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Hope ends here: The children’s court at Ofer Military Prison

“Courtroom number 2. The military court for Palestinian children. Every Monday. On the podium, Judge Sharon Rivlin Ahai. From 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Boy follows boy. One child and then another child. Wearing brown prison garb. Chained feet. Shackled hands, one hand shackled to that of another boy. Some of them are so small that their feet wave in the air when they are seated on the bench.”

By Aya Kaniuk and Tamar Goldschmidt | Translation: Tal Haran.

Graffiti on the Separation Wall (photo: Wall in Palestine / via flickr)

True, in the military courtroom itself Palestinians are neither shot nor beaten. They are not ‘targeted for elimination’ nor even sentenced to death. At least not in the courtroom. But the military court is also the place where all illusions die. And hopes. Because that is where Palestinians learn that injury caused them, is no error, nor misunderstanding, but a matter of policy. That is where they learn that law regarding Palestinians is nothing short of another kind of weapon. One of many. Among the tanks and planes and cluster bombs and checkpoints and Separation Wall and white phosphorus and the IDF spokesman. The military court is the end of ends. The last judgment. The final accusation, a-priori, of Palestinians only because they are Palestinians.

And courtroom number 2, where children are put on trial, is the place beyond that end. The place where all the words end.

Only two family members are allowed to come to the trial. This is usually the only time they can come and see their son, and they do. Time after time. They may bring cigarettes and money for the long day awaiting them. Nothing else. Not even medication, or tissues, or food, or a book or a newspaper. We, visitors who are not Palestinian, are allowed to bring in a notebook and pen. But not tissues. We have no privileges concerning tissues.

Perhaps because tissues are evidence that there is something to cry over, and the State of Israel is not willing to name its own deeds at the end of which lies weeping. And its necessity is the evidence and the visibility of that which Israel is not willing to name, that and the anticipated weeping. Perhaps that is why tissues are not allowed in court.

One man managed to smuggle in a roll of toilet paper despite the order forbidding tissues. Apparently deep in his clothes he dared to hide toilet paper, soft as tissues. Now he moved from woman to woman, handing out bits of toilet paper to every single one of them, all the mothers, so they would have it ready for the tears when they would come. When he handed it to us as well we were ashamed, because we have no spouses or sons in jail. And because the man only had one roll of paper, we felt uneasy that we were getting some at the expense of someone else.

Finally we were lucky to have gotten it. Because all that remains in this accursed place is to weep. The warmth of the wet, salty tears is the only possibly warmth inside this sinister ticking mechanism that no word could encompass or cover.

Courtroom number 2. The children’s court. Every Monday. On the podium, judge Sharon Rivlin Ahai. From 9 a.m. until to 6 p.m. Boy follows boy. One child and then another child. Wearing brown prison garb. Chained feet. Shackled hands, one hand shackled to that of another boy. Some of them are so small that their feet wave in the air when they are seated on the bench. Some of them are so small that our eyes look away. Most of them are accused of throwing stones. Molotov cocktails. Most of them are not released on bail, have not been interrogated in the presence of an adult – parent or social worker. Most of them were picked up in the dead of night. All these are violations of the international law in defense of children, even those under occupation. Most of them were arrested following denunciation, mostly by some other child, who – like them – was taken in the dead of night because someone else gave in his name. And most of them confessed, if not immediately then later on, to anything they were told to admit.

The prosecutor speaks, then the judge, the defense, the interpreter, the judge once again, and then Tareq Mohammad’s father writes on the palm of his hand their home phone number to make sure that his 13-year-old son remembers and knows it. The mother cries, so does the child. In custody now for three and a half months. For throwing stones. His remand has been extended seven or eight times already. And the next court session is scheduled for January 3rd. The father signals him to get his hair cut, to be strong, to be a man. “I don’t want to be here” were the last words the boy said before being led out, and the mother covered her face.

Another two children are led into the courtroom. They are seated next to each other. The warden unshackles their hands. Their feet remain chained.

One of the boys is Bilal Sami Matar, 14 years old, in custody for half a year already. Twenty-one children and youth were caught that night in the Qalandiya refugee camp, including him. Some boy gave their names in.

That is how it usually happens. A child is arrested for one reason or another. And he is told, give us fifteen names and we’ll let you go. First he says, no way. Eventually he gives them names. Usually they are the names of boys he knows, his age, sometimes of boys he’d never met, in order to supply the required number. And already the deal is made between the prosecution and the defense, and with it the corrected indictment sheet.

Because in the end he confesses like everyone else, regardless of whether or not he actually committed the deeds of which he is accused. After all, even if he did, how could the occupation forces know whether he threw a stone or not? Only because someone said so?

Apparently, all this does not matter much. The main thing is the power that tramples. That there are more means to recruit collaborators. The main thing is to brutalize. To crush. To intimidate. Not as a means but as an end.

