Waleed was freezing. He was wearing only a thin t-shirt, and it was a cold March night earlier this year in his village of Awerta, which lies just outside Nablus in the northern half of the West Bank.
The soldiers had come for him at two o’clock in the morning. Abdullah, his younger brother, had been awake, and when he felt the soldiers’ heavy steps and heard their loud voices speaking Hebrew outside their home, he rushed upstairs to warn the rest of the family.
The element of surprise is an important tool in the home invasions the Israeli army conducts in the Occupied Territories. That is why the soldiers come at night. Most likely the residents will be sleeping, and they will not have time to hide whatever is they want to keep from the soldiers.
In this case the element of surprise had been lost, but it did not matter. This family had nothing to hide.
“You have one minute to open the door! Otherwise we will destroy your house!” shouted one of the soldiers, when he realized that someone in the house was awake.
For two hours the soldiers searched every inch of Waleed’s house, turning it upside down, creating a mess the family would spend the entire next day cleaning up. It was not clear what they were looking for, but in the end they did not find it.
“He has nothing to hide,” says Abdullah. “Ever since he was released from prison, all he does is work and study.”
But the Israelis did not agree with Abdullah’s assessment. They began screaming at Waleed, and his mother and sisters started to cry.
“A man, tall and huge, shouted at us. He said he would destroy every inch of this house.”
In the end, it did not matter what Waleed said or did, and eventually they took him away, in the middle of the night.
It is not clear whether the current uprising in the West Bank, which began with a rash of stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks in October of 2015 constitutes a “Third Intifada”, but the Israelis are not taking any chances. They have responded with a crackdown reminiscent of their actions following the abduction of three teenaged settlers in June of 2014. On that occasion, blaming Hamas for the kidnappings, the Israeli army initiated an orgy of collective punishment on the population of the West Bank, which resulted in several Palestinian deaths, hundreds of arrests and the theft and/or destruction of millions of dollars of cash, property and valuables.
The Israeli response to this uprising has been even more extreme, and several new tools have emerged. A particularly egregious aspect of the army’s policy, which did not make an appearance in 2014, is its propensity to shoot to kill, even when such a measure is, by any objective standard, unnecessary. A well-known example is the case of a stabbing attack in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron, in which a soldier shot and killed a Palestinian attacker who was lying motionless on the ground and clearly not posing a threat. The murder was captured on video, which is the only reason it received the publicity it did. Critics argue that this is not an isolated case, and that the army’s methods have resulted in a large number of deaths and injuries to innocent by-standers. According to the Palestinian News and Info Agency (WAFA), 220 Palestinians have been killed in this cycle of violence. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, reports that 40 Israelis have lost their lives.
The rise in killings is not the only result of the Israelis’ increasing violence. There has also been a surge in the number of arrests and detentions. Abdullah claims the army’s threshold for selecting a Palestinian for arrest is now much lower than it was in the past.
“They feel they are losing control,” he says. “They will arrest anybody they think might be a threat, even if they haven’t done anything wrong.”
I first met Waleed in the summer of 2014 at a celebration at his house. The party was in honor of his release from prison, and it seemed like all of Awerta was there to welcome him home. There was dancing and music, and there were speeches. It was during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza that resulted in the deaths of 2131 Palestinians, including at least 1473 civilians, and many of the speeches were in solidarity with the people of Gaza. But that night was mostly about celebrating. And there was Waleed, wearing the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh around his shoulders, seemingly greeting each resident of Awerta individually, kissing them on the cheek four times and hugging them.
Four years earlier, at the age of eighteen, Waleed had received a prison sentence of three-and-a-half years for his membership in the illegal Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Waleed had never been involved in the planning or engagement of violence, but that did not matter to the Israelis. He was a member of the PFLP, and that was enough.
And then, in the summer of 2014, having served 41 of his 42 months (perhaps receiving a month off for not actually having committed a crime), he was released. And all of Awerta was here to celebrate with him.
As I watched Waleed, Abdullah and their father, a fit-looking man in his fifties with close-cropped grey hair, sitting on the shoulders of their friends and dancing in front of an enormous Palestinian flag, I wondered about the atmosphere in the village. The mood was one of relief that Waleed had made it back in one piece, but there was also a sense of victory and defiance. It seemed that Waleed had vanquished the occupiers simply by returning to his village alive. They had tried to destroy him, but they had failed because he was too strong, and here he was, a hero, even stronger than before he had been taken away.
Even before the uprising that began last October, some of the statistics regarding the incarceration of Palestinians were staggering. According to the International Action Center, 40% of all Palestinian males have spent some time in prison. The conviction rate of Palestinian defendants in the West Bank is an unbelievable 99.74%.
But the situation has been worsening since the uprising began, as can be seen by examining any of a number of measures.
For example, Addameer, a Palestinian NGO, reports that 7000 political prisoners are currently being held by the Israelis, a number that is higher than it has been at any point during the last five years.
