Sunday, December 7, 2014

Why Do You Have Your Hand on Him?

Two days ago I witnessed a 10-year old child while he was under arrest by the Israeli military. When we arrived on the scene, he was sitting with his mother at Checkpoint 56 where he'd been brought after being forcibly removed from his home.

Why was a 10-year old child arrested? My quick answer would be because that's what happens here in Hebron. My longer answer would be because in Hebron children are arrested or detained or abused or harassed on a regular basis by Israeli soldiers, border police, or police. More accurately, throughout Palestine these are common childhood experiences. Common, but I refuse to say it is normal.

The H2 area of Hebron is governed by Israeli military law. Hebron is not the only place in Palestine where this is true, but Hebron is the place I know best so I'll limit my focus. According to the definitions in Israeli Military Order 1651, childhood ends at age 12; legally no child under the age of 12 can be arrested.  Kids aged 12-13 are considered "juveniles" and can be imprisoned for a maximum of 6 months. By age 14, the classification is young adult, subject to 12 months maximum imprisonment if convicted, unless the offense carries a maximum penalty of 5 years or more...

"Throwing an object, including a stone, at a person or property with the intent to harm the person or property carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment." People who, by standards of international law, are considered children could be imprisoned for a maximum of 10 years for stone-throwing. And just yesterday the Knesset approved a law that increases the maximum sentence for stone-throwing to 20 years, depending on the circumstances.

The most common reason we hear given for the arrest of a child (when a reason is given): stone-throwing.

The reason given for the 10-year old Montaser Al- Zaatari's arrest: stone-throwing. Don't get me wrong, I am not a fan of stone-throwing.  I don't condone it or any other use of violence, for that matter. But a possible 10-20 years in prison?

The soldier who was holding Montaser helpfully offered this explanation for the arrest: the soldier saw Montaser throwing stones a week or so ago and asked him to stop. At the same time (the soldier said) he talked to the boy's father or uncle who promised him that Montaser would not throw stones again and that if he did, the soldier could arrest him. Of course, it is questionable whether Montaser was actually throwing stones. It is questionable whether the solider saw him doing it. It is questionable whether the soldier talked to Montaser's family member. And even assuming that everything that the soldier said was true, it was illegal, even under Israeli military law, for him to arrest a 10-year old.

But there was Montaser awaiting his fate at the checkpoint. Thankfully, at least his mother was there with him, which is often not the case, particularly for children arrested outside of their homes. They have no one with them to advocate for them, to hold their hand, to calm their fears.

While Montaser was being held at the checkpoint, small clashes were happening on the other side of it.  The Israeli military shot tear gas and the wind sent fumes to where Montaser and his mom were sitting. Mother and child started to move away from the sting of the gas, wiping their watering eyes, but the soldiers told them they weren't allowed to move away.  Montaser's mom was able to argue and stall long enough for the fumes to dissipate and they moved back down near the checkpoint.

CPT was one of numerous monitoring organizations present.  The soldiers seemed to think it would be cute to pose in front of Montaser and his mom. Maybe they were having fun?

Thankfully, Montaser was released while we were present. Nevertheless, two days later my mind returns and returns to that scene and the many parts of it that were troubling: the arrest itself, the teargas and response to it, the soldiers posing for cheesy pictures, the soldiers' rationale for the arrest. After the boy was released, the story continued, but I simply don't have the energy to write about it. However, I will at least say this: Montaser was not a character in that part of the story.  As far as I know, he and his mom got home safely and didn't have further problems that day.

And then there was today. I was with the CPT delegation on a tour of the Old City of Hebron. As the group was preparing to go into the Ibrahimi Mosque, I saw that two men were being detained at the mosque checkpoint. As the rest of the delegation entered the building, a delegate and I stayed outside to monitor what happened with the men. One was released shortly after our arrival; the other continued to wait to get his ID back, so he could leave. A couple of young boys whom I've seen around on numerous occasions were hanging around the area. As we were standing there, they were talking to us and to the man being detained. We exchanged some high fives and fist bumps, smiles and laughter. At some point the boys redirected their attention, the delegate and I did, too.

When I turned my head to check on the situation of the man being detained, I saw that a border policeman had the smaller of the two boys by the cuff of his sweatshirt. The man being detained was also part of the scene. As I was turning on my camera to document what was happening, the border policeman let the boy go, but they were still in a proximity that made me uncomfortable. I took a picture. Then the soldier grabbed the boy again.

I started filming, hoping that would be a deterrent for the border policeman. It wasn't. The boy was trying to get out of his grasp. Crap.

The border policeman looked up and noticed I was filming.  He said something to me that I didn't understand. I needed to do something more. I moved closer, considering my options.

"Why do you have your hand on him?"

"Because..." He let the boy go.

I will admit that I didn't and don't understand all the dynamics that were going on. What I do know is that a man with a gun and a lot of power had a young boy by the scruff of his shirt and was manhandling him, that the boy was trying to get away, that another man was trying to pull the boy out of his grasp. I know that the man with the gun and power let go of the boy when he was questioned about his behavior.

I don't want to think about what might have happened if there had been no one present with a camera or a voice that could wield power. I don't want to think about what might happen another time when there's no one around to intervene.

I don't want to think about how many times children in Palestine are arrested or manhandled or worse and the world misses that it's happening. It makes me want to scream, "NOTICE THIS! IT IS NOT OK! WE MUST DO SOMETHING!"

Instead I write, hoping that people, that you, will remember the story of Montaser and the boy whose name I need to learn. That you will share their stories, that you will shout with me, "NOTICE THIS! IT IS NOT OK! WE MUST DO SOMETHING!" until all children can have a childhood in which they get to be kids.

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