First reading of the plea for sentencing is postponed until January 10th. No one objects. Not even the child. He is not listening anyway. Nor are his parents. They only devour the last moments of grace to look at each other and exchange a few more words, for this is the only time they see each other and has been so for months, and anyway, everything takes place regardless of the boy or his actual deeds.

How are things at home? The boy asks his parents. Well practiced at speaking from meters away, as long as the policeman will not keep them from looking at each other.

Everything’s fine, Bilal’s mother mouths expansively so the child can read her lips.

Are you studying? Asks the father in his authoritative voice.

Every day, Bilal answers.

Say hello to everyone, he says before being pushed again through the back door by the warden, blows them a kiss and vanishes.

Outside in the hall his mother breaks into tears.

Another two boys are brought in. One name is read aloud, Mu’amin Omar Asad. He stands up, this and that is said, something nearly identical to what was just said before and will be said again and again, about having thrown, hurled, prepared, wanted, meant, demonstrated, as the young denouncer had said…

Then the interpreter presents Mu’amin with the indictment sheet which he takes in his hand. Another Hebrew form, one of many he’s received since his arrest, signing them without a notion of what they say. After receiving the form, the hand of the 14 year old automatically points to his parents seated a few meters away, and suddenly freezes, stops.

Until not very long ago he would always bring home to mother any certificate or trouble or duty or some such. His frozen hand remains in the air for a moment, then retreats and returns to his lap, the form is released from his slack fingers, his parents’ faces are ashen.

Does not plead guilty. For the time being.

The next court session is set in two weeks’ time.

Boy after boy enters, their names are read, they rise, then sit, then another court date is set, or a plea bargain. The interpreter speaks, the prosecutor, the judge, the defense lawyer. The eyes of mother and son are locked. Don’t forget to pray, the father tells the child. Yes, the boy nods his head, his lips pursed tight, their murmurs trying to cross the distance. Last moments of grace in this encounter. Soon the baby will return into the darkness. The mother cries over his wearing such a thin shirt. Enough, the boy dismisses her with a smile, trying to look grown up and brave. Then he is told to rise. Words that tear the air and the skin and the heart. And he rises. His parents’ eyes dwell for another moment on the chain between his feet which they repressed earlier on, he holds out little hands, adept, the policeman shackles one of them and connects the other to another prisoner, together they are led outside.

Twenty three children and youths were brought into court that day. Most of them confessed to the deeds attributed to them already in their first interrogation. Or the second, at the latest. Few confessed only in the courtroom itself. The few who do not plead guilty at first usually do later on. They confess because they are frightened. Threatened. Because they are children. Because a verdict on the basis of denunciation is very difficult to refute. Especially because the military court regards denunciation as a fact. And if they confess, so they are told, then their prison sentence will be lightened, and sometimes they will only be sentenced to the number of months they have already spent in custody, several months, the months they already spent as part of the system. And after all, this court does not seek the truth, nor could it with such means.

And if they don’t confess, they’re told, they will likely spend much more time in jail.

So they confess.

Most of the time.

It is hard to say what it is about this terrible place that is worse than others. Which darkness is darker, more painful. Is it the mothers and their broken hearts? Or the helplessness of the father whose child is abandoned, and he has not the power to protect him. Or the horror of the little ones, the feeling that this is a sold game in which no one cares for the truth, be it as it may, because this system does not enable one to find out the truth. That this is not really a court, but only another tool of occupation. Where Palestinians are guilty unless proven otherwise. Even if proven otherwise. Guilty because they are Palestinians.

Is it the unbearable serial sense of a child and then another and another, and the empty eyes of the various forces of occupation. The attractive soldier girl, with her long groomed hair who stands right in between the mother and boy so they cannot see each other, or exchange a few words while their fate is cast. Their fate that has nothing to do with them or with who they are, but only with what they are. And the policeman, his gaze lazy and empty, most of the time looking to see if he got any messages on his cell phone, while next to him fates are determined, transparent like his victims. Or is it the judge with her pleasant face, who does not cry to high heaven, does not tear at her hair and feel ashamed nor protest what she is doing in the service of her country. How she stands silent in view of these strange plea bargains, 13-year-old children who perhaps threw a stone, and perhaps not, because that’s what their denouncers said, who are but children like them taken in the dead of night. Or not wondering that everyone confesses, that months go by until the verdict is given, that they are not released on bail, that they sit in prison until the end of the proceedings, three, four, six, eight months and more, no matter what the accusation is, no matter that it’s a child. That there are no innocents, ever. That every voice of an army man is crystal-clear fact. And every incriminating testimony, too, crystal clear. But not denial. Denial is not crystal clear, ever. Nor the claim that confession was obtained by force. That I signed something I did not understand. That I was afraid. That I was beaten up. That I did not do it. No.

