Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Freeing Childhood From Prisons

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank, Mar 26 2012 (IPS) - Hamza has memories no 17-year-old should. “I was desperate. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t want to go outside the house. I was very nervous. I’d be irritated with the simplest matters.”

Hamza, who did not want to show his full face. Credit:  Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS.

Hamza, who did not want to show his full face. Credit: Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/IPS.

Last year, Hamza was arrested in the middle of the night on suspicion that he threw stones at Israeli settlers near his school in the West Bank. He tells IPS that he was handcuffed and blindfolded, and beaten on the way to interrogation.

“They asked me when did I throw stones, and how, what time exactly, at night or in the morning, and who was there with (me). When they took me to the prison they put me in a small cell. They used to throw the food through the space between the door and the floor. We had our meals in the same place where we peed. Sometimes they stripped us; they stripped us and mocked us, (and) beat us at the same time.”

Hamza spent five months in Ofer military prison. He had no contact with his parents or family, who were denied the right to visit him.

Three months after he was released from prison, he entered the YMCA’s rehabilitation programme in Beit Sahour, near his home in the West Bank village of Takoua. The change, he said, was almost immediate.

“I was comfortable with (the counseling) sessions I had, and I felt myself getting better, even better than before the prison,” says Hamza, who is now studying to become a carpenter. “After I started working in carpentry, I became stronger, nothing scared me any more. I started to look at the future in a positive light.”

Recent estimates have found that Israel arrests and detains about 700 Palestinian children annually. This reality has forced Palestinians in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem to develop programmes that address the widespread trauma these children exhibit when released from prison.

Founded in 1989, shortly after the start of the first Palestinian uprising, the East Jerusalem YMCA rehabilitation programme is one such. It rests on three tracks – psycho-social support, empowerment, and re-integration. It aims to get ex-detainee children back into school, or into work training programmes.

According to programme director Nader Abu Amsha, a major focus is placed on giving children the coping mechanisms necessary to avoid constantly reliving their trauma once they are released from prison. “We are trying our best to help not just in therapy, but in building the coping mechanism (and) in helping people maintain their resilience ability to these traumatic experiences.

“A trauma might happen once in life,” Abu Amsha tells IPS. “But here, when it comes to having daily hard experiences like checkpoints, like soldiers around, like settlers attacking people… everything surrounding you might be a trigger for a traumatic event you went through.”

Save the Children and the East Jerusalem YMCA Rehabilitation Programme released a report Mar. 11 on the impact of Israeli arrests and detention on Palestinian children living under Israeli occupation. The organisations estimate that since 2000, Israel has arrested and detained over 8,000 Palestinian children in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including some as young as 12.

Handcuffed and blindfolded, the children – who are most often arrested on suspicion of throwing stones – are transported to either Israeli prisons or settlements in the West Bank for interrogation, which almost always take place without the children’s parents or a lawyer present, the report found.

All Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Israel’s military courts system, which was set up shortly after Israel began occupying the territory in 1967. According to the report, these courts “are not intended to function as a comprehensive legal system” but rather, “must be understood as the ‘judicial arm’ of the occupying power, which means that the emphasis lies more on security than on justice.”

The report also found that nearly all children (98 percent) were subjected to physical or psychological violence during their arrest and detention, and that 90 percent of children suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), experiencing nightmares, bed-wetting, anxiety and other signs of trauma upon their release.

“All of these symptoms can’t be left (alone); it should be worked with and it’s the core of our interests to help them get rid of the psychological impact of the imprisonment and the hard experience they went through,” Abu Amsha says. “Their right is to be rehabilitated.”

For 19-year-old Mouath, another Palestinian teenager who spent eight months in Israel’s Ofer military prison on charge of throwing stones, the rehabilitation process has been beneficial not only for himself, but also for his family and friends, who have seen a positive change.

“I went to school after (I was released), but they refused to take me back. I sat jobless at home. I was in trouble with my parents and my friends all the time. My spirits were down, crushed. I had frequent thoughts about the prison. I was very scared,” Mouath tells IPS.

Today, after counseling sessions, he says he no longer feels afraid. “The occupation is still going on, but now the soldiers don’t bother me. I am very much relieved,” says Mouath, who now works in automobile electronics. “My problems became less. My psychological hardships and the negative thoughts are gone now.”

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