Free the Hares Boys

Six months on, the five Hares boys remain in jail and the international campaign demanding their release is underway.

In my previous posts I anonymised the names of most people, but as the names of the boys and their families are now in the public domain, I have changed this. For those of you who have been reading up till now, Karim’s real name is Ali Shamlawi, and his parents (who I called Um and Abu Fares) are Um and Abu Fadi. Um Fadi is also known as Nema Shamlawi, and she was recently interviewed by Al-Jazeera. The other boys are Mohammed Kleib, Mohammed Suleiman, Ammar Souf, and Tamer Souf (Ammar and Tamer are cousins). They are all in the same class at school. There are pictures of all five boys and their families on the website set up to demand their release.

This is Um and Abu Fadi describing the night that Ali was taken:

The first international demonstration demanding the release of the boys happened in London and was attended by the footballer and hunger striker Mahmoud Sarsak. Mahmoud first became famous playing for the Palestinian national team, until 2009 when he was arrested and held without charge for three years. He began a hunger strike in March 2012 and his case attracted international attention; Eric Cantona, Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach and UEFA president Michel Piantini all called for his release, which happened eventually on July 10th last year. In person he is gentle, and shy when speaking English, but very powerful when on a platform speaking Arabic.
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One of the difficulties in publicising the boys’ case in the UK is how much is lost in translation. We tend to adopt the language the Israelis use; we say that the boys have been ‘arrested’ and that they are due for ‘court hearings.’ We are used to the idea (at least in theory anyway) that if someone is arrested or put on trial, it’s because there is reasonable grounds to suspect them of something. There is also a perception that Palestinians are exceptionally prone to violence, so this tends to leave a cloud of suspicion over five boys who have been arrested and put in prison.

In fact, it is far from accurate to say that the boys have been ‘arrested’ in the sense that most people understand it. The army did not give the boys a reason for taking them away. Usually, if a gang of armed men descend on your home at night and take you away in a jeep, blindfold and still in your pyjamas, we call it abduction.

I try to picture the headlines in the UK if five boys from the same class at school were abducted from their beds and held, for months on end, being abused. I imagine the sense of outrage against the perpetrators, the expressions of sympathy for devastated, sobbing parents who just want their children to be returned to them.

It’s also slightly misleading to say the boys are due for ‘court hearings.’ These are not really courts and the boys have little chance of being ‘heard.’ Operated by an enemy army and held in a language the boys don’t understand, this system makes no pretence of being equal or fair. Israeli civilians are not tried in these courts and people are frequently convicted on the basis of ‘secret evidence’ that their lawyers don’t have access to.

The Al-Jazeera investigation found that there are no eyewitness accounts to say that the car accident was caused by throwing stones – the prosecution’s case rests solely on insurance claims and the boys’ ‘confessions,’ which the boys have said were made under duress. It is well documented that Palestinian minors are forced to sign confessions and in any case, five young boys all confessing to attempted murder by stone-throwing should raise suspicions.

This practice of arbitrary arrests, administrative detention and kangaroo courts has little to do with preventing crime and punishing criminality. By all appearances it is just a strategy for keeping men and boys of fighting age out of the way, or at least, subdued.

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Update

Hares village arrests:

Ali and the other four boys who were arrested following the car crash remain in prison.

In the last week, three more boys in the village of Hares have been arrested in night raids and sent to Megiddo prison. They are due in court next week. The soldiers who took the boys told their families that they were given their names by the other five boys, who remain in al-Jalame interrogation centre.

The three boys from the same family who were taken at random three weeks ago have been released from Megiddo prison. We haven’t been able to make contact with their mother, so we haven’t yet interviewed them. Their case seems to be about something different from the car crash, and one of the villagers thinks the arrests were intended to scare the local boys after some stones were thrown at an army jeep which passed the school.

These are women I met at a protest, who were carrying with them photos of their sons who are in jail

These are women I met at a protest, who were carrying with them photos of their sons who are in jail

We have contacted Betselem, the Israeli human rights group, and asked them to investigate the campaign of intimidation against the village since the car crash last month.

Sebastiya: Some good news for this village as the sewage pipe has been turned off, although we’ll have to wait to see whether this lasts. It may also take a while before the produce from the land is fit for human consumption again. Either way, it would be good to think that the protests played a part in this small victory.

Burrin: Two days before I left the army raided the village, apparently in response to the non-violent resistance that has been happening there recently. Murad and some of his friends had set up a community centre and protest tents, and had organised actions including one  a couple of weeks ago in which protesters planted trees and released pro-Palestinian balloons near the settlement. Some of my colleagues from IWPS  went to the village and said it had been completely devastated. Apparently large numbers of soldiers came at night and smashed up the community centre and raided people’s houses, damaging personal property.

Court

The Megiddo plain is where, according to some, the battle of Armageddon will take place. It’s also home to Megiddo prison and Salem Military Court, where Ali’s hearing happened this morning. Later it occurs to me that Salem, sharing it’s name with the Massachusetts  town where the infamous witch-trials of the 17th century happened, is an ironic location for a kangaroo court.

