Rights Groups Charge Mistreatment of Palestinian Minors Detained by Israel
Ahmad Manasra’s case prompted the Knesset to reduce the age of criminal responsibility to 12, as it is under military law in the West Bank, and brought international attention to the detention of minors on both sides of the Green Line
Seven years ago, 13-year-old Ahmad Manasra’s life changed forever. He was arrested and charged with two counts of attempted murder after participating in a double stabbing with his cousin in a disputed neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Manasra’s cousin, Hassan Khalid Manasra, 15 years old at the time of the incident, was shot dead after stabbing and injuring a security guard and a 13-year-old boy. Ahmad Manasra was hit by a car while trying to flee the scene, leaving him with a skull fracture and brain injury.
Ahmad Manasra was treated in an Israeli hospital, under the custody of the police, who began questioning him in his hospital bed. After his release from the hospital, he endured further police interrogation that rights groups have called abusive after a video of the questioning was leaked to the media.
“He was interrogated while he was under anesthesia without the participation of his parents in the investigation,” Khaled Zabargah, Manasra’s attorney, told The Media Line.
At the time of the stabbing, the age of criminal responsibility according to Israeli civil law, which applies within the pre-1967 Green Line borders of Israel as well annexed east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, was 14 years old. Children younger than that could not be imprisoned. In the West Bank, the age of criminal responsibility is 12.
Manasra was charged with two counts of attempted murder. As his case dragged through the long legal process, he turned 14 and thus became eligible for a sentence, if convicted, that could include imprisonment.
Manasra pleaded not guilty to the charges. Leah Tsemel, his attorney at the time, said he did not intend to stab anyone but “just wanted to scare the Israelis so they would stop killing his friends in Gaza.” Forensic examination of his knife found no evidence of blood on it. Nevertheless, he was convicted.
He was originally sentenced to 12 years in prison – an unusually harsh sentence for such crimes.
“The sentence imposed by the District Court on the child is unprecedented in its cruelty. Nine and a half years for a child in a file of this nature was a precedent,” Zabargah said.
His legal team challenged the sentence in the Supreme Court, which reduced it to nine and a half years.
His lawyers charge that, since his arrest, Manasra, already suffering from the brain injury he received at the scene of the stabbing, has been subjected to long periods of solitary confinement, as well as verbal and physical abuse, and that these have contributed to severe mental illness. He was, however, only allowed to be examined by a doctor independent of the Israeli prison system in 2021, six years after his arrest.
“Since that day [of the incident], he has been subjected to psychological torture inside the Israeli prison and solitary confinement, which has caused him to suffer from chronic mental illness,” Zabargah said.
In April 2022, Manasra once again entered the courtroom, this time to appeal the “terrorism” designation that was placed on his case. People imprisoned for committing terrorist attacks are not eligible for parole, while in non-terrorism cases, prisoners may be released early, after serving 2/3 of the imposed sentence. The terrorism designation was successfully dropped, and a parole board is now reviewing Manasra’s case.
In light of cases like Manasra’s, then-Member of Knesset Anat Berko, who holds a doctorate in criminology, introduced legislation to reduce the age of criminal responsibility in Israel’s civil courts to 12, allowing children to be imprisoned for crimes such as murder, manslaughter, and attempted murder. The bill became law in 2016.
Berko told The Media Line that the court can order a convicted child under the age of 14 “to be kept in a locked residence for a period to be determined,” and could later be transferred to prison to serve out the remainder of the sentence “provided that when he [is] transferred to prison, the minor [is] at least 14 years old.”
Moria Shlomot, executive director of Parents Against Child Detention, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that brings attention to the issue of the detention and imprisonment of Palestinian minors in the occupied territories, told The Media Line that Israel detained more than 3,000 children each year in the West Bank and that 3,000 to 5,000 minors were detained annually in Israel, including east Jerusalem. These numbers were based on information provided by the Israeli police, as well as NGOs such as Military Court Watch and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on the number of youth detained in the West Bank. The Media Line received no response from the Israel Police by press time.
