Jailed at 14: The Youngest Palestinian Girl in Israeli Prison

Malak al-Khatib was sentenced in mid-January to prison by a military court for throwing stones and being in possession of a knife. She was released this week.

Just before passing sentence, the judge, Lt. Col. Yair Tirosh – merciful, humane, compassionate – allowed the defendant to have her say in court, as is the custom. The transcript of the military court for juveniles in the Judea District reads: “The defendant, in her last words: ‘I am a school pupil and I will return to school after I am released.’ The defendant’s parents: ‘We ask for the court’s mercy.’”

But there was no mercy in the court for juveniles, nor compassion, and probably no justice, either. Malak al-Khatib, an eighth-grader from a poor family living in the village of Beitin, near Ramallah, was sentenced to two months in prison, and also given a suspended sentence of three months and fined 6,000 shekels (about $1,500). She was convicted on three counts: “attempting to throw objects at a transportation route, possessing a knife and throwing objects at a person or at property.”

Malak was convicted by her own testimony, which was taken from her without the presence of her parents or a lawyer – contrary to the law. A girl of 14, she did not hurt anyone. Since being sentenced, in mid-January, she has been incarcerated in Hasharon Prison at Tel Mond, near Netanya. Neither her parents nor anyone from her family has been allowed to visit her. She was released on Friday.

Her story has received international media coverage, demonstrations have been held for her release in Israel, and a Facebook page calling for her to be freed was set up. There are currently more than 150 Palestinian children incarcerated in Israeli prisons, but Malak is the youngest girl ever sentenced to jail, say Palestinian sources, and thus of course the youngest girl incarcerated at present.

Her photograph hangs on the wall of her home in an apartment building with a stone façade, where we visited this week. It’s a rented apartment: eight children and their parents in two bedrooms and a living room, very small but well kept. The Khatib family had to move here from Hizma, their native village, in the wake of a blood feud in which their hamula (clan) is involved. About 200 people fled Hizma in 2007 to escape the feud.

Oren Ziv

Malak’s father, Ali Yusuf al-Khatib, 56, bearded and toothless, wears a keffiyeh and a robe. Two of Malak’s brothers also join the conversation: Yusuf, 24, who works in the SodaStream plant in Mishor Adumim, and Hamzeh, 22, who is employed in a printing press in the same West Bank industrial-zone settlement.

Malak is the youngest daughter. Her father and her two brothers deny vehemently the rumors that she wanted to be arrested in order to escape domestic problems. Her lawyer, Juad Bulus, adds that this was not the impression he formed from his young client. In any event, that’s not the point: Is jail the place for a girl her age, with or without problems at home?

A small cage containing one bird, which flits futilely from side to side in its prison, hangs on the balcony of the apartment, a symbolic backdrop. Next to the cage is a Real Madrid poster; the brothers say that Malak is a fan of the soccer club. They add that as the youngest child, she gets the most attention in the house. Yusf says he liked giving her money for sweets.

Her father adds that his daughter likes hiking, with him or alone, picking herbs and playing sports. She shares a small room with her two sisters and with the baby boy of one of them, who is separated from her husband.

Malak was arrested on the last day of 2014. The night before, her mother, Khawla, had slept in the girls’ room. Malak had an English test that day, and left for school early in the morning, her father, Ali Yusuf, relates. After the test she left school and went for a walk in the countryside, he continues: She headed toward Highway 60, on the other side of which is the huge settlement of Ofra.

That is when she was arrested by Israeli police. She might have been throwing stones. And she had a knife. They took her in their jeep to the local police station. Some time afterward, Malak’s father got a phone call from the village council, informing him that his daughter was under arrest. Along with his wife and son, Yusuf, he rushed to the police station. They had to wait three-and-a-half hours until Malak’s interrogation ended, he says. No one else was with her.

Finally an interrogator named Fadi emerged and told the parents their daughter had thrown stones and had been in possession of a knife. Ali Yusuf said: “How can you arrest a little girl like this? How can you question her without her parents and without a lawyer? Interrogate a little girl like this and she’ll admit to being in possession of an M16 rifle, too. Let’s say you’re right and she threw stones. I didn’t hear of anyone being hurt.”

The interrogator added that she intended to stab a soldier with the knife. The father retorted: “Think about a soldier wearing a protective vest in the face of such a little girl. How could she possibly stab him?”

The parents were denied permission to see their daughter. Finally, Yusuf managed to persuade the interrogator, and Malak was brought in to them for a few minutes. Her father asked her what had happened and she told her parents not to worry. He says she wasn’t crying but looked frightened, and might have been trembling a little. The interrogator told the family that Malak would be taken to court to be remanded in custody, and that someone would call them in the evening to let them know where things stood.

That evening they got a call from the Palestinian Prisoners Club, informing them that Malak had been transferred to Hadarim Prison and that a lawyer on behalf of the club, Mundar Abu-Ahmed, had met with her. The lawyer said it would be a good idea for the father to have a few thousand shekels ready in case Malak was freed on bail.

Three days later, on Sunday, January 4, Malak was brought to the court at the Ofer detention facility for the remand hearing. Her parents set out from their home at 6 A.M. that cold wet, winter morning, in order to reach the courthouse by 8 A.M., but they only arrived at 10.

Ali Yusuf recalls that Malak was bound by her hands and feet, and was shaking from the cold; her parents were not allowed to approach her. They had to sit in the back of the courtroom, without exchanging a word with her, for fear they would be ejected.

The prosecutor, Capt. Gilad Peretz, demanded that she be held in custody until the conclusion of the proceedings against her. The military appeals court judge, Lt. Col. Ronen Atzmon, deferred his decision. By January 11, attorney Bulus and another lawyer, Ahmed Abu Safia, had been added to the defense team.

After a few more court sessions, a plea bargain was struck, and the sentence was handed down on January 21: Malak would admit to the charges and would be sentenced to two months in prison and a fine of 6,000 shekels. Attorney Bulus explained that any other outcome would have left her incarcerated for a longer period.

For his part, Ali Yusuf asked Bulus whether girls of this age were imprisoned in other countries, too. Two MKs who now belong to the new Joint List, Haneen Zoabi and Dov Khenin, tried to intervene on Malak’s behalf, but she remained in prison, without anyone being allowed to visit her.

Here’s how a spokesman for the Israel Police Samaria and Judea District described the course of events, in reply to a query from Haaretz: “Fighters from the Yasam [Special Patrol Unit] who were traveling on Highway 60 noticed a masked individual who was throwing stones at Israeli vehicles. The fighters began a pursuit on foot, during which the masked individual threw a knife on the ground.

“Upon being apprehended, the masked individual turned out to be a Palestinian girl of 14, who admitted in a preliminary interrogation that she wanted to attack an Israeli soldier, who would arrest her after she threw stones. The detainee was brought for questioning to the Binyamin station, where she declined the right to consult with a lawyer by phone ... Her parents were informed of her arrest.”

The military court judge, Lt. Col. Tirosh, wrote in his decision to convict the 14-year-old: “After hearing the defendant’s parents and her remarks, and having weighed the arguments of the sides, I find that the [plea bargain] arrangement is reasonable and deserves to be honored, taking into consideration the defendant’s young age.”

Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz