated – tied to a small metal chair – accused of weapon possession – denied accusation – transferred to Megiddo Prison, inside Israel, in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

No one will ever be able to convince me that the mistreatment suffered by this boy – this child – is warranted. So far this year, over 200 Palestinian children have been detained, imprisoned and prosecuted in Israeli military courts. Organizations like B’Tselem are publishing reports (the latest one is here) and bringing cases like Saji’s to the world’s attention (DCI submitted a report to the UN last week). It’s time to speak up, it’s time to say this is not right.

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