Another troubling trend is the increase in the application of administrative detention. Administrative detention is a procedure that allows the Israeli army to detain a prisoner indefinitely without charging him. While it is technically allowed by international law under narrowly defined circumstances, such as in a state of emergency, critics claim that the army’s rampant and sweeping application of the procedure does not fit the prescribed use and is therefore illegal, since it violates Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Probably Israel’s most well-known recent application of administrative detention involves Bilal Kayed, who received a fourteen-and-a-half year sentence in 2001 for his affiliation with the PFLP. His term ended in June of this year, but instead of releasing him, the authorities placed him in administrative detention, claiming only vaguely that he still constituted a threat. Kayed has since begun a hunger strike in an effort to secure his release, an action that as many as 300 of his fellow prisoners have joined in solidarity with him.
The use of administrative detention has risen sharply since the uprising began, as reported by the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network. In the first half of 2016, a total of 1028 administrative detention orders, including 421 new ones, have been issued. If you include the period since October of 2015, the number of orders rises to a total of 1471. Since there are currently 750 Palestinian administrative detainees in custody, itself the largest such number since 2008, this shows the enormous escalation in the application of this method.
It is not merely that the number of arrests and incarcerations have increased, but also that the treatment of both suspected attackers and detainees has worsened. The Detainees and Ex-Detainees Committee found after an investigation that Israeli armed forces have committed numerous human rights violations during the last year, such as not allowing the wounded to receive medical care, torturing and abusing detainees and using police dogs to threaten and harass them. (The use of dogs is a practice the army had reportedly stopped employing against Palestinians after B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO, had exposed it in 2012.)
The arrest and incarceration of Palestinian children is also increasing at an alarming rate. Human Rights Watch indicated that the number of Palestinian children arrested by the Israelis has more than doubled since the start of the uprising. According to the Former Detainees Coalition, a total of 2,320 minors have been arrested in that time period. In April a spokesman for the Israeli Prison Service told the New York Times that the number of prisoners under the age of eighteen had more than doubled since October, rising from 170 to 430. In a particularly horrifying development, the number of very young children in custody has shot up, as evidenced by a report from The Electronic Intifada, which stated that at the end of December of 2015, there were 116 children between the ages of 12 and 15 in Israeli custody. This number represents an eleven-fold increase over 2014. The focus on children reaches all the way up to the highest levels of government. In November of 2015, the Knesset passed a law allowing longer sentences for children throwing stones and the disruption of social welfare payments to the families of those serving their sentences.
Israel has an abysmal record when it comes to the treatment of Palestinian child prisoners, which makes this trend of increasing numbers of Palestinian children in Israeli custody so alarming. A recent report issued by a coalition of several Palestinian prisoner organizations states that there has been an escalation in the abuse of child prisoners and detainees, such as “the use of torture, ill-treatment, and violation of the rights of the child, from the first moment of arrest, most frequently in the late hours of the night or early morning in violent military raids, or during their detention by `special units’…. Children are shackled hand and foot and blindfolded and taken for interrogation without parents or lawyers, often threatened interrogation, and forced to sign statements in Hebrew without understanding them. This comes in addition to the use of various methods of torture, including beating and kicking, and verbal and psychological abuse against children. They are then subjected to the military and civil courts of the occupation, and face unfair sentencing and financial penalties.” A Human Rights Watch investigation concludes that “Palestinian children are treated in ways that would terrify and traumatize an adult.” Interrogations of children are often conducted with almost no regard for international norms. A study by Defence for Children International-Palestine obtained sworn testimonies of 429 children arrested between 2012 and 2015 and concluded that in 97% of the cases, the children were not informed that they had a right to have a lawyer present during their interrogation, and that 88% were not given a reason for their arrest. A similar study conducted by UNICEF stated that in over 80% of the cases, the children were subjected to physical violence. The NGO Military Court Watch reported in 2015 that only 3% of children had their parents present during their interrogation. According to the United Nations, the government has begun using administrative detention for children, a practice it had abandoned in East Jerusalem in 2000 and elsewhere in the West Bank in 2011.
The First Intifada of 1987-1993 led to the initiation of the failed Oslo peace process, while the consequences of the much more violent Second Intifada of 2000-2005 are more complicated. Also called the Al-Aqsa Intifada, it led to the fragmentation of the Palestinians and to the rightward shift of Israeli society, making the prospect for peace even more remote than it had been before the uprising. The current uprising is still ongoing, and it is much too soon to judge the effects it will have, but the Israelis have made their response to it clear. They will fight it by employing all the methods of repression they have been perfecting to enforce the Occupation since it began. Recently they have shown that they are willing to employ these methods at ever-increasing intensity.
Waleed has now been in the notorious Meggido prison for over five months, awaiting the determination of his fate. Abdullah tells me that he is not optimistic and that their lawyer has already told him to expect another prison sentence.
When I ask Abdullah what Waleed is being charged with, he answers with a short, mirthless laugh.
“There is no crime. The army says people were flying the PFLP flag at his celebration two years ago. That is enough. The lawyer says he has never seen anything like it.”
If it were not so tragic, the situation would be absurd. The Israeli army, the fourth most powerful army in the world, inventing a story to put an innocent man in prison. And this was this best scenario they could come up with?
Two weeks ago, Abdullah tells me, the interrogator in the case informed Waleed what he could expect in his immediate future.
“We will put you in prison regardless of the result of the investigation. Whatever you say, we will put you in prison. We want to keep you here, and we will find any reason.”