Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak: Yousef M. Aljamal

41RbTdHo2iLShadi Farrah was just 12 years old when he was arrested in November 2015 with his friend Ahmad alZataari. They were held for over a year until January 2017 when they were sentenced to two years imprisonment to be served in an Israeli juvenile detention facility. Thus, they will spend a total of three years in Israeli imprisonment, with the two-year sentence dating from 29 November 2016.
The boys were trying to hitch a ride home when they were stopped and searched. In court it was alleged that a knife had been found in their bags, which led to a charge of attempted murder.

Ahmad Manasrah was 13 when he was run over while his cousin was killed after they were accused of trying to attack settlers. In a widely circulated video, he is assaulted and cursed by the settlers as he lay bleeding on the ground. A year later, after he turned 14, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Palestinian children live under a military occupation, and are subject to military laws, unlike Israeli children. From the age of 14, they can be sentenced as adults.

In recent months, a number of Palestinian children have received extremely lengthy sentences, like Ahmad Manasrah. However, in this case of Shadi and Ahmad alZataari, the boys’ families and lawyer reported that they were openly and heavily pressured to accept a plea agreement, despite their innocence, or they would bear the risk of being held until they reached 14 and sentenced as adults.

“Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian child prisoners speak” edited by Norma Hashim and translated by Yousef Aljamal, is a collection of first person narratives of 24 Palestinian child prisoners, taken by Fayhaa Shalash a journalist in the West Bank.

In their own words, the children in this book have described their experiences at the hands of the occupation.
Mohammed Al Khawaja, age 11, from Ramallah speaks about his arrest. “Dozens of soldiers filled our small house… when the soldier asked for Mohammed, I was so terrified, my body shook, I wondered what they wanted from a boy of 11….they took me from my home, leaving behind my dreams and my innocent life. I felt as if the lights had been turned off, and the whole world had gone into darkness. I was severely beaten and hit by the soldiers all the way until we reached the village entrance. They were not satisfied with beating me, an innocent child, whose biggest pleasure until then was buying sweets.”
Night arrests are very common and can severely traumatize a child, so that he doesn’t feel secure in his own home anymore, and some start having nightmares.

Yousef al Rishq, aged 13, was asleep when he was woken up at 4 am by the sound of Israeli soldiers banging on their door. “Without waiting for us to answer, they smashed their way in, and turned the whole place into a complete mess. My family didn’t know why they’d come to our house until one of them mentioned my name. I was surprised, but my father was completely shocked. I was just 13.”
Most of the children were physically assaulted after arrest. Ayman Abbasi aged 16, was hit so badly in the face during interrogation that when his family saw him in court they could barely recognise him. Ayman’s story has a tragic end- on 29 November 2015 during the AlQuds Intifada, Israeli soldiers shot and killed him in a clash at Ein al Louza, and even tried to seize his body.
Ahmad Khalaf aged 13, tried to stand up to his captors: “The interrogator tried to scare me but I faced him with courage. He was screaming at me, and I screamed back at him louder. He got a stick and beat me and kicked me, until I felt like I was dead. The world closed in on me and my life was ending. Even after that chapter of suffering ended, I was still in pain for another 2 months, due to the severity of the attacks.” 
Although the stories are grim, they also display the courage and resilience of Palestinian children who, despite the challenges of living under occupation, do not want to leave their land.

As Yazan Al Shrbati who lives on Al Shuhada Street, in Hebron, the scene of a mass murder of 29 Palestinians by a Jewish settler in 1994, says: “Imprisonment is not the most serious offense committed against the Palestinian children of Shuhada Street. Every minute under occupation at the mercy of the settlers, in this Martyr’s street we are subjected to thousands of violations including police dogs and settlers throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at us. They scream at us and beat us. All of these disturb the tranquillity of our lives from the day we come into this world. Arresting me without committing any crime gave me more determination to continue to exist here. I still live in my family’s house on my street, in my little neighbourhood. I will never leave.”
In his review of this book, Dr Ramzy Baroud said, “This book voices their heart wrenching stories, perhaps with the hope that people around the world may understand their ordeal and answer their pleas for freedom and justice.”
Dreaming of Freedom is the second book edited by Norma Hashim. The first book, The Prisoners’ Diaries, released in 2013, contains interviews with 22 political prisoners who were part of the 1027 detainees released in the 2011 exchange with one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. This book has been translated numerous times, and is now available in 7 languages.
Many former detainees and activists have played a part in Dreaming of Freedom, among them Wasfi Izzat Kabaha, former minister of Prison Affairs who ironically was arrested the day after he submitted the introduction to the book. The cartoonist Mohamed Saba’aneh, himself a former detainee, contributed an illustration, and the book cover was done by Mahmoud Salameh, a refugee from Yarmouk camp in Syria.

The Israeli Prison Service has stopped providing statistics for child prisoners, but currently an estimated 350 children are there in Israeli prisons now. Among them are the 5 boys from Hares village who had just been sentenced to 15 years in prison for throwing stones, despite no evidence to prove so. In the sworn testimonies of the Hares boys which are included in the book, they describe in detail the violence and psychological pressures they had to deal with, before they were forced to sign a confession.

Tun Mahathir Mohammad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia contributed the preface to the book, while Prof Richard Falk, former UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Palestine, wrote the Foreword. Amer Abuiram, himself a former detainee, followed up with updates on the children, after Fayhaa had to head the campaign to free her husband the journalist Muhammad alQeeq was arrested and went on hunger strike to protest his detention.
This book was launched in Malaysia last July at the Freedom film Fest, an annual Human rights film festival.

I close with a quote from the story of Ahmed Badwan who had been dreaming of freedom every day when he was in prison. He had raced out of prison upon his release, savouring the sunshine, the trees and the birds until he came to the military checkpoint where he had been captured a month ago: “Passing through the checkpoint, I realised that the meaning of freedom was not what I had thought at all. It has a bigger and more beautiful meaning- freedom is when this checkpoint and its soldiers, military towers, wires, degradation and humiliation are gone.”
The book is available on Amazon India. Please click HERE

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