Ayman Abbasi was beaten so badly when he was arrested his parents could barely recognise their son at the court hearing. He was held at Almaskoubia interrogation centre, released under house arrest, and then imprisoned again. In his cell Abbasi enjoyed listening to the radio to “escape” what was happening to him, but Israeli guards confiscated his headphones. Abbasi was released but on 29 November 2015 Israeli soldiers shot and killed him in Ein Al-Houza and attempted to steal his body from the medical centre where it had been taken.
Originally from Jerusalem, Abbasi was just 16 years old when he died. Along with 23 other Palestinian children his testimony is recorded in Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak, edited by Norma Hashim, translated by Yousef M. Aljamal with a foreword by Richard Falk. The children – some who have been released, some who are still detained – tell their stories in their own words. Their accounts bear testament to the brutal conditions Palestinian children are subject to in Israeli jails. Most of them have been accused of throwing stones.
Collectively the children reveal that they were spat on, beaten up, strip-searched, forced to confess under torture, pressured to give up their friends’ names, deprived of sleep, forced to stand in the rain, shackled, held in cells infested with insects and in solitary confinement; they were also threatened with sexual assault, to be attacked with dogs, murdered and that their mothers would be tortured in front of them.
In a particularly disturbing account 16-year-old Saleh Khader tells us he watched an interrogator connect an electric wire to the wall before hearing his 15-year-old friend screaming “in a way I had never heard him screaming before”. He later tells us: “It was a tragic night in my childhood.”
For these children it is not simply one night that is tragic – the torture and abuse that takes place in these cells carries consequences far beyond the hours and days it takes place. Many drop out of school as repeated interrogations mean they can’t keep up with their peers. They become depressed, particularly as there are few job opportunities in the West Bank and their security profile makes finding work even harder.
The cruel conditions inside the prison make it easy to forget how young these prisoners are until they recall the enjoyment they once derived from watching cartoons, playing with their friends, eating sweets, buying new clothes and going on holiday. For many these pleasures are a distant memory: “Although by world standards I am considered a child, Jerusalem children are forced to become adults by this occupation,” says one. “Prison made me act like a grown up man,” says another.
As one disturbing story unravels after the other the reader does not start to feel desensitised to the information being put forward, rather indignation increases that such young people can be treated in such a way – disbelief also expressed by these children. Alaa’ Hinthawi asks: “Could these jailors actually have kids who they kiss and tell beautiful stories to before going to sleep?”
As former prisoner and former Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs Wasfi Izzat Kabaha points out in his introduction, Palestinian children have taken part in the intifadas, grown up in refugee camps, lived in homes that have been demolished and suffered both food shortages and curfews. It is clear that Palestinian children pay a heavy price under Israeli occupation.
The arrest of Palestinian minors is one of “the clearest pieces of evidence” of Israel’s arbitrary practices, says Kabaha, and its lack of commitment to international law. We need more works like Dreaming of Freedom to help bring this reality to the attention of the international community.