Holding Pattern

A Palestinian Teen Gets Sent to Detention—and Stays

Deheishe Refugee Camp, West Bank—On November 22, 2002, in the small hours of the morning, Muhammed el-Najar, then 15, was arrested at his home here in the Deheishe refugee camp, a few miles south of Bethlehem. His parents say the Israeli soldiers, their faces painted with camouflage, ordered the family with all seven children, even a two-year-old, into their small yard with its chicken coop and vegetable garden, before taking away both Muhammed and his 17-year-old brother, Mahmoud. They have not seen Muhammed since and have heard little about him from his lawyer.

Mahmoud was eventually charged with attempted murder, belonging to an illegal organization, throwing stones, and writing slogans. His trial has been postponed. Muhammed may not be even that lucky. He is an administrative detainee, held indefinitely in a military prison, on order from a colonel or brigadier general, because of secret evidence that allegedly proves him to be a security threat to Israel.

Currently there are about 1,000 administrative detainees—or as some call them, political prisoners—out of over 6,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons. According to Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem, the number of administrative detainees has increased dramatically since Israel's Operation Defensive Shield began in March 2002.

The situation of Palestinian prisoners was not referred to in the U.S. "road map," but they have nonetheless become a key issue in the limping peace process. The hudna, or cease-fire, signed in July by the three major Palestinian militant groups, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, named the release of prisoners as the first of four demands. This is not surprising, because the hudna itself was partially negotiated from a military prison by Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. On August 6, the Israeli government released 334 prisoners, around half of whom were administrative detainees; the step was instantly described by Yasir Arafat as "an act of fraud and deceit," and it was followed by several days of violence from the Lebanese group Hezbollah. And another cycle of violence followed. By August 19, a major bus bombing in Jerusalem had effectively ended the hudna.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) could provide no statistics on how many administrative detainees would be considered juveniles under both international and Israeli civilian law, because a military order treats Palestinians 16 years and older as adults. According to Defence for Children International-Palestine (DCI), an NGO that provides legal assistance in a majority of such cases, Muhammed is one of at least 30 youngsters under 18 currently held in administrative detention, up from only two or three in 2001. The total number of Palestinian juveniles in custody fluctuates (because many are arrested and released without any charges) but is over 300. Only 13 juveniles were on the list of recently released prisoners, and only four of those were administrative detainees. Neither Muhammed nor his brother was on the list.

"The goal of administrative detention is to put people away who are dangerous to public order and safety," says a military official. "It's a preventative measure that's done because of the danger the people present. As a rule we are interested in putting people on trial, rather than detaining them. But if we have information not divulgeable in court that someone is about to blow himself up as a suicide bomber . . . this may seem like an extreme example, but we have examples of those types of cases." Administrative detainees are not accused of any crime. Sometimes the file available to their lawyers contains only one sentence: "This person is dangerous to the security of the nation."

In Muhammed's case, the released materials are more extensive. "There is a lot of open material, and I have the feeling that the secret material is just a repetition of the open material," says his Israeli lawyer, Tamar Pelleg-Sryck. She works for HaMoked, the Center for the Defense of the Individual, an Israeli human rights organization, and has been defending Palestinians in court since 1988. As an Israeli, she can visit her clients in Israeli prisons where Palestinian lawyers—and arrestees' families—can't go, and she can petition their cases to the Supreme Court.

"It's enough that a child of 15 says to somebody who informs on him, 'I would like to bomb,' " Pelleg-Sryck says of el-Najar. "He denies saying it, but let's assume that he did. Muhammed said to this person, a military activist, 'Maybe you can find somebody to help me. I would like to perform a suicide bombing.' Nothing ever came of it. The guy he spoke to was arrested and gave 20 to 30 names of people involved in such activities. Then the police said, 'What do you know about Muhammed So-and-so?' 'Oh, Muhammed So-and-so! He told me this . . . ' "

The suspicions directed at Palestinians born since the first intifada began in 1987 have an unavoidable basis in fact. According to Israeli research, the average age of suicide bombers has declined slightly since the 1990s, from 22 to 20 or 21; some are as young as 16. On June 26, a 15-year-old Palestinian shot and killed an Israeli telephone company employee in a village close to the West Bank; the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade was reported to have claimed responsibility for the attack. In response to this perceived threat, arrests of youths have gone up during the current intifada, according to DCI, whose caseload has risen from 89 in 1998 to 750 in 2002.

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