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Although I have been living far from Palestine for a few years and I am now in my forties, I still have nightmares about the Israeli army invading my house when I was a child and about the first time I was tortured. This is the reality most Palestinian former prisoners live with for the rest of our lives.
When I was a child, friends my age who were arrested before me said they “saw the stars at noon.” This was a saying we had. You can’t see the stars at noon when the sun is shining. But when children are under torture, especially when they are beaten in the head, they see a flash, even when they are blindfolded. This is what we called seeing the stars at noon.
I was arrested the first time, with a few other children, when I was 14 years old. Our hands were cuffed behind our backs and our eyes were blindfolded. The soldiers were beating us. I heard the screaming, and I was screaming, too. I fell down and someone took my hands and made me stand. Suddenly a huge hand slapped me in my face. I felt dizzy and I saw the flash. I fell down on my shoulder. It was very painful and then I blacked out. The minute I woke up, even though I was under torture, I shouted to my friends, “I saw the stars, I saw the stars!” Later, it became a joke among us: “He saw the stars, he saw the stars.” I didn’t realize that those stars come back and visit you the rest of your life.
About 500-700 children are arrested by the Israeli occupation every year, according to Defense for Children International-Palestine. These children face a policy designed to kill their spirit and shut them down. It targets them physically and psychologically. The impact is planned from the first moment of arrest. Typically, children wake up in the middle of the night to hear soldiers yelling and knocking violently on the doors of their houses. They take them from the house and the child finds himself alone among a large group of soldiers. According to Mohammed, a 15-year-old boy in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan:
It was very painful. My hands were handcuffed behind my back and I was blindfolded. I was beaten by the soldiers everywhere on my body. I felt the pain everywhere. I was thrown in the floor of the military jeep and the soldier’s boots were kicking me everywhere. I felt I was bleeding but I didn’t know where.
When they get to jail, the children are interrogated—usually by professional interrogators and sometimes by random guards. Young age doesn’t protect them from psychological torture, either. Sometimes they throw children in isolation cells for days and sometimes weeks; sometimes they are handcuffed and kept in a small closet; sometimes they tie their hands and legs to a chair and leave them for hours, forcing them to soil themselves.
International human rights reports, including UN reports, express their concern about this situation, which is documented in thousands of pictures and hours of video footage. But none of this has stopped the Israelis from continuing to arrest, torture, and hold Palestinian children. In the “hot” areas, like the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, the city of Hebron, and in refugee camps close to checkpoints or Israeli settlements, settlers add another layer of torture by harassing, dehumanizing, and even shooting Palestinian children.
The Israelis use laws that target only Palestinian children to legitimize their actions. Youth are sent to military courts, which often convict and sentence them to prison, sometimes for years.
People who experience torture in Israeli prisons and jails continue to feel the pain even after they are released. Especially for children, the pain and suffering of imprisonment doesn’t end the moment you are released. It might continue to follow you the rest of your life. One mother described the effect on her child:
My son is facing a hard time sleeping at night. He was a strong boy before. Right now at night he feels scared and sometimes he wakes up screaming because of his nightmares about the torture. The jailers, they don’t just torture our kids, but they kill their spirit and they traumatize them. My child is changed totally.
According to Khader Rasras, executive director and clinical psychologist at the Palestinian Treatment and Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture, these children have often difficulty returning to school. Nightmares can lead to loss of concentration and difficulty focusing and planning. He explained further:
Fear and anxiety make children who have experienced torture and abuse in detention hyper-vigilant. They will constantly be looking over their shoulders, out the window, and around them—worried that the soldiers will come for them again.
Ziad Abbas Ziad Abbas is a Palestinian refugee from Dheisheh Refugee camp in the West Bank. He is the cofounder of the Ibdaa Cultural Center in Dheisheh where he served as Co-Director from 1994 to 2008. Ziad is also a journalist who has worked with Palestinian and international media and has participated in the production of several documentary films. He has a Master of Arts in Social Justice and Intercultural Relations from the School for International Training Graduate Institute. Ziad is the Program Manger for Cross-Cultural Programs at the Middle East Children’s Alliance in Berkeley.