On March 10, five Palestinian boys hoped to spend their day foraging for vegetables south of their home in the occupied West Bank. Instead, they spent it detained for hours in Israeli custody.
The children — ages eight to thirteen — were violently arrested by Israeli forces in southern Hebron while picking akoub, a wild, thistle-like vegetable that blooms in spring. Video of the arrest sparked international condemnation and called into question Israel’s routine practice of detaining Palestinian children.
In the video, the visibly frightened children are seen being pulled and shoved into army vehicles by soldiers. Bystanders are heard shouting as the boys cry and struggle to get away from the soldiers.
Nasser Nawajaa, a field researcher for Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, captured the children’s arrest on camera. “One of B’Tselem’s volunteers called me and said, ‘The army is chasing children who are picking akoub,’” Nawajaa said. When he arrived from nearly two miles away, Nawajaa immediately began filming.
“There were [dozens] of soldiers around, and one of the soldiers dragged one of the children to the vehicle and the other soldiers followed and started to arrest them,” Nawajaa said. “We begged the soldiers to wait until the children’s families could come and talk to their families, but that didn’t help.”
The children were taken to a police station in the nearby Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba and detained from 12:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., Nawajaa said. The two older boys, ages 12 and 13 — were called back into the police station for questioning on March 21 because they are over the age of criminal responsibility, which is 12 according to Israeli law. Nawajaa said they were interrogated for about two to three hours before their release.
Arrested at the “request of settlers”
The children were collecting akoub near the illegal settlement outpost of Havat Ma’on — notorious for settler violence. While all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, they are not illegal under Israeli law. Only settlement outposts are considered illegal by Israeli authorities because they are built without government approval. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Palestinian children had to be escorted by the military when going to school because of frequent settler attacks.
Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem’s international advocacy officer, said on Twitter that the children were arrested at the “request of settlers” for allegedly stealing parrots from the outpost.
— Sarit Michaeli (@saritm0) March 10, 2021
— Bel Trew (@Beltrew) March 10, 2021
However, Roy Yellin, director of public outreach at B’Tselem, said the army’s accusation that the children were caught stealing parrots came out only after B’Tselem published the video. “According to Gaby Lasky, the children’s lawyer, the allegations of stealing parrots did not come up in the interrogation,” Yellin said.
“It’s also unclear why the army operated at the behest of the settlers and took their rather outlandish version of events at face value,” Yellin continued. “I can swear to God that if a child in Tel Aviv had stolen parrots from a pet shop, nothing like this would have ever happened to him.”
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement that the children were arrested for “entering a private property.” A military patrol located the children and then “transferred them to the Israeli police for further processing,” the IDF told MintPress News.
Israel Police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Everyday reality for Palestinian children
Forceful arrest and hours-long detention is a normal part of Palestinian childhood.
Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer at Palestinian prisoner rights organization Addameer, stated:
The Israeli occupation forces use the policy of absolute brutality and aggressiveness while arresting Palestinians in general. And this brutality begins from the moment of arrest and continues to the interrogation phase, the detention phase — during the whole process children are subject to brutality by the Israeli occupation forces.”
Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCIP) estimates that Israeli forces detain and prosecute 500 to 700 children between the ages of 12 and 17 every year. According to Addameer, 140 children are currently imprisoned by Israel and two are under administrative detention, where Israeli authorities detain an individual without charge. The reason for the detention is unknown to the detainee and lawyer, and considered a matter of security.
In some cases of child detention, DCIP said, “Israeli forces’ treatment may amount to torture.”
“Nearly three-quarters of children have reported to DCIP that they were subjected to physical violence at the hands of Israeli forces, and close to 60% are verbally abused, humiliated and intimidated, most often during their arrest and subsequent transfer to an interrogation center,” Shaina Low, advocacy officer at DCIP said in an email. She continued:
Nearly all children (95%) have their hands bound and around 86% are blindfolded. The vast majority of children (85%) are not informed of the reason for arrest, and two-thirds of children are not properly informed of their rights. Nearly all children are interrogated without a parent present, and children have no right to an attorney during interrogation. One third of children report being threatened and coerced into confessing.”
Yet while detention can be physically tormenting for children, the psychological aspect of it is what stays with children in the long-term.
“It’s a social thing for Palestinians,” Addameer’s Ansari said. “When children get detained and imprisoned, they become men and it deprives them from living their innocence and imposes on them to become tough and try to overcome the obstacles that they are under.”
B’Tselem’s video of the arrest was widely circulated online and even caught the attention of Rep. Betty McCollum (DFL-MN). In an interview with Middle East Eye, McCollum said:
Seeing the images of heavily armed Israeli soldiers manhandling and detaining these five pre-teen Palestinian children is extremely disturbing. Using Israeli soldiers to capture little boys who were reportedly ‘gathering wild vegetables’ in occupied Palestinian land is wrong.”
Dylan Williams — senior vice president of J Street, an American organization advocating for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict — also called the arrest “disturbing.”
This is very disturbing.
It must be investigated, including whether any of that military equipment is American-made and being used in violation of US law. https://t.co/j60p7NNoXC
— Dylan Williams (@dylanotes) March 10, 2021
“It must be investigated, including whether any of that military equipment is American-made and being used in violation of U.S. law,” Williams wrote on Twitter.
Just two days after the controversial arrest, progressive members of Congress sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken two letters pushing for Palestinian rights. The House letter, whose dozen signatories included Rep. McCollum, covered Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes, the issue of annexation, and Israel’s obligation under international law to vaccinate all Palestinians. The letter specified:
“We request that the State Department undertake an investigation into Israel’s possible use of U.S. equipment in these home demolitions and determine whether these materials have been used in violation of the Arms Export Control Act or any U.S.-Israeli end-use agreements…
“Israel’s ongoing colonization of the Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, alongside its demolition of Palestinian homes, is a form of ongoing, de facto annexation, which needs to be unequivocally opposed by the United States…
“The message from this Administration must be clear: settler colonialism in any form — including Israel’s settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank — is illegal under international law and will not be tolerated.”
The Senate letter urged President Joe Biden’s administration to pressure Israel to vaccinate all Palestinians. The letter was signed by five senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Traditionally, American politicians have turned a blind eye to Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. But the status quo appears to be shifting as the progressive wing of Congress grows louder with their calls for Palestinian liberation and condemnation of Israel’s violence.