It turns out that military courts are not user friendly. Salem is on the northernmost point in the West Bank, and as we weren’t told what time Karim”s hearing would be, we had to arrive first thing.  I met Ali’s parents, Um and Abu Fadi, at 7am this morning. I had faxed a request for permission to enter the court, along with a copy of my passport, but I hadn’t heard whether authorisation been granted.

Leaving our bags outside, I somehow make it through the first security check, despite not having permission, and take a seat in the waiting room next to Um Fares. The room is full of prisoners’ families and the atmosphere is subdued. Um Fadi is almost entirely silent, murmuring prayers every now and again. She taps her feet, adjusts her headscarf, fiddles with her purse, adjusts her headscarf again. She must have been thinking about this moment all week. She knows that her son is being kept in a prison where his rights are not respected and that he is probably being ill-treated.

Um and Abu Fadi must have had Ali, who is sixteen, later in life, as they seem older, especially his father. Both of them are shorter than me. Abu Fadi is even gentler than his wife. The other week when we visited them at home, we sat outside and Abu Fadi described  how an Israeli road has been built across their land, isolating one of the trees. ‘At night I heard the laurel tree weeping,’ he said. ‘It was lonely.’

Ali is still named on his fathers’ identity card  as he is too young to have one of his own, but his parents  have not been present at any of his interrogations.

A crowd start to gathers at the revolving gate near the reception. Teenage border guards, carrying semiautomatics, bark orders at the crowd, most of whom are old enough to be their parents and grandparents. Sometimes in Arabic, mostly in Hebrew: ‘Get back, all of you! Move! If you don’t all get back into the room, no-one will be allowed in!’ A man asks, ‘Why? We have children in jail and we just want to see them!’ He doesn’t seem old enough to have children in jail – his son must be young.

We continue to stand. The names of prisoners are called out one by one and their families allowed through the gate. We seem to have been standing here for hours, and still Ali’s name hasn’t been called. The rain crashes angrily on the roof outside. Now there are only a few people left, and we are let in, Um and Abu Fadi before me. The soldiers  stop the revolving gate  while I am still inside it, leaving me stuck inside it for a few minutes. Eventually I am let through, and for some reason, the guards give me permission to enter the courtroom.

Now we just have to stand and wait to be frisked. While Um Fadi and I wait, I overhear Ali’s lawyer tell the guards that her son is already in the court. Um Fadi is eventually searched and let through, but the guard makes a phone call and leaves me to wait. Finally I am searched and the lawyer escorts me to the court.

Inside is chaos. I’m aware of a boy sitting in the dock with his head in his hands, but I don’t think it’s Ali. The room is full of people in uniform carrying guns; army, border police, civilian police. Um and Abu Fadi, usually both so mild-mannered, are shouting at them. They are escorted  outside and I follow. The court hearing is over and we have missed it. Only Abu Fadi got to speak to Ali. Um Fadi bursts into tears.

As we leave, two of the women in reception, a soldier and a border guard, ask me in Hebrew why she is crying. I translate, and Um Fadi turns round and shouts angrily in English, ‘Because I have been here all day and you didn’t let me see my son!’ The guard says, in Hebrew, ‘What do you want me to do? There were lots of people!’ but I don’t translate.

Ali’s detention was extended for another five days. Abu Fadi said his son was ‘weeping and weeping,’ and that he told him to be strong. He said Karim told him he had been beaten and that a soldier held a hand to his throat. He told his father he was forced to sign the confession with one hand cuffed to the chair. This sounds sadly believable – it’s well documented that the military court regularly uses coerced confessions as the primary evidence to convict minors.

Um Fadi did not stop crying for the rest of the day.

More Terror

The day before I arrived here,  a nasty car accident happened not far from the village. An Israeli settler was travelling between settlements when her car crashed into a stationary truck, leaving her small daughter critically injured. The facts of what happened are unclear, but the crash was quickly blamed on local Palestinian youths throwing stones and was soon being reported in the Israeli media as a terror attack. In the week that followed,  Palestinian stone-throwing became a hot topic and politicians began to call for a change of the ‘rules of engagement’ to allow the Israeli army to use live ammunition against Palestinian youths throwing stones.

The army began a series of night raids in the Palestinian villages of Hares and Kifl Hares, next to Deir Istiya where IWPS is based, in which 13 Palestinian teenagers were taken away from their homes and sent for interrogation. One of these was Ali, the youngest son of Um and Abu Fadi, close friends of IWPS.  Shortly after his ‘arrest,’ two members of the team went to visit and found his mother, Um Fadi, unable to stop crying. I met them a week later. They are an older couple, softly spoken, with good English. Ali is the baby of the family, and his absence leaves a big gap.

Hares village

Hares village

The youths were gradually released, after being held without charge for varying lengths of time, until only 5 were left in detention, including Ali. One, who was released after two days, was hospitalised following a beating he received in jail. We interviewed one 16 year old after his release. He told us that around 20 soldiers came to his family house at night and ordered all the family to assemble downstairs. They asked for him by name, blindfolded him and took him away in a jeep. He told us that the soldiers asked him about stone-throwing but didn’t give him a formal reason for his arrest. His family told us that they didn’t know where he had been taken until the army called, two days after he was taken away.

