A high school student was shot. He didn’t survive the injuries. All of his classmates were arrested. “They were afraid of consequences. They arrested thirty students, including myself,” Saleh Abu Izzah recalls. It was the first time he was arrested by Israeli forces and he was 17 years old. It was 2002.
As a teenager, Saleh was never an activist; indeed, he had no interest in politics. Yet, he was wrongfully arrested, tortured and detained in solitary confinement. He spent six years of his life as a youth in prison. In an interview with Metta Spencer, he spoke about the brutality and human rights violations that Palestinians, including children, face in prison. Saleh is a now a lawyer, political analyst, and human rights advocate based in Jenin, the West Bank.
Saleh was released in 2005 to be arrested again in 2006 and spend over a year in prison. A few months later, he got arrested again, and was released in 2009. “Student activism got me arrested,” says Saleh.
Saleh is one in a long list of Pales tinians who have been subjected to prison, solitary confinement, torture, and detention in crowded cells with hundreds. According to Btselem (the Israeli Human Rights Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) at the end of September 2020, 157 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli prisons as security detainees and prisoners.
Human Rights Watch released a recent report, A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, that unveiled the grave human rights violations Israel commits systematically. This includes mass arrests and detentions. “Israeli authorities have incarcerated hundreds of thousands of Palestinians for what it deems ‘security offenses’ since 1967, including hundreds at virtually any given time held in administrative detention based on secret evidence, without charge or trial for renewable periods that can extend for multiple years,” according to report.
Other sources note that Israel arrested a million Palestinians since 1967, including hundreds of thousands of children and minors. “As of April 2021, according to the Israeli Prison Services, authorities held 4,323 Palestinians from the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, in custody for ‘security offenses,’ including 426 in administrative detention,” according to Human Rights Watch. This number rocketed following the events in May and the ongoing crackdown on protestors in Jerusalem and other cities.
“Palestinian children are treated in ways that would terrify and traumatize an adult. Screams, threats, and beatings are no way for the police to treat a child or to get accurate information from them,” according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report on Palestinian children detained in Israeli prisons.
Discrimination and prosecution of Palestinians, including children, is welcomed by the Israeli Knesset. In November 2015, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that authorizes longer prison sentences for children convicted of throwing stones and that allows the government to suspend social welfare payments to their families while the children serve their sentences. As this article is written, there have been new elections. New members will be at the Knesset and the new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, will be in power. However, it’s unlikely that the systemic oppression will end with a new government with the right wing in control over politics in Israel.
Adults and minors are held in the same overcrowded facility. “All of us, the thirty classmates, were held in an administrative detention centre with no trials or charges. Some spent six months, others two years,” says Saleh. He was then sent to another facility, but his family filed a case in court because he was a minor. Saleh was then returned to administrative detention to spend three years with no charges or trial.
During the conversation, Saleh walks us through his journey in prison. Like Saleh, Palestinian prisoners are detained in facilities in Israel, far from their cities and towns, making family visits difficult. According to Human Rights Watch: “Israel jails most Palestinian prisoners from the Occupied Palestinian Territories inside Israel, even though transferring residents from occupied territory violates international humanitarian law, and complicates the process of family visits to them.”
Despite his painful experience, Saleh’s courage is inspiring. He has dedicated his energy and time to advocate for human rights and has been contributing his knowledge to various national and Arab media outlets by writing articles and appearing on shows to promote Palestinians’ rights. Despite that, his six years in prison left an unhealable wound.
There are stages of life in prison, as Saleh recalls. He was first sent to a temporary detention centre and an overcrowded cell. “We had no washroom in our cell. I would wait hours for the soldier to let me use the restroom,” says Saleh. He then was sent to an interrogation centre. “I spent forty days in a two-meter by one meter cell. This included the toilet.” Saleh was held in solitary confinement. “I saw no human for forty days. They would slide food under the door.”
Saleh was arrested three times. In total, he spent 300 days in this dark cell. “The walls had what looked like nails, so I wasn’t able to rest my back. The light was a projector, to deprive me of sleep. During the winter, an air-conditioner would be directed with extreme chill,” says Saleh. In one of the times when he was arrested, he lost around 44 pounds of weight.
Israel’s Maskobiyeh (Muscovite) Detention Centre is a notorious facility that hardly receives any global media attention. This hasn’t always been a place of torture but, surprisingly, was once a church. According to an article from Los Angeles Times’ archives, Maskobiyeh was built to host pilgrims on their spiritual journey to the Holy Land. “In the 1860s, the Russian Orthodox Church built the two yellow brick buildings as part of a complex of hostels and a green-domed church for pilgrims to the Holy Land.” Israel turned this into a notorious detention centre.
More than a century later, in this place that was once built for peace, Saleh was tortured. He recalls the painful image of what happened when he was in prison in 2007. “We were stripped naked, blindfolded, and our hands and feet were tied,” says Saleh. “A prison like Maskobiyeh is more notorious than Abu Gharib or Guantanamo.”
Israel continues to arrest children. According to UNICEF report published on May 9, the protests, violence, and Israel’s crackdown on worshippers in Aqsa Mosque left at least 37 injured and arrested children in a couple of days in East Jerusalem, including in the Old City and the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. The number of detained children has increased since then.
Saleh, and his classmates, were detained in overcrowded cells in 2002. Today, this has not changed. Israel continues to detain children in overcrowd ed facilities even during the pandemic. According to UNICEF, children in detention face heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, with physical distancing and other preventive measures often absent or difficult to achieve.
A simple search of Canada’s relations with Israel will take one to the profile on the Foreign Affairs website. The two-way merchandise trade between Canada and Israel was valued at more than $1.8 billion in 2020. The merchandise and trade between Canada and Israel include a variety of products and services. “Sales and partnership opportunities exist for Canadian firms in areas such as aircraft engines, advanced materials and manufacturing, special mission aircraft, remote sensing and detection (including sonar and lidar), ground systems, space robotics and sensors, satellite antennas and payloads, cybersecurity, and UAV components,” according to Canada Foreign Affairs.
Even when the Canadian government shows concern over violence and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem, officials reiterate that Israel is a “friend” and “ally.” Being an ally, for whatever political reason, must not be a green light to avoid scrutiny.
When asked how the world, including Canada, must take action to help Palestinians, Saleh says. “What’s needed from Canada is not help for Palestinians with donations. What’s needed from Canada is to support internationally the Palestinian effort to end oppression.”
Yusur Al-Bahrani is a journalist living in Yellowknife.