Since 1974, when the first Palestinian prisoner was released in an exchange deal, Palestinians have been commemorating April 17 as the Palestinian Prisoners Day to shed light on the plight of prisoners in Israeli jails.
Currently, there are 6,500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails. The number includes 300 children and 53 women, according to the Jerusalem-based Palestinian prisoners support and human rights association, Addameer. Laith Abu Zeyad, Addameer’s international advocacy officer told Al Jazeera that between 500 and 700 arrests of children are made each year in the Israeli-occupied West Bank .
Upon arrest, Palestinian civilians residing in the West Bank are sent to be tried in Israeli military courts, where conviction rates are as high as 99.7 percent, according to Abu Zeyad. Being tried in a military tribunal is a violation of international law, and means that civilians’ due process rights are routinely disrespected.
Meanwhile, administrative detainees are arrested based on Israeli military intelligence data, to which the detainee has no access. Administrative detainees can be held without charge or trial for six months at a time, and their detention can be indefinitely renewed.
A joint report issued by several Palestinian non-governmental organisations ( NGOs ) indicated that 509 arrests were made in March 2017 alone, including 75 children. “The most common accusation made against children is throwing stones,” said Zeyad.
Last year marked the worst on record for child prisoners. A change in Israeli laws allowed Palestinian minors under the age of 14 to be sent straight to prison, instead of receiving custodian sentences. In 2016, 21 minors were under administrative detention. In the same year, a wave of Palestinian children received lengthy sentences, some amounting to more than 10 years of imprisonment
According to Addameer, the youngest Palestinian prisoner today is a 12-year-old boy, who has been charged with throwing stones.
The eldest prisoner is 76-year-old Fouad al-Shobaki, who is serving a 20-year sentence since 2006 for providing Palestinian armed groups with weapons. Among women prisoners, Zeyad said, are 19 mothers, some without visitation rights implemented as a punitive measure. “To us, all of the arrests are arbitrary,” he said. “The laws are arbitrary, detainees are denied access to lawyers, and are often kept in interrogation periods that last for up to two months.”
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there have been approximately one million arrests made against Palestinians since 1948.
Below, two ex-prisoners share their experiences in detention, and a mother shares her experience of being away from her incarcerated sons
On April 29, 2016, Natalie and her friend Tasneem were walking past a military checkpoint in Beit Ur al-Tahta village, west of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Caught off guard, Natalie was surprised to be surrounded suddenly by a number of Israeli occupation soldiers, just before she was beaten by the soldiers to the ground.
No one listened to their cries for help as they continued to be beaten unconscious, and eventually, Natalie was shot by one of the soldiers, she recalled.
“I was shot with a bullet in my shoulder and it started bleeding uncontrollably. I didn’t lose consciousness until they beat me to the ground and kicked me with their feet. I couldn’t handle the pain and, in that moment, I wished for everything to stop,” she told Al Jazeera.
Natalie was transferred to an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem , where she fell into a coma for three full days. Right after she underwent surgery to remove the bullet from inside her body, Natalie said she was awakened by the shouting of an Israeli interrogation officer.
“The interrogator stormed into the hospital room and started shouting and slamming his hands hard on the table in front of me. I wanted to rest for a minute and I couldn’t talk much, but he wouldn’t stop interrogating me for a long time,” she said
“I couldn’t process or register what was going on around me, why they shot me and why I was arrested. How was I going to jail now and what was I going to see there? I was terrified and all I wanted was to go back home,” Natalie added.
Days passed and the Israeli authorities would not allow Natalie to see her parents, she said. Eventually, her mother was able to visit her, after several attempts of trying to obtain a permit to get into Jerusalem from the West Bank.
Palestinians residing in the occupied West Bank are prohibited from entering Israeli territory and occupied East Jerusalem without being issued a permit.
More often than not, according to Addameer, these permit requests needed for families to make regular visits to Israeli prisons are rejected by Israeli authorities.
“Seeing my mother gave me the strength to recover and instilled a sense of peace in me,” said Natalie, adding that she was not given sufficient time to heal, and was quickly transported to HaSharon prison in Israel.
“I was transported on a prisoner’s vehicle, which is divided into little dark cells surrounded with iron bars. I was in a lot of pain and frightened like never before,” said Natalie. “I wondered how long was I going to be locked up for, and if I was ever going to go home.”
Natalie was convicted of attempting to carry out a stabbing attack. Twelve court sessions later, she was sentenced to a year and a half in prison.
“I was in total shock from the prison’s atmosphere and for being denied the right to see my family. I thought about them all the time and longed for my mother’s warm hugs.”
Throughout her detention, Natalie’s family were not permitted to visit her in prison.
“Whenever they would reject my mother’s request to visit, I would cry uncontrollably. I would dream of being with her, holding her hand and kissing her. But eventually, I’d wake up, and realise that she isn’t next to me,” said Natalie.
One year later, she was released on bail for a total sum of 4,000 Israeli shekels ($2,000). A day after her release, Natalie picked up her schoolbag and rushed to school. She had missed her friends, and was determined to be among the top of her class.
“In prison, I used to study very hard and managed to get good grades. I now want to continue my education and be with my friends, I can now finally go back to school,” she said.
Natalie’s mother, Roqayah, said that she was in a constant state of worry when her daughter was in detention. “Being apart was devastating, I used to look at her picture and talk to it all the time,” said Roqayah.
“I’ll do whatever Natalie wants. I’ll make sure she gets everything she was deprived of in prison,” she added. “I’ll never let her out of my sight.”