An IDF PR Disaster in Hebron in Detainment of 5-year-old

The soldiers who apprehended Wadi'a last week after he allegedly threw rocks at a settler's car were chastised not for detaining the boy, but for being caught doing so by a rights group's cameras.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Wadi’a Maswadeh did not know that he managed to stir a few hearts in Israel and the world with his tears, nor did his father, Karam. We didn’t know that Wadi’a was actually a recidivist detainee: He was 5 years and 9 months old when he was detained last week by Israeli soldiers − in front of the cameras of the B’Tselem human rights organization − and it was not his first arrest, but rather his third.

This week the little boy seems to be traumatized: He won’t smile, hardly speaks, shrinks at any attempt to pat his head, grips the electric pole in the street with his tiny hands, is startled at every soldier that passes by, wets his bed at night, wakes up screaming, and refuses to sleep in his home, located across from the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Wadi’a burst into public awareness, Israeli and international, last weekend after eight armed soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces Givati Brigade detained him on the street and took him with them in their armored jeep on suspicion of having thrown a rock at the wheels of a car belonging to settlers. The cameras B’Tselem documented the occasion: the detained child crying, with his father, handcuffed and blindfolded, sitting beside him.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office condemned B’Tselem and the documentary work it does.

This week we wanted to go to the weeping child’s home, but Border Police at the Tomb of the Patriarchs checkpoint prevented us from doing so on various pretexts. One of these was: “You can cross over to the house only if the council head escorts you.” So we met in the street, with the boy and his father, exactly on the spot where all of it occurred on Tuesday last week.

Karam, 31, is an occasional construction worker in Hebron and has three children. He has rotting teeth and a workman’s Hebrew. He has spent a cumulative seven years of his life in Israeli prisons, because of violent encounters with the soldiers in the quarter, where Hebron’s tiny Jewish population is situated.

Wadi’a and Karam were born in the same rented apartment opposite the Tomb of the Patriarchs, for which the family pays NIS 5,000 a year and from which the father now wishes to escape. Karam would like to move to a part of Hebron under Palestinian control or to Jordan − any place, just so long as his kids don’t go on suffering. He is no longer prepared to go through the saga of humiliations that every Palestinian who lives here is put through, day in and day out, by the soldiers, the Border Police and the settlers.

Only two families beside his own remain on his street. All the rest fled in the silent transfer that scared off most of this neighborhood’s non-Jewish occupants, many thousands of people, beginning about a decade ago. The only ones left are those who can’t afford to live somewhere else.

Since 2002, Karam has been barred from working in Israel, so he picks up odd jobs in Hebron and Halhul. That was the case last Tuesday: He was in Halhul when a relative telephoned him to say Wadi’a had been detained.

As mentioned, this was the child’s third detention. Karam says that more than a month ago, soldiers came to their home in the evening and complained that the little boy had gone up on the roof of his house. Ascending to the roof is forbidden, the soldiers declared − and took Wadi’a away with them. The boy was released only at 1 A.M., three hours after being taken into custody. Then he was detained a second time about three weeks ago: Soldiers came to the house and asked where the father was. Karam was not home, but Wadi’a was again taken away for several hours.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office released this statement: “The IDF is not familiar with the correspondent’s claims regarding prior arrest or detention. The incident that is described in the video clip is under current investigation, while at the same time, instructions for handling such incidents have been sharpened.”

Karam himself was last released from Israeli prison about six months ago. He was arrested after he tried to return home one evening and a Border Policeman would not let him pass through the checkpoint across from his home. The time, he says now, was a few minutes before 9 P.M. At 9 P.M. all the checkpoints here close, and all the Palestinian residents of the neighborhood are confined to their homes as part of the regular nightly curfew imposed here.

The Border Policeman did not let the father go into his house. Words were exchanged, maybe there was some violence as well. The policeman said that Karam was obstructing his ability to carry out his duty and called in other forces. Karam was arrested and sentenced to six months in jail and another two month-banishment from his home; he was compelled to spend those months in Jordan, far from his wife and young children.

Karam says the soldiers invade his home every few days and search the premises. The quarter under Israeli occupation has eight checkpoints, between three and four of them situated along the route Wadi’a’s takes to kindergarten, and violent altercations take place frequently there. Palestinian cars are, of course, forbidden to approach the area. Only those belonging to the settlers.

Their children, Karam continues, periodically attack the Palestinian kids, but in such circumstances no one is detained. The last time this happened to Wadi’a was about two weeks ago, when a settler boy around 12 years old beat him on the street when his mother sent him to fetch bread from the grocery store.

Last Tuesday, the eight soldiers with purple berets detained Wadi’a in the street. A settler complained that the child had thrown a rock at his car. Wadi’a claimed he had thrown a rock at a stray dog and that it hit the car’s tire. B’Tselem field researchers Manal al-Jabri and Imad Abu Shamsia, who were in the street at that very moment, attest that a dog was indeed wandering around.

The two researchers saw the boy surrounded by the eight soldiers and began documenting the spectacle with their video cameras. Wadi’a was taken into the jeep, escorted by a relative; the video footage shows him weeping copiously and stamping his feet. Karam was still in Halhul and by the time he got home, after being summoned hurriedly, Wadi’a had already been brought home, after officers at the police station to which he had been taken declined to arrest the child.

Karam found his son hiding in a closet at home. The soldiers wanted to detain the child again, this time accompanied by his father; the latter tried to explain to them that they were dealing with a 5-year-old. “The officer of the soldiers was present, and I told him I could not give them the boy, I was willing to come in his place. I asked the officer: ‘Where do you want to take the child?’ And he said: ‘To the police.’ I told him: ‘Bring the police here.’ That whole time Wadi’a was hiding in the closet and crying from fear.”

Finally the boy and his father were taken on foot to Checkpoint 56, near Beit Hadassah. There the father was handcuffed and blindfolded with a rag, in front of his son. Karam says they wanted to handcuff the child too, and he told the soldiers and policemen: “There is no law that allows handcuffing a 5-year-old boy.” Afterward they kicked Karam, so he relates, showing us an injured knee with black-and-blue marks and sores. With his hands bound, his eyes blindfolded − all of this in the presence of his scared child − he was made to sit on a chair near the checkpoint.

One of the two B’Tselem volunteers in the area, Abu Shamsia, documented this too with his video camera. He and Karam testified that they heard the officer from the Civil Administration, Lt. Col. Avi, who was called to the site, scold the soldiers for detaining the father and son in front of the cameras. He apparently said, “You are new recruits. If you want to do things like this, do it indoors, not in front of the cameras. We’ve had enough scandals already” − or something like that.

In the video, whose sound quality is poor, Lt. Col. Avi can be heard saying something about the “hasbara [PR] element.” The footage shows the handcuffed and blindfolded father, his child beside him, and a group of soldiers surrounding them. A settler child wearing a large skullcap peeks out from behind, and a cat suddenly yowls deafeningly.

Officer Avi ordered the two detainees to be transferred to the Palestinian police, where they were released, but not before Karam was forced to sign a guarantee in the amount of 5,000 Jordanian dinars, lest his child throw more stones. Initially he refused to sign, telling the policemen, “this is a little kid,” but his family members persuaded him to do so and get released, and mainly to free the detainee Wadi’a, aged 5 years and nine months.

Wadi’a Waswaleh.

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