Home Away From Home? Juvenile Detention in the Gaza Strip
By Steven Malby
GAZA, 13 June 2005 - Most children grow up learning that if they work hard at school and do well in exams they will land a good job.
Sadly such a recipe for success hardly applies for graduates fresh out of high school in the Gaza Strip.
Take 17-year-old Muhammed Wishah.
Mohammed’s world is one in which he shares an area of land slightly more than twice the size of Washington D.C with 1.4 million other people. With movement in and out of Gaza tightly restricted by the Israeli authorities, Muhammed has, at best, only a slim chance of obtaining work after school. Of those lucky enough to find employment, some 60 percent do not earn enough to even lift them above the poverty line.
Little wonder then that Muhammed feels a strong sense of frustration as he faces his final exams and leaving school this summer.
I met Muhammed at his small concrete home, where he lives with his parents and six brothers and sisters, in the sprawling Al Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza strip.
“There’s not a lot to do in Bureij. The only recreation club for young persons here hardly opens.” Leisure time for Muhammed means hanging out with friends at home or on the squalid streets.
Perhaps such boredom was just one of the reasons why one afternoon, three months ago, leaving their Palestinian identity cards behind, Muhammed, together with his friend Abdel Rahman, took a taxi to the eastern district of Gaza city, walked to the border with the Israeli military zone and using the wire cutters they had brought with them, cut through the fence and out of the Gaza strip.
“It was as if they were expecting us” recalls Muhammed, beginning reluctantly but speaking faster and faster as he describes events.
As the friends slipped through the fence and started up a road, shots from two Israeli military jeeps rang out. Freezing on the spot, Muhammed and Abdel Rahman were arrested by Israeli soldiers and driven to the imposing Erez military base in the North of the Gaza strip.
Four days of interrogation by the Israeli forces followed, accompanied by a beating.
Abdel Rahman points to the break in his left arm. “They hit me with sticks and for two weeks I received no medical attention. Until then, they treated the swelling only with water,” Abdel Rahman says, clearly shaken deeply by the experience.
It’s an important question. The story of Muhammed and Abdel Rahman is by no means unique. One local human rights organization in Gaza reports that it presently represents juveniles in seven or eight cases with facts similar to that of Muhammed’s and Abdel Rahman’s story. “We were looking for work” the boys reply. “There’s nothing to do in Gaza.”
Asked if he realized the consequences, Muhammed replied: “Of course. Three of our older friends had done the same. We knew that we would be imprisoned.”
Muhammed describes the desperate conditions of his imprisonment. At Erez base, he says, three detainees share a 2x2m cell, with only one wooden pallet and filthy blankets on which to sleep.
After 15 days at Erez, an Israeli military court sentenced Muhammed and Abdel Rahman to a fine and two months imprisonment for unlawful destruction of property and for entering Israel without a permit. They were transferred deep in the Negev desert region of Israel to Keseot Israeli army prison – which consists of large army tents and high fences.
Detained together in the same tent at Keseot following the military court trial, Muhammed and Abdel Rahman say they were held as the only juveniles in a tent of 23 adult prisoners. Muhammed and Abdel Rahman were held for 46 and 35 days respectively.
Meeting the boys just days after their release I am struck by their resilience following events that would surely traumatize any adult, let alone juveniles.
They speak candidly and Muhammed refers to it as a “learning experience, not to be repeated” in which he literally “saw death in the eyes.”
Both are clearly repentant; “I shall be taking my final exams one year late now,” Abdel Rahman says. “But when we finish school we’d both like to become policemen.” Why? “To catch other children and stop them from doing the same - I can only thank God that I am still alive!”
Throughout the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), UNICEF works in partnership with the Palestinian Ministry of Detainee Affairs (MODA) and other actors to monitor and report on the situation of children detained by Israel on security grounds. UNICEF advocacy for the protection of the rights of those detained is based on the international legal principles that non-custodial rehabilitation measures should be used wherever possible with children only detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, and that if deprived of liberty, children are to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and respect for all of his or her rights.
In respect of the actions of children that represent an increased risk of arrest or imprisonment by the Israeli authorities, UNICEF is supporting MODA in the development of a local campaign to increase awareness amongst children of their rights in such contexts.
According to MODA, there are currently more than 300 Palestinian children in Israeli detention.
British national Steven Malby is a consultant for UNICEF oPt
[UNICEF oPt thanks the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights for their assistance in the preparation of this story.]