Twilight Zone / Administrative Orphans

Sami Hashlamoun was arrested 16 months ago, and his wife, Nora, was arrested three months later. Their six children were left in Hebron, in the care of their exhausted grandmother. The Shin Bet proposes a solution: expelling Nora to Jordan.

Here is one way to maintain a sense of family unity: Once a month, the Hashlamoun children visit their parents in jail. Three kids go to see their mother in Hasharon Prison and the other three see their father in Ketziot Prison. Sometimes even this arrangement doesn't work out. Some of the kids haven't seen their father in three months and others haven't seen their mother for a month and a half.

When the visits do take place, the children get to stand in front of a glass wall and talk with their mother or father for half an hour - visiting time is strictly limited - on a telephone that connects the people on either side of the soundproof barrier.

Actually, there has been a lot more crying than talking. The children cry on one side of the window and their mother or father cries on the other. Then the children go back home to their grandmother, who is trying her best to raise them in her small, decrepit house on the edge of Hebron.

Sami Hashlamoun was arrested 16 months ago. His wife Nora was arrested about a year ago. Both are being held without trial, without an indictment, without a chance to defend themselves. They are administrative detainees, and no one can say just why they were torn from their children in the middle of the night, or when they will be released. Israel is currently holding about 850 administrative detainees.

Some of the children have stopped going to school. Three-year-old Sariya, the youngest, bangs her head on the floor at night and yanks at her hair. There are also frequent eruptions of violence among the children, who live in terrible poverty. This week, they were visited by a psychologist from Uruguay, from Doctors Without Borders. She will continue to visit them once a week, to offer assistance.

But you don't have to be a psychologist to know that the children of the Hashlamoun family are growing up in inhuman conditions. Without a mother, without a father, without financial support, in dreadful material and emotional poverty. Does anyone in the Shin Bet security service or the Israel Defense Forces take this into consideration when they extend the parents' administrative detention, time after time, leaving their six children behind?

We pass through hovels with unplastered walls, covered with soot, bare spaces without a stick of furniture. The maze of apartments inhabited by the extended family finally leads to the dwelling of the grandmother, Raisa Hashlamoun, 59. She is completely worn out. For a year now she has had to be mother and father to her rebellious grandchildren, over whom she wields no parental authority. Her living quarters are among the shabbiest we have seen: The walls are crumbling, moldy and stained. An old wool blanket serves as a rug, mattresses thrown on the floor serve as beds, the kitchen is filthy and practically empty, spiderwebs hang in the corners.

There is hardly any food in the house. A platter of tomato sauce sits on the floor of the balcony, waiting for the meal to break the Ramadan fast. In the meantime, flies hover over it. The yard is strewn with garbage and junk. The bathroom stinks. A gas canister sits in the middle of the hall. Some of the children sleep in the room with their grandmother, the others sleep in the hallway, next to the gas tank. The apartment belonging to the children and their parents is located on the ground floor, and is a bit nicer, but ever since their parents were taken away, they have all been crowding into the grandmother's home.

Sami, 35, was arrested first, apparently on suspicion of belonging to Islamic Jihad. This was on June 29, 2006, at two in the morning. Loud knocking on the door, the windows were broken, his name was called on a loudspeaker, the whole family was ordered outside, the children say they saw their father beaten, handcuffed and taken away. Since then, his administrative detention has been extended three times, with no trial in sight. His mother, Grandmother Raisa, who saw him a month and a half ago in prison, says he has grown very thin. "I felt sick when I saw him," she says, weeping silently.

Three months later, on September 16, after the windows in the house had been fixed, the soldiers and Shin Bet people returned. This time they came to arrest Nora, who worked in an Islamic charity association. The loud shouting began at one-thirty in the morning, followed by the usual procedure: breaking the windows (which haven't been fixed since), and everyone called to come outside. When the grandmother came out, she saw her daughter-in-law Nora standing there holding little Sariya. The soldiers ordered her to wash the henna out of her hair, say good-bye to Sariya and come with them.

