Mahmoud was sleeping soundly. It was after 1 A.M., and suddenly somebody was picking him up from his bed. He’s 14, a ninth-grader, and he was sure his mother was waking him up for school. At the same time, he was shocked that his mother could pick him up; he’s heavy for his age. “Mom is too weak to carry me,” he told us this week with a half-smile in the tiny living room of his home in the Al-Arroub refugee camp between Bethlehem and Hebron.
A few more seconds went by before he realized what was happening. Soldiers had broken into his house and grabbed him from bed; he was being taken outside handcuffed and blindfolded. The next day the soldiers returned and arrested his older brother.
One son is already in the grave. We had been in this house two years ago, after Omer Mahdi was shot and killed by an IDF sharpshooter firing from a fortified guard tower at stone-throwers on the road near the camp’s cemetery. Omer wasn’t yet 16 when he died. This was the house where his parents, sisters and brothers mourned him.
Two weeks ago, the soldiers came back to abuse this bereaved family. They grabbed Mahmoud out of bed, there’s no other way to describe it. They said they were looking for Mohammed, but there’s no one by that name in the family. Maybe that’s why they took the 14-year-old with them – just in case. The next day the soldiers came back in the dead of night and arrested his brother, Khader, 20.
To reach his house, we ask where “the house of the shahid” (martyr) is. Photos of the late Omer adorn the living room walls. Drawings of him also appear in graffiti on the walls of the houses in the alley leading to the house.
Omer was killed on February 10, 2016. His mother introduces herself at the door as “the mother of the shahid.” She says she has six sons and two daughters, including Omer of course. “Omer is still here,” she says.
Na’ama Mahdi is 53. Her husband, Yusef, who is a year older, was an employee of the Bethlehem municipality before he went blind in one eye.
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Mahmoud was arrested before, about a year ago, despite his age, and in another incident he was wounded by a rubber bullet in the forehead. Four of the Mahdi children have been arrested at some time. Moatasem, the eldest son at 25, was seriously hurt a few years ago when he was shot by soldiers; he still suffers from that wound. In this overcrowded and impoverished refugee camp, this is the lot of many families.
On Saturday night two weeks ago, March 31, Passover for the Jews, Na’ama heard a loud noise from the street. It was late, but she was still awake. A veteran of the Israeli army’s brutal nighttime raids, she quickly gathered a few of the family’s phones and stuffed them deep into her bra. The soldiers knocked hard at the door and threatened to break it down if necessary. Na’ama quickly opened up. Khader, who had not yet fallen asleep, woke up his two sisters. The soldiers came in and spread out in all the rooms of the two-story house.
They took Khader to the roof after he asked them angrily what they wanted. His mother says she was afraid the soldiers would kill him and say he had attacked them with a knife. Haba, the Mahdis’ 28-year-old daughter, secretly filmed the soldiers on her phone. The video shows the masked soldiers crowding into the little house, which was filled to capacity. There’s no violence, just harsh exchanges. From time to time, weeping could be heard.
When they brought Khader down from the roof, he told the soldiers, “If you want to arrest me, arrest me, but leave the rest of the family alone.” According to his mother, a man in civilian clothing, apparently a Shin Bet security service agent who accompanied the soldiers, said, “We’ll get to you, but not today.” The soldiers asked the father, Yusef, for his ID card and he told them that the last time they had come to the house and arrested Khader, more than a year before, they had taken his ID and not returned it. At that time, Khader was sentenced to nine months in prison for various offenses.
Now they asked about Mohammed. The parents explained that they didn’t have a son named Mohammed. They asked for the mother’s ID. She said she was having trouble moving around the house because of all the soldiers and rifles. She went upstairs to get her ID and when she came down she saw a solider holding Mahmoud, whom the soldiers had woken up.
“They picked me up from the bed and told me to stand up.” Mahmoud says. “A soldier pinned my arms behind my back. The soldier shouted at my father to get his ID, and I tried to tell him to ‘take it easy, slow down.’”
