On the interrupted development of Palestinian minors in prison
The Israeli parliament has recently approved a law that allows the sentencing of up to 20 years in prison for Palestinians who throw stones, individuals who are usually minors. This development was followed by a law that would allow for the imprisonment of Palestinian children as young as 12, if they are found guilty of “nationalistically-motivated” violent offences.
As a clinician, I am often confronted with adolescents whose social and psychological growth has been suspended by experiences of political detention. I observe that many such youths have become anxious and depressed following this experience, whereas others manifest stoicism and fail to express any emotion.
“Majed” (all names have been changed) is a boy of 14; he has been arrested 14 times and often beaten brutally in detention. On one occasion, the Israeli forces broke his teeth and inflicted a number of head injuries. Majed was brought to my clinic by an older sister who had just finished medical school. She explained that he did not listen to anyone at home, no longer respected his teachers and frequently missed school. Instead, he befriended men of 30 or 40 and accompanied them to spend time in coffee shops. I found in Majed an adolescent experiencing a hypertrophic growth of his status as a hero, at the expense of compromising other areas of personality development. This profile of adolescent ex-detainees is typical. Less commonly, we see reactions such as that of Mufeed, in whom the experience of detention brought a deeper destruction, at least with regard to his image of his father. Mufeed claimed that “the prison guard was better than my father; he gave me cigarettes to smoke.”
Majed and Mufeed are just two among the 700 Palestinian youths arrested each year. The average age of arrest is 15 and the average duration of their detention in prison is 147 days. Ninety percent of these minors have been documented as having been exposed to traumatic experiences and sixty-five of them have developed diagnosable psychiatric disorders. For these minors and adolescents, the experience of arrest is superimposed upon a childhood already rendered difficult due to the Israeli occupation, in which social services and educational support systems are poor, nutrition and healthcare are inadequate and political violence is rampant.
Adolescence, everywhere, is characterized by an accelerated movement towards social independence and identity formation, as well as by emotional liability and impulsive behavior. However, the context of the occupation makes the risks greater and the consequences heavier for Palestinian adolescents. Some youngsters find the dangers inherent to resistance to be more exciting than a passive surrender to oppression. Such young people empathize and identify with the suffering of the community as a group and seek to establish a special status for themselves by acting on its behalf. While adolescents elsewhere may romanticize and model themselves on media stars, some Palestinian adolescents romanticize freedom fighters, like the figure of Muhannad Elhalaby, who countered his sense of helplessness by grabbing the gun of an Israeli settler and killing two settlers in the midst of attacks on the mosque.
The reality of detention is a story of horror, helplessness and humiliation for minors. It is usual for dozens of armed soldiers and their dogs to invade the family home in the middle of the night, interrupting the sleep of the whole neighborhood and demonstrating through their excessive aggression that resistance is meaningless. The child’s father is intimidated through threats to hand over his boy to the soldiers, and often does so despite the tearful pleas of the mother and siblings. Snatched in this way from his warm bed, the boy is exposed to unnecessary disorientation and physical violence as he is transferred to an unknown destination, often for an unknown reason as well. Typically he is handcuffed painfully and blindfolded, unable meanwhile to communicate with or to understand people who are shouting at him in Hebrew. He is slapped, kicked, punched and shoved as he is tied up and rendered completely powerless. Then, alone without a lawyer or a parent present, he is interrogated for a period of time extending from hours to weeks, with deprivation of relief for physiological needs such as the availability of food, drink, toilet facilities and sleep. He is exposed to excessive heat or cold, forced into the horror of witnessing others being tortured, and stripped naked before being subject to the same procedures himself.
Interrogators inflict guilt by threats made to his family members: “We will bring your mother and sisters here” and “We will demolish your home.” Leaving the horror to the child’s imagination, the interrogator might play with a rubber glove while telling the minor, “If you don’t tell us the names of your friends who throw stones, something really bad will happen to you.” Interrogators often threaten, “I’ll take you to room Number Four, where people enter on two legs and come out on all fours.” Detained youngsters are often told that their friends or neighbors have already informed on them and many break down in response to this lie; they end up signing their names to Hebrew documents that they are not able to read. Many such children and adolescents recall these moments especially with unbearable feelings of shame. These youngsters are then relegated to isolation and uncertainty within the hostile prison environment, where the passage of time and life processes are frozen. Here their human attachments are destroyed, as few families succeed in gaining permission to visit their children.
In March 2013, during a period of relative political calm, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) described the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held in Israeli military detention centers as “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” UNICEF examined the Israeli military court system and found evidence of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.” There are reports of circumstances in which dogs were utilized to attack children; where children and adolescents were sexually violated; and where youngsters were forced to witness or to perform acts that degraded their religious symbols.
The process of arresting minors targets the future of the Palestinian nation. It is an attack on the body, the personality, the belief system, the hopes and the dreams of young Palestinians, rendering their families dysfunctional and breaking the bonds of their connection with their community.
Many of these minors emerge from prison unable to learn in school or to pursue a profession. In their eyes, their parents and teachers are damaged as authority figures. Their trust in their friends and neighbors is destroyed. Their own community may not trust them either, because other children would have been told that they had implicated them to their interrogators. They live with the ongoing and realistic fear of further detention. And the family often experiences the arrest of the minor as extremely traumatic; they feel guilty for failing to protect him and thereby may indeed grow incapable of guiding the minor in a safe journey from childhood to adulthood. Unable to develop, left without education or family guidance, many adolescents thus fail to develop a mature and multifaceted adult identity. The ex-detainee clings to his identity as a prisoner. Such youngsters are stuck in perpetual limbo, unable to return to the innocence of childhood or to move forward as functional adults.
A feeling of ineffectiveness often seeps into clinicians who treat these youngsters. The psychological consequences of minors’ arrest do not lend themselves to diagnostic labeling, pathologizing and medicalizing. These youngsters require us to act as witnesses, to join them in solidarity and to accompany them and their families in the exploration of the meaning of experience. It is our goal to help them reprocess this meaning, and to integrate it into their current life and in their plans for the future.
Hippocrates told doctors 25 centuries ago that we are not often able to cure; that we are sometimes able to treat; but that we are always able to offer comfort. We, clinicians, cannot liberate these children from Israeli prisons, but we may succeed in liberating them from the prison within as they come back to our community.
(The author is in the process of making a documentary, Behind the Fronts, about the psychological consequences of Israeli occupation. Find out how you can help at:
Samah Jabr is a Jerusalemite psychiatrist and psychotherapist who cares about the wellbeing of her community—beyond issues of mental illness.
—December 30, 2015