Most detainees in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and many within the Green Line, are arrested on charges of throwing stones. However, many of the arrests do not take place during the criminal act. Instead, minors are picked up, sometimes months later, and charged without adequate proof or witness.
Both Israeli civil law in a state of emergency and the military law that Israel applies in the West Bank allow for administrative detention – the arrest and detention of individuals without charges or trial, for periods of up to six months. Ben Cohen, a soldier in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, told The Media Line that “currently, there are two minors in administrative detention.”
In May 2021, communal violence between Jewish and Arab Israelis broke out in several Arab-majority and mixed Jewish-Arab cities throughout the country.
The police responded with a campaign of mass arrests, termed “Operation Law and Order,” that rights groups such as Amnesty International say targeted Palestinians in a discriminatory manner and infringed on their right to free speech.
Ari Remez, communications coordinator for Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told The Media Line that over the course of that month, 291 Palestinian citizens of Israel under the age of 18 were arrested.
Nareman Shehadeh-Zoabi, an attorney working for Adalah, told The Media Line that the organization found severe violations of the rights of many of the arrested minors. “The intimidation tactics and cruel practices used by Israeli security forces in occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank, such as arresting minors in the middle of the night and conducting interrogations without the presence of a lawyer or parent, are now used by Israeli police within the Green Line, under the pretense of ‘a national emergency,’” she said.
Shlomot, from Parents Against Child Detention, shared similar information. Apart from aggressive interrogations, she said, “the most challenging cases are the [arrests] carried out at night.” She called it “the most cruel thing,” adding that “most of the arrests are happening in the middle of the night, between 2 and 5 am. Kids can be detained for accusations that happened months ago, sometimes with no evidence, taking them from their bed in the night and threatening them with violence, not allowing them to see a lawyer, and pushing them to confess. Most children confess; then they are freed in a plea bargain.”
In many cases, she says, the youth are forced to sign documents written in Hebrew, which they do not understand. These often end up being signed confessions.
On April 15, 14-year-old Athal Al-Azza was walking to his grandmother’s house in Bethlehem to invite her to an iftar, the traditional meal following the Ramadan fast. While crossing the street to reach her home, he was detained by Israeli soldiers. Athal’s father, Ahmad Al-Azza, told The Media Line, “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The military said it arrested Al-Azza based on a photograph taken during a riot. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told The Media Line that Al-Azza was arrested after “participating in a riot during which he set fire to tires and threw stones at an IDF post.”
Al-Azza, denied the charges, saying he was not present at any riots. He lives in a neighboring city and only came to Bethlehem to visit his grandmother.
Al-Azza’s father, Ahmad Al-Azza, described his son as living a simple life, going to school, playing sports and the violin, and working for a mechanic two days a week to earn money so he could buy food for his puppy.
“After they arrested him,” Ahmad Al-Azza said of his son’s ordeal, “they dragged him 200 to 300 meters, slapped him, suffocated him, then took him to a military base. Five to six hours later, we received a phone call notifying us of Athal’s arrest and location.”
“They take him after midnight to interrogate him, then take him back to the prison,” says the boy’s father. “He is back and forth in this routine for the last 11 days. I saw him in the court, Athal was tired, more skinny, lost weight, was barely able to open his eyes, and the fatigue was obvious on his face.”
Ahmad says he, his wife, and Athal’s lawyer were only permitted to see Athal during court sessions.
Athal Al-Azza’s story spread quickly on social media, even capturing the attention of American supermodel of Dutch-Palestinian descent Bella Hadid.
Cohen, from the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, denies any wrongdoing by the Israeli military in this or similar cases. “Law enforcement as it pertains to Palestinian residents of Judea and Samaria is conducted in strict accordance with the law,” he said. “The rights of suspects and defendants, both minors and adults, are protected in detention proceedings, investigations, and trials.”
Regarding Al-Azza’s case, Cohen said he was “recently released from detention following a decision made by the military court.” Al-Azza’s release came after 12 days of detention and a bail payment of 4,000 shekels (around $1,200).
Crystal Dunlap is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.