A Soldier's Best Friend, a Palestinian's Worst Nightmare

More than two months after being brutally attacked by a dog from the IDF canine unit, a Palestinian teenager remains in detention.

Alex Levac

Hamzeh Abu Hashem, 16, is still incarcerated in an Israeli prison. He’s been in jail for more than two months. It wasn’t easy to find out, this week, exactly where the legal proceedings against him stand. Apparently, it didn’t occur to anyone in the Israel Defense Forces that maybe, after the experience the youngster endured – soldiers set one of their dogs on him brutally – he should be treated a little more humanely, leniently. Even though the army’s cruelty in the West Bank extends to children, too.

On December 23, the soldiers in the Oketz canine unit were filmed releasing an attack dog on the petrified teen, and shouting at him, as the dog held him in a vice-like grip, “Who’s a chicken, who’s a chicken, you son of a bitch.” The soldiers are free; their victim is in prison, and no one knows when he will be released, despite the trauma he underwent.

Forgiveness, pardon, consideration, humanity or at least psychological treatment for the boy – none are in evidence. Nor has there even been the possibility of letting his parents visit him after he was wounded, if only in order to help calm him down, and themselves, too.

Helplessly, their hearts bleeding, the parents watched the video last week. They were under the impression that attorney Neri Ramati was handling their son’s case, but that turned out to be inaccurate. This week, Ramati referred them to another lawyer, Khaled al-Araj, who said he did not know what fate awaits his client.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated that because the case involves a minor, all legal proceedings are taking place behind closed doors and nothing about the discussions can be publicized, apart from the fact that he’s been charged with stone-throwing. The continuation of the trial, the IDF added, is set for March 30.

The results of the army’s investigation of the incident to date have been made known to the highest ranks of the defense establishment: the defense minister and the chief of staff.

As for the video, it was released by the ultranationalist former MK Michael Ben Ari, who wanted to bask in the glory of the abomination wrought by the bullying soldiers. “The soldiers taught the little terrorist a lesson,” Ben Ari tweeted basely. Ben Ari wanted to disseminate the video clip – to which no viewer can be indifferent – “so that every dinky terrorist who plans to harm our soldiers will learn that there’s a price [to be paid].”

According to the commander of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria Division, Brig, Gen. Tamir Yadai, as reported in Haaretz on March 5, what happened was “a serious incident in which the use of dogs shows a low level of professionalism and inappropriate ethical standards of behavior.” The IDF decided to suspend all canine activity in the West Bank until further notice. But no one thought to ask: Where is the boy? Is it right for him to remain in prison, remanded to custody until the completion of the legal proceedings against him ... [after] his intimidation and wounding by the IDF’s commando dogs?

This week, an IDF barrier blocked our way to the town of Beit Umar, situated between Bethlehem and Hebron, where Hamzeh Abu Hashem lives. We had to enter and leave by roundabout routes, like during the intifada. In the family home, at the edge of the town, the boy’s mother, Hamda Abu Hashem, 46, who is sickly and asthmatic, is worried about her son. In fact, about her two sons: Mohammed, 19, was arrested a few weeks ago, and his fate isn’t clear, either. The feeling of uncertainty and helplessness in the face of the occupation bureaucracy and judicial system is shared by many families.

On Monday, Ahmed, the boy’s father, went to the military court at the Ofer base, near Ramallah, and didn’t return home until late. When he did, he told Hamda that their son had been sentenced to 10 months in prison and a fine of 6,000 shekels ($1,500) for throwing stones, which is apparently not the case since the trial is continuing. Ahmed earns his living driving an “improvised” taxi in Beit Umar. The couple have six sons and two daughters.

Hamzeh dropped out of school after just six years and started to help his father earn a livelihood, by driving the family’s tractor. According to Hamzeh’s mother, he was arrested twice before for stone-throwing and released after paying fines – 1,000 shekels the first time, 2,000 shekels after the second conviction.

The children here throw stones at passing cars on the main road and at homes in the settlement of Karmei Tzur, situated on the other side of a narrow valley, a few hundred meters from Hamzeh’s house. IDF soldiers sometimes wait in ambush for the children and arrest them. That’s what happened last December 23, too.

Hamda says she saw the dogs that day from the roof of her house – two dogs, one black and one brown – to which the soldiers gave orders. “If I said the children weren’t throwing stones, I would be lying,” she admits. Hamda rushed to alert her husband, but he wasn’t allowed to approach the youngsters.

Hamzeh’s parents didn’t see the dog’s attack; that took place in a yard between two houses. Ahmed did try to prevent his son’s arrest, but to no avail. The parents saw an Israeli ambulance arrive from the direction of the settlement, but could not see Hamzeh being put into the vehicle. All they saw was the soldiers hugging the dogs.

The next time they saw Hamzeh was three weeks later, in the courtroom at Ofer. He told them that the soldiers had attacked and wounded him, and that he had been taken to a hospital. Hamzeh showed his parents his wounds: in one shoulder, below the armpit, on his arm and leg. “He’s so little,” his mother sighs. He cried when he saw her, she adds. Since then she’s seen him only twice, both times in the courtroom. Detainees are not allowed visitors, not even if they are youths and not even if they have been wounded by dogs.

Of her reaction when she saw the video last week, Hamda says: “I went crazy when I saw my son. I went crazy, when I saw what the soldiers did to him. I am his mother. I know what he is going through. I’m sure he isn’t sleeping at night because he is afraid. I am not sleeping, either. I am sure he expected his mother to help him, but I can do nothing.”

We visited the site of the incident with Muhammad Awwad, a local volunteer for B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization. Awwad, who also works in the local mosque, doesn’t go anywhere without his B’Tselem camcorder, to document every injustice. In this case, he saw the soldiers and dogs but could only film them from a distance, until they disappeared between the two houses; the video clip in question was made by the soldiers themselves.

The dogs, and the soldiers in their wake, chased Hamzeh while the other children scattered every which way. Running for his life, the teenager turned right, the soldiers and dogs in hot pursuit. There, between the buildings, the soldiers shouted to the dog, “Bite him, bite him!” – and the dog clamped its jaws on him.