We couldn't help ourselves: The sight of the young, newly released detainee drove us into a paroxysm of laughter. But the laughter quickly morphed into sad embarrassment. The detainee was a boy of 8, in second grade. When we met him this week, on the streets of Hebron, he was on his way to his grandfather's home. He wore a red sweatshirt emblazoned with an image of Mickey Mouse, and he had a shy smile. His mom had sent him to take something to Grandpa. Eight-year-old Ahmed Abu Rimaileh was not the youngest of the children, schoolbags on their backs, that Israel Defense Forces soldiers took into custody early on Wednesday, last week: His friend, Abdel Rahim, who was arrested with him, is only 7, and in first grade.
Twenty-seven Palestinian children never made it to school on that particular day. IDF troops lay in ambush for them from the early morning hours on the streets of the Hebron neighborhoods that are under the army's control, and arrested them indiscriminately. Only after they were in custody did the Israeli security forces examine the video footage they had in their possession, to see which of the youngsters had thrown stones at Checkpoint No. 160 earlier that morning, which separates their neighborhood from the settlers' quarter of the city. It was here, a few weeks ago, that IDF soldiers shot and killed a teenager, Mohammed Suleima, who was holding a pistol-shaped lighter.
Most of the young children were released within a few hours. The older ones were kept in detention for a few days, before being released on bail. One adult, who tried forcefully to prevent the arrest of a colleague's son, was brought to trial this week.
The fact that 18 of the children were under the age of 12, the age of criminal responsibility according to the 1971 Israeli Youth Law (Adjudication, Punishment and Methods of Treatment ), was apparently of no interest to the IDF, the Israel Police or the Border Police. Nor was the severe report issued just two weeks earlier by the United Nations Children's Fund, which condemned Israel for arresting some 7,000 Palestinian children in the past decade.
"Ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized," the UNICEF report stated, and added, "In no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts."
The Youth Law forbids the arrest of children under the age of 12. It also appears that the provision stipulating that older children must not be interrogated without the presence of their parents and their lawyer does not apply to Palestinian children.
A volunteer from the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group, who documented with a video camera the operation in which the children were arrested, forwarded the footage to B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and B'Tselem gave it to us. (The video can be viewed on the B'Tselem website and on YouTube.) One soldier is seen spitting crudely on the ground, another actually carries the schoolbag of his little detainee - as though he were a babysitter who had come to escort the child home from school. The amateur photographer from the ISM was deported from Israel that same day, after she also had the temerity to take part in a demonstration in Hebron against the visit of President Barack Obama.
Indeed, the mass arrest of the youngsters took place on March 20, the day Obama arrived in Israel, and the day before he made his remarks about Palestinian children in Jerusalem. "Put yourselves in the Palestinians' shoes," the president told the Israelis.
From early that same morning, Palestinian residents of Hebron noticed dozens of Israeli soldiers taking up positions in the streets and on rooftops in the neighborhood. One frightened resident called B'Tselem fieldworker Manal al-Jaabari, to ask what was going on.
Divided by age
For his part, Ahmed Abu Rimaileh woke up at 7 that morning and, with the NIS 2 he received from his mother as pocket money, set out for school; sometimes he gets NIS 1.5, sometimes 2. He attends the Hadija Elementary School down the street. Adjacent to it are three other schools that are part of an educational complex, which is located a few hundred meters from the checkpoint.
His father, Yakub, is a construction worker. His mother, Hala, is now sitting with us in their home. On the way to school, Ahmed says he stopped at the corner grocery store and bought a packet of cookies for NIS 1, and kept the other shekel for recess. As he was about to leave the store, he relates, seven or eight other children suddenly came running in, some his age, some older. Hard on their heels were soldiers, who arrested all the children in the store.
One soldier ordered Ahmed to put the cookies in his schoolbag before grabbing him by the shoulder and hauling him toward the checkpoint. Ahmed says he was very scared. He also admits that he cried, though only a little. At the checkpoint, he and all the other detained youngsters were thrust into an army vehicle - 27 children in one vehicle, some sitting, some standing, according to Ahmed's description.
There were three soldiers with them in the vehicle. Some of the children were crying, and the soldiers told them to be quiet. One child was hit, Ahmed says. They were all taken to the nearby Israeli police station, next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where they were told to sit on the ground, in a closed courtyard. The children above age 12 were separated from the younger ones and taken to the police station in Kiryat Arba and afterward to Ofer Prison, north of Jerusalem.
Ahmed Burkan, 13, was not released until the evening. Malik Srahana, also 13, was held in custody for three days at Ofer Prison before being released on NIS 2,000 bail. B'Tselem fieldworker Musa Abu Hashhash, who met with him immediately after his release, says the teenager showed signs of trauma.
According to a report transmitted by the International Red Cross to B'Tselem, 18 of the detained children were under the age of 12. They were kept in the courtyard, with a policeman guarding them for almost two hours. No one offered them food or water.
Children asked to go to the bathroom but were forbidden to do so, Ahmed recalls. The policeman asked who among them had thrown stones, but no one confessed. He then asked if they knew which children had thrown the stones and they named two of the older ones, who had been arrested and separated from them.
After a time, three jeeps arrived and took the younger group to Checkpoint 56, next to the settler neighborhood of Tel Rumeida. There the children were met by three Palestinian police "security coordination" jeeps, which took them to their police station. The Palestinian police gave them food and asked all those who had thrown stones to raise their hand. All the hands went up.
The parents were called to come to the station to collect the children. Ahmed's parents and those of four other youngsters did not show up. Those five children were driven home in a car of the Palestinian Ministry of Education. Their worried parents were waiting for them.
Hala says she is not angry at her son. She only asked him not to cry the next time he is arrested by soldiers. "We are used to it," she says, adding that her son had a dream about the arrest that night.
The IDF Spokesman's Office provided the following statement in response to a query from Haaretz: "Last Wednesday, March 20, 2013, Palestinian minors threw stones at a force that was manning the checkpoint in Hebron. An IDF force that waited in ambush close to the site caught the stone-throwers in action. The Palestinian minors were detained on the spot, and seven of them, who are above the age of 12, were taken for interrogation by the Israel Police. As the Israel Police interrogated the minors, the question about the non-presence of a parent/lawyer during the interrogation should be addressed to them."
The day after the incident, Ahmed did not want to go to school, but was persuaded by his parents to do so. For one day he was a hero among the children: Ahmed, the released detainee. He did not enter the classroom that day, staying instead in the principal's office. He wants to be a doctor when he grows up, like a few others in his extended family, he tells us. His mother says he is a good student and a good boy.
Ahmed has seven brothers and sisters. The five boys sleep in one room, on two beds and on mattresses on the floor. There is an old computer in the room, which is turned off; they do not have an Internet connection. Out in the street a young peddler, of the same age as Ahmed, can be heard hawking his wares. After school the boy sells halabi, a sweet homemade pastry oozing with oil, for half a shekel.