Sariya was passed to her grandmother and hasn't recovered since. Nora had never been arrested before, but Sami had been arrested twice. Nora's administrative detention has been extended every three months, not every six months like her husband.

"The children are driving me crazy," sighs their grandmother, a swarthy woman in a white head scarf. "Can you believe that I've already changed their clothes three times today?" Three of them refuse to go to school. "I yell at them but it doesn't help," she says. Mohammed, 10, stopped attending school last year, and under his bad influence, Jihad, 6, has also ceased going to first grade. Mohammed tells us that he doesn't like the teacher.

Tahrir, 14, doesn't go to school anymore either. Last year she was sent to a boarding school for orphans. This year she refused to go back there or to a regular school. Mohammed knows how to read a little, but Jihad is likely to remain illiterate. Tahrir has trouble reading, too. Hanin, 12, used to be an outstanding student, but since her parents' arrests, her schoolwork has drastically deteriorated, and she barely earned passing grades on her last report card.

Jihad comes in. In a wispy voice he tells us that he doesn't go to school. "Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't - usually not."

Where's Mommy?

"In jail."

Where's Daddy?

"In jail."

The children all have sad, blank expressions. Sariya cried all night. She wants her mommy.

At the start of the school year, Raisa borrowed NIS 200 to buy clothes and schoolbags for the children. No money was left over for the holiday meal this weekend. They'll eat tomato sauce from the balcony. The oldest sister, Fida, 15, saw her mother a month and a half ago and her father three months ago. Hanin saw her mother a month and a half ago and her father "a long time ago." On the last visit, the children promised her they would go to school. But that promise hasn't been kept.

Following a report by B'Tselem field investigator Musa Abu Hashash, the organization's information coordinator, Ronen Shimoni, wrote a letter to the military advocate general, Brigadier General Avihai Mandelblit. "The absence of both parents for a long period and without any knowledge of when they will be released is causing, according to testimony that has reached B'Tselem, serious emotional harm to the children and imposing economic hardship on their grandmother," he wrote. "I ask that this incident be examined with all due haste because of its humanitarian nature and the severe and disproportionate harm being done to the couple's children."

Attorney and Lieutenant Colonel Erez Hasson replied: "The couple was arrested about a year ago under administrative detention and this was due to their involvement in activity that endangers security, on behalf of the Islamic Jihad organization, the infamous terror organization responsible for the murder of many dozens of Israeli civilians, including children. Their case has been heard on several occasions in the military court and in the appeals court ... The prosecuting authorities are also in contact with the defense attorneys with the aim of finding an alternative to the administrative detention, at least in regard to the woman. Unfortunately, without the addition of a proper power of attorney form ... I cannot say more about these contacts."

Hasson alludes to the solution proposed by the Shin Bet and the IDF: expelling Nora to Jordan or Nablus. How thoughtful.

The IDF spokesman, this week, in response to our inquiry: "The Hashlamoun couple were arrested and placed in administrative detention a year ago due to their involvement in activity that endangers security, on behalf of Islamic Jihad, which is responsible for the murder of many dozens of Israelis. Their case has been heard more than once in the military court in Judea and Samaria and also in the military appeals court. The courts approved the continuation of their detention. The couple have legal representation."

A letter from Mommy: The children take two crumpled pages out of an envelope. The paper is covered in dense handwriting. Fida begins to read. Nora pours out her woes to her children. She tells how she is woken up at three in the morning, handcuffed and taken to a court hearing, for the "judicial proceeding" to extend her administrative detention, in which the prisoner usually doesn't know until the last moment of his detention whether or not it will be extended, and how they offered to expel her to Jordan in exchange for her release, an offer that terrifies her. "Fight against this proposal," she urges her helpless children. In the letter, Nora wants to know how her mother-in-law, her jailed husband and her children are doing. Fida reads the letter quickly in a dry, monotonous tone, as if reading something she's read many, many times before.