I did not do it.

Even when it comes to children.

And their denying words are regarded as ridiculous, a superfluous waste of time, and mostly changing when the child and his parents learn that no matter what he did, or did not do, his fate is sealed. And that the system does not enable him to defend himself. That it is better to confess. And indeed this is what he usually does.

And so child after child. Everything seems reasonable to her, and to the rest of those judges. Eight months, and six, and once again having to pay 5,000 shekels.

This fine that is always eventually charged. More and more money to be paid by those who don’t have any to begin with. Or else their son will sit another few months, as many as the thousands of shekels that were required in payment.

A child arrives wearing a short-sleeved shirt, shivering with cold. Apparently he is fifteen but looks younger. Does not know who his lawyer is. No parents. Bites his fingernails. Sucks his thumb. His look is scattered and scared. He is accused of having thrown stones. Attorney Samara volunteers to take him on.

I request the postponement of this case in order to complete it by the 13th of next month, says the judge. Three weeks from today. And the defendant gives his parents’ phone number to the lawyer.

The policeman has already shackled the child who rises and stands to be led out again, and the judge asks resentfully, why is he not dressed, just such a light shirt in this cold weather? How could this be?

Her pitying voice is not directed at anyone in particular.

Indeed, one should resent and hurt the fact that he is cold, your honor. But why just this? What about their having come in the dead of night to pick him up? That he has not seen a lawyer until now? That there was no adult present at his interrogation? That his parents have not been informed of his whereabouts? That he was arrested on the basis of denunciation? That he was not released on bail? That he has been in custody for months before his trial began?

And if he did throw stones, how would you know? Is this the way to find out? Can one find out at all?

And if he did, your honor, is this what he deserves?

Would this happen, your honor, were this a Jewish child who threw stones?

No need to answer, your honor, the answer is obvious.

———————-

This piece was originally published on Mahsanmilim.com. It is reposed here with the authors’ permission.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. t

      a tissue pls, or some ice for my boiling blood

      Reply to Comment
    2. ILANA SEBBA

      If this is verifiable in an independent way, it is really really horrifying – I think the last 4 lines say it all – these are children, no child deserves that – ever

      Reply to Comment
    3. Gail Coleman

      I am outraged and horrified! And a copy of this will go to my Congressmen!

      Reply to Comment
    4. rbmeritt

      The state once believed to be the messiah that would save the Jew has forsaken the G-d of Abraham and has shone itself to be Goliath rounding up the young stone throwers before the fatal stone can be cast not knowing that the Goliath Israel has become lies dead at it’s own hand. The Spirit of DAVID will rise as a great wind and the chafe will be swept away.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ilana Sebba

      I cannot undesrtand how it is that, regardless of political position and ideaology, this is not getting more press, or more action, THESE ARE CHILDREN…

      Reply to Comment
    6. Kibbutznik

      more about the child wearing a short-sleeved shirt :
      http://www.mahsanmilim.com/ChildsTrialE.htm
      ” And my knowing this, washes the skies of the future and of the past with something hard and sad, like a pulse. A pulse of sadness. And I only hope for Mohammad, and for me, that we shall live to see another world. Where he and I share the same rights on the earth. That he will receive a human face, and that mine will remain human. Before blood washes the land and the earth and the sky. “

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ilana Sebba

      I would really like to know if there is something practical that people can do to help these children. Anyone has any ideas?

      Reply to Comment
    8. I wept reading this. We hear of all of the injustices perpetuated upon the Palestinian people, piled on one after another. We develop a thick skin, still outraged, but immune to the horror, but still able to find the outrage. This, is so sad. It should read above the door at Courtroom #2, “Ye who enter here, abandon all hope”, it is the killing of hope, dreams, freedom and equality. My heart is broken.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Linda Brockett

      My heart is broken for these children,and that’s just what they are children. I find it so hard to believe Margaret that this barbarism towards the innocent is allowed to take place. The whole world should rise up and take a stand against this terrible injustice. God please help them.

      Reply to Comment
    10. m.tiramani

      two very stubborn people.the children are paying the price,this is horrible.

      Reply to Comment
    11. monka blanke

      My heart beats for those children. No child deserves to be treated like this. This is a nightmare. This is how to fuel “terrorism”.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Joanne

      This is well-written narrative, but what it needs to bring actual power to the words is some journalistic inquiry. It would benefit from having the writer interview the prosecution’s office to get another viewpoint, to present their defense of what certainly appears to be an indefensible position. The journalist has to be ready to let everyone explain their position – maybe the tight restrictions on what can be brought into the courtroom has to do with the threat of violence – is it possible someone at some time hid a weapon inside a tissue box? That may seem implausible, but the journalist should ask the question “why?” because without that balance, this comes across without context.

      Reply to Comment

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