He told us that he was kept in solitary confinement for the first two days of his six-day detention, in a room in which the lights were kept on continuously. He was interrogated  every two days by soldiers who shouted at him and threatened to hit him and to harm his mother and sister. He was eventually released, but told us he was jumpy and afraid to go out of the house.

The story continued to make headlines in the Israeli media, as the child, whose name is Adelle and is aged 2-3, remained in a serious condition. Media reports of the attack have been hugely inconsistent; early reports quoted the truck driver as saying that he pulled over thinking he had a flat tyre, realised the the car had crashed into the back of his truck, then noticed the stones on the ground and decided that the noise must have been due to stone-throwing. Later reports said that both vehicles had come under ‘a barrage’ of stones,  while others reported that the car had crashed after a rock was ‘hurled through it’s windscreen.’

After 10 days or so we read that five Palestinians had ‘confessed,’ and that  Netanyahu himself called Adelle’s parents to tell them that the suspects were under arrest for the attempted murder of their daughter. These five include Karim, as well as three other boys all from the same family. Of course, we were very suspicious about the circumstances under which the ‘confessions’ were made. These boys are being held, by their enemy, in military detention.

We also noticed something else – reading through the media reports, we couldn’t find any eyewitness accounts of anyone actually throwing stones. The two drivers were both interviewed in the press about the incident, but neither of them reported seeing any stones being thrown, and there were no witness descriptions of any  youths. We went to the site of the accident, took photos, and managed to talk to some local people who were at the scene immediately after the accident and said they had not seen any youths there.

Human rights abuses in the West Bank are often ‘justified’ on the grounds that they ensure the security of Israelis; but these events suggest that this isn’t the case. Anyone concerned about protecting Israelis would follow due legal process to ensure that the right person was caught – locking up innocent people doesn’t make anyone any safer.

We felt that, with all the media hype about stone-throwing Arabs,  a counter report was needed to cast doubt on the mainstream narrative. We issued a press release and send it to various news organisations and a number of prominent left-wing Israeli journalists. One of these took an interest in the story, so we sent her all the information we had. She contacted the boy’s lawyer, but he told her he felt that publicity, before the indictment, would harm the boys’ case. She advised us to closely follow the trial instead.

It was a few days after this that a strange twist occurred. The mayor of the village paid a visit to the IWPS house,  accompanied by Abdul, one of IWPS’ contacts in the village. I wasn’t there, but according the  women who were, the men beat around the bush for a while before telling them about a rumour they’d heard. A local man, about  22, was claiming that a 28 year old  American woman calling herself Natalie had visited his house, slept with him, and asked him questions about the car crash. This is potentially problematic for IWPS as this could damage the reputation of the organisation – as this area is highly conservative we have to be extremely boundaried in our behaviour towards men.  We are the only international women around here, although there is no-one here who matches the boy’s description. The story was very odd – for some reason local Palestinian security were involved, and Abdul got the information from a relative who works with the police.

The men made it clear that they didn’t believe the boys’ story – he is from a ‘troubled’ family and has a history of making things up. A few days later, we heard he was in hospital after attempting suicide, the day before he was due to be interrogated again by security.  But Palestinian culture is notorious for rumour, and we were not sure how far this one had spread. We agreed to only leave the house in pairs.

But there were still unanswered questions: why were Palestinian security involved? And why did he mention that the woman had been asking questions about the car crash? The rest of the story, in which he got talking to the woman in a vegetable shop before going back to his place, sounded like fantasy, but this part was close to what we have been doing. And what would be his motivation for inventing the story, which seems to have got him into so much trouble, but so far has not affected us?

We received a call from Musa, one of IWPS’ contacts in the village of Hares, who asked us if we there was a woman here called Natalie. It turns out that Palestinian security had been in touch with him and Becky, one of IWPS’ experienced volunteers, went to meet him. He told her that the boy had apparently approached the police with the story, and the concern was that the woman, who seems to be entirely fictional, was an informer. Musa’s view is that this is the work of the Shabak, the Israeli secret service.

This is very worrying for IWPS. Regardless of the origin of the boys’ story, if a rumour spreads locally that international women are acting as Israeli agents, we will lose the trust of local people and may no longer be able to work in this area. There is already an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust in the village of Hares as there are thought to many collaborators there.

Musa’s suspicion, which he bases on ‘long experience’ with the Shabak, is only speculation, but if it is true then it would explain some of the stranger aspects of the story. We have been in the village asking questions about the car crash, and it’s possible that a local collaborator reported this.  It’s also very likely that the emails of the left-wing journalists we corresponded with are monitored by the Shabak,  in which case they will be aware of our investigations. If this rumour gets around it will certainly be very difficult for us to continue asking questions in the village.

If this rumour is the work of Israeli intelligence, it’s clever – this could do so much more damage, and involves so much less work for the security agencies, than monitoring and arresting members of IWPS. It would also suggest that the work we have been doing is bothering them.

Ali is due in court again on Tuesday and we are waiting to see what the outcome will be.