What It's Like to Be a 12-year-old Palestinian Girl in Israeli Jail

D., who was released from prison this week, was incarcerated in one cell with six other girls; now she’s dreaming about the boy she met for a moment in the prisoners van.

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D. with her parents at their home in Halhul.
D. with her parents at their home in Halhul.Credit: Alex Levac

A day after her release, D. is already weary of the receptions and interviews, and of being the heroine of the hour. She replies to questions with the demonstrative reluctance of an adolescent whose parents are driving her nuts with their tiresome nagging. Her expression is one of weariness and revulsion, possibly tinged with sadness. Her face lights up for a second, however, when we ask whether she was happy to be released. No, she wasn’t happy, she tells us. She misses S.P., a boy from Kafr Aqab, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem. She saw him very briefly in the posta (slang for prisoners van) on one of her trips to court, and hasn’t stopped thinking about him since. Here are photos of him on Facebook. A small boy of 12, head shaven, handcuffed, in a military court. And here’s another image of him, from before he was arrested: a studio portrait in which he’s wearing a black shirt and red tie.

D.’s eyes glisten as she shows us the photos, using her mother’s tablet. She is palpably embarrassed when she talks about him. When we ask whether she will visit him at home after he, too, is released, she shoots an imploring look at her mother: Will you let me visit him? D. and S.P. are both 12. With Israel packing its jails with children, child-prisoner experiences are taking place. D. and S.P. forever. A perfect pair behind bars, children who met in prison. A romantic episode – watch for the movie.

But little was romantic about the 75 days D. spent in jail. She was 12 years and 2 months old at the time of her arrest, just two months above the age of criminal responsibility. Still, the military justice system had no compunctions about jailing her for four and a half months in February, to the tune of the self-righteous words uttered by the military judge, Lt. Col. Shmuel Fleischman: “No one’s heart, including that of a judge, can be hardened upon hearing the words of little D., spoken in a weak, low voice.” The judge naturally expressed regret “for placing the minor behind bars,” but asserted that there was no choice. Case 2127/16, State of Israel vs. D. You would think that none of those involved in her case have children of her age.

In the end, the Israel Prison Service reduced her sentence by a third, after her incarceration stirred some sort of reaction internationally. Possibly even the Prison Service understood that the place of a girl, any girl, is not in Hasharon Prison. But according to data published this week, D. is not alone. A record number of more than 400 Palestinian and Israeli-Arab children are currently incarcerated in Israel, more than 100 of them below the age of 16. Israeli pride.

D. was sentenced to prison for approaching the gate of Karmei Tzur, a West Bank settlement not far from her home, with a knife concealed on her person. A private security guard – who, unusually in Israel, did not immediately execute her – ordered her to lie on the ground and then arrested her, as should be done with every single Palestinian girl carrying scissors or a knife.

D. now denies that she had a knife – “I didn’t do anything,” she says. But an odd contradiction looms between her new status as a local hero and that denial. The denial also conflicts with the plea bargain in her case, in which she admitted to being in possession of a knife. D. says she passed by the settlement’s gate innocently on the way to her family’s land, which lies nearby. Why did she go there? Because she thought her mother was there, she says. Her mother told us at the time that she was at their Halhul home, adjacent to Hebron, when her daughter left that day. Be that as it may, everyone in Halhul that we asked for directions to the home of the released prisoner was able to direct us. Everyone knows D.’s name now.

D.'s room.Credit: Alex Levac

We were in this house two months ago and saw the empty bed on which were perched children’s furry animals – a teddy bear, pussy cat and bunny rabbit – and we met her parents, who were miserable and worried. Now D. is holding tightly onto new presents: a pink, heart-shaped cushion handmade in the jailhouse, with the names of all her cellmates embroidered on it – Manar, Nur, Sajida, Nurhan, Kariman and Lema – and a box for cosmetics or jewelry that she fashioned from materials given to her by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

But it was no summer camp. D. suffered in jail. She was the youngest of the seven girls in her cell. The food was bad and skimpy, she says, and the meals often left her hungry. She missed her parents. Only her mother and her younger siblings were allowed to visit her, and only twice during the 75 days of her incarceration: 45 minutes from behind armored glass, no physical contact with mom. The warders actually treated her well, she relates. “They didn’t do anything bad to me.” How were the interrogations? “I don’t remember,” she says and blanches.

She’s wearing a new jeans suit that her parents, Umm Rashid and Ismail al-Wawi, bought her in honor of her regained freedom. They also got her new shoes with gold stripes. D. likes her new look. She’s a pretty girl, more so in real life than in the photographs we were shown when she was in prison. Her hair is pulled back and held with a colorful band. The family’s home, which stands on the western slopes of Halhul, projects affluence. D.’s mother and most of her eight brothers and sisters have blue eyes. Only hers are brown – “honey eyes,” her mother calls them.

Liat Sherf, the social services coordinator in the Israeli Civil Administration, testified in court, “The minor is suffering a little from problems of loneliness and inattention at home on the part of the parents and the family. She feels quite alone when she comes home from school She said she wanted to have a new experience and be famous” – and now she has all of that, in spades.

Guests come and go all the time, families and individuals, and the house is covered with huge, colorful posters welcoming D. home. Only her father, Ismail, is feeling forlorn: Not only did his daughter spend time in prison, but the permit he had for working and spending the night in Israel – one of the most comprehensive that the Israeli authorities issue – was revoked. Until D.’s arrest, Ismail was employed in building the new high-speed rail line to Jerusalem. Now he’s been deprived of that income and his world has crumbled.

This is how Israel behaves with all the relatives of terror suspects – with vengeance, visiting the sins of the daughter on the father. The authorities he contacted suggested that he try again in a year. Maybe they’ll relent by then. How will he make a living in the meantime? Maybe we can help? “We want peace, but not like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s peace. We want a peace in which we will be able to visit friends in Tel Aviv. That is peace.”

D. says she did not dream in prison. Her mother made her stuffed grape leaves, her favorite food, on the day of her release last Sunday. She wants to be a lawyer when she grows up, as she said prior to her arrest. Her cousin Abdullah, who is also 12 but looks younger, says in his reedy voice that he will watch over her from now on. He missed her very much and was sad when she wasn’t here – the two children giggle with embarrassment.

Abdullah was her closest friend until her incarceration, but now her heart goes out to S.P., the posta boy. She was cold and he offered her his jacket. He called to the warder and passed his jacket to her. The jacket remained in prison. S.P. was arrested on December 29, 2015, and has been in detention ever since, on suspicion of committing security offenses.

“He didn’t do anything,” D. says. The copper menorah symbol, Israel’s logo, proudly adorns the wall above the little boy in handcuffs, in a photograph taken in court that D. shows us with her shy smile.

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