Hundreds of suspects under the age of 18 have been arrested in East Jerusalem since the riots began there some three months ago. Residents accuse the authorities of neglect and the police of violating the minors’ rights and of brutal treatment, saying “they’re turning little children into terrorists.”
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Attorneys who represent dozens of suspects in East Jerusalem say the police and legal system’s treatment of the suspects is harsh, vindictive and discriminatory.
The involvement of minors in violent incidents in East Jerusalem is nothing new, but since this summer’s riots’ outbreak it has grown to unprecedented proportions. In recent weeks 260 minors have been arrested and even small children have begun taking part in the disturbances.
On Sunday two weeks ago, hours after the funeral of 16-year old Mohammed Sunuqrut, a few dozen masked individuals stormed the gas station on the seam line between the Issawiya and French Hill neighborhoods. They set gas pumps on fire and raided the convenience store.
Earlier this week six minors, ages 13-15, were arrested on suspicion of carrying out the arson and looting. Their families deny the teens’ involvement and say the police’s so-called evidence is based on admissions extorted under pressure and accusations made by other children.
On Wednesday the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court extended the six minors’ custody by five days. Khaled, the father of a 15-year-old suspect, waited angry and frustrated for several hours in the courthouse corridor for the hearing on his son’s custody. His younger son, 13, was arrested several days ago on suspicion of throwing rocks. He is still behind bars.
Khaled emphatically denies that his older son was involved in the gas station torching, but tells Haaretz why children take part in the disturbances.
“These children have nothing, they should have places to play in,” he says. “They saw what happened to the children in Gaza, 500 children were killed there, and their friend Mohammed Abu Khdeir was murdered. I was in the first Intifada. Twenty years later we’re back in the same situation.”
The father of another suspect said he told his son to stay at home. “But he told me, ‘I’m afraid they’ll burn me like they burned Abu Khdeir, so I won’t stay at home,’” he says.
On Tuesday this week a 9-year-old boy was detained for questioning on suspicion of throwing a stone at a police jeep in the A-Tor neighborhood. A few hours later an 11-year-old was arrested in Silwan in similar circumstances.
In both cases the boys are under the age of criminal responsibility, which is 12, and were both released after their parents were summoned and interrogated. A day earlier police raided A-Tor and rounded up six children ages 12 and 13 on suspicion of throwing fire bombs at Jews’ houses in the neighborhood.
Police said in a statement that the six had admitted they’d made the fire bombs on their own. They were released under restrictions and their cases passed to the State Prosecutor’s Office for preparation of indictments.
In another police roundup in an East Jerusalem neighborhood before dawn on Tuesday, 22 suspects were arrested, 13 of them minors.
The father of a 13-year-old boy who served a sentence in Hasharon prison said he returned a different child. “He doesn’t want to go to school, doesn’t want to work, started smoking, won’t obey me, does whatever he wants,” the father says.
Kamal Jabrin, a youth counselor from the Shoafat refugee camp, says his brother was arrested in July for one day in Jerusalem police headquarters. “He became an adult in one day,” Jabrin told Haaretz.
“You put a 13-year-old in a room with 17-year-olds and he’s afraid of being beaten up. It’s hell there. I see it in my work, every child put in jail, even for two days, most chances are he’ll go back to jail after a short time,” he says.
The parents of the minors suspected of attacking the gas station, who gathered in the Jerusalem court this week, said the boys and children are divided into groups that identify with different Palestinian political parties – Fatah, the Democratic Front and Hamas. They organize resistance to the occupation, similarly to the activities in the parties’ youth movements.
Attorney Lea Tsemel, who represents dozens of juvenile suspects, slams the police and legal system’s treatment of them, describing it as harsh and vindictive. She says police almost automatically ask the court to place the children in custody for long periods, even when they’re suspected of negligible offenses – and the court usually does so.
The chances of a Palestinian minor being released to house arrest or under other restrictions are slim, Tsemel says. This is because the parole officers who interview them generally don’t speak Arabic and don’t understand the circumstances. Consequently they issue “negative reports,” says Tsemel, and the court refuses to release the minors.
Also, since the disturbances have spread to all East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the police and prosecution refuse to release the minors to house arrest in the homes of relatives or friends in another area. As a result most of the juveniles remain under lock and key for prolonged periods until charges are filed against them.
Tsemel and Mohammed Mahmoud, an attorney who also represents several dozens of minors, say the police burst into homes to arrest juveniles in the middle of the night, interrogating them with shouts and threats in their parents’ absence.
“The interrogators get all kinds of things out of the children,” says Tsemel. In one case they added to the charge sheet that the act had stemmed from hatred of Jews. “They turned it into an anti-Semitic crime. I told them to ask the suspects about hatred of the occupation,” she says.
Tsemel and Mahmoud compare the way the Palestinian minors are treated to the way the courts and police treat Jewish suspects of similar age but accused of more serious crimes. For example, at the end of July a group of Jews attacked two young Palestinians in Beit Hanina with clubs and sticks in what was described as an attempted lynch. The two Palestinians were injured, one seriously. Yet only one of the 12 Jews arrested on suspicion of taking part in the attack was kept in custody until the end of the legal process.
“In any other place, children talk about where to go to play and what movie to see. In East Jerusalem there are no such things, children have nowhere to go, they have no normal life,” says Hatam Khaways, chairman of the parents committee in East Jerusalem.
“The education system in the city is unsuitable, the classrooms are crowded, the poverty, the police’s treatment of the population – all add to the violence,” he says.
Osama, brother of one of the arrested teens from Issawiya, says, “They’re turning little children into terrorists.”
Police dismissed Tsemel’s and Mahmoud’s charges of discrimination, saying that in the case of the attempted lynch, “The state had asked to keep all the suspects in custody. It also did so in the cases of the Arab taxi drivers who were attacked. We treat all those who commit offenses in the same way,” a police spokesman said.
Police also said the juveniles are interrogated in keeping with the law and in the parents’ presence, except for in unusual cases. Police also have a video clip showing an officer explaining to the father of one of the suspects that he can come to the station to accompany his son during the questioning.