Mahmoud spoke with animation and confidence about the events of that night. He had already been arrested once for three days for throwing stones, and it didn’t seem like he was too excited about another arrest. “Now the soldiers took me by the neck and started choking me,” he says. “My mother shouted, ‘you’re choking him.’ The soldier told her, ‘shut up.’”
The soldiers said they were taking Mahmoud with them. His mother asked that he be allowed to get dressed; it was cold outside. They refused and she pushed a sweatshirt into his hands that was on a chair. She asked them to let Mahmoud put on shoes and they let him.
Mahmoud asked to go to the toilet and they refused. Khader tried to stop his brother’s arrest and the soldiers pushed him back. They went out of the house with Mahmoud. Near the mosque they cuffed his hands behind his back and covered his eyes. Mahmoud says the ties were tight and very painful. They led him to the guard tower overlooking the main road, Route 60, where he says he was forced to wait, cuffed.
It was now 3 A.M. A female soldier filled out a form and asked Mahmoud if he had any health problems. A military jeep took him to the Etzion base. The soldiers put him on the floor of the vehicle and he was cold because of the air-conditioning. And so he asked if he could go to the toilet. For the fifth or sixth time, a soldier shouted at him and slapped him. Through all this, he remained cuffed and blindfolded.
In the morning, they took him somewhere else, he doesn’t know where, and in the afternoon they took him for questioning, apparently at a police station, although the man who questioned him was in civilian clothes. He was asked about stone-throwing and incendiary devices. He says he told his interrogators: “How could I throw a Molotov cocktail? The bottle is bigger than me.”
The interrogator got angry. He told him that he liked the truth and Mahmoud answered, “I like the truth, too.” He was moved around to a few different places until evening; he doesn’t know where they took him. At around 8 P.M. he was taken to the tunnel road with another detainee from Al-Arroub, and at the tunnel checkpoint they were released. They took a taxi home.
This whole time Mahmoud’s parents had no idea what had happened to him. The last time he’d been arrested, an investigator actually called to give them an update, but not this time.
Mahmoud was questioned without a lawyer or his parents present, even though he’s a minor. Par for the course. When he got home, exhausted, he quickly fell asleep. The next two days he didn’t go to school; another night of bad dreams was awaiting him at home.
The following night the soldiers came again at about 1 A.M. Their banging on the door woke the family, and they went inside. This time, they said they wanted to arrest Khader. This arrest was more stormy, according to the family. “It was war,” the mother said. Once again Haba tried to film from the steps but this time the soldiers confiscated the phone and erased the video. She says that part of the time she was posting live on Facebook and so they erased that from her Facebook page. Her phone, a late-model smartphone, has not yet been returned.
Yusef, who had lost his son two years ago, intervenes in the conversation for the first time: “It’s worse than what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Khader became angry that the soldiers had dared go into his sister’s room (to confiscate her phone). His mother says a soldier aimed his rifle at him. The atmosphere in the house became very tense. In a short video that someone in the house took, and which was not confiscated, Khader, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, is seen furious at the soldiers. His brother Moatasem is in an undershirt and is also exchanging harsh words with the soldiers. There is shouting and weeping; the video shows no physical violence.
Asked for comment, the IDF Spokesperson’s office made the following statement to Haaretz: “Mahmoud Mahdi was arrested on March 31, 2018, in light of the fact that the Israel Police wanted to interrogate him on suspicion of involvement in unlawful activity. After his arrest, it turned out that there had been a mistake, and he was released. On April 4, 2018, without connection to Mahmoud’s arrest, his brother, Khader Mahdi, was taken into custody, in the wake of his involvement in inciting for attacks on Israeli [civilians] and security forces. His custody was extended by the military court, and on April 11 [the day this statement was written], he was indicted for incitement.”
Khader is still under arrest at Ofer Prison. Mahmoud returned to school last Wednesday, April 4. He says none of the kids got excited about the return of a released prisoner. They’re used to it at his school..