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Months after night arrest, two children say the trauma isn't over
Ahmad A., 16, was sentenced to two months in prison and a five year suspended sentence after Israeli soldiers arrested him at night in March, 2016. (Photo: DCIP / Cody O'Rourke)
Ramallah, July 6, 2016—Two Palestinian children report that the lingering psychological effects of Israeli military night arrests are interfering with their daily lives, causing changes in sleep, a loss of interest in previous activities, feelings of insecurity, and reduced movement.
Ahmad A., 16, was arrested at 3:30 a.m. in Beit Ummar, near Hebron, four months ago. A few months earlier, in January, Israeli soldiers arrested 17-year-old Ahmad Q. also at 3:30 a.m., from his home in Nablus. Although months have passed and both have since been released, they told Defense for Children International – Palestine that their sleep, behaviors, and personalities were altered by the experience.
Many rights groups have advocated for an end to the practice of night arrest because of its potential to cause long-term harm to children. Despite these efforts, night arrests remain a frequent feature of Israel’s military arrest of West Bank children, making up 41.7 percent of cases documented by DCIP between 2012 and 2015.
When compounded with other forms of ill-treatment such as blindfolding, physical abuse, and long interrogations without the presence of a lawyer or family member, night arrests can cause trauma. If untreated in the initial period following the trauma, during which the child may be imprisoned or otherwise detained, the psychological symptoms may persist even into adulthood.
Sleep disturbances are one common psychological symptom reported by Palestinian children previously arrested at night, a time when children should be able to feel safe in their beds. “I wait until 3:30 a.m., the same time I was arrested, to go to sleep,” Ahmad A. told DCIP.
Ahmad Q. also told DCIP he now has trouble sleeping and often lies awake until the early morning prayers. “I fall asleep when the soldiers leave my village, but as soon as I hear a small noise, I think it’s them.”
A loss of interest in previous activities can also be a sign of unresolved trauma, as formerly detained children struggle to put their lives back together upon release. Before the night Israeli soldiers arrested him, Ahmad Q.’s favorite activity was playing soccer, but since his release from detention, he told DCIP that he no longer enjoys the game. “I lost interest in many things,” he said.
Ahmad A.’s mother, Haya, said her son used to be well known for his gregarious personality around the village. After Israeli soldiers arrested and detained him, Haya told DCIP that her son stopped going outside and no longer talks to many people.
“When the child is first released, they feel like a hero,” Hassan Faraj, clinical psychologist at the Palestinian Counseling Center (PCC), told DCIP. “However, as time passes, everyone forgets about the child, and they often become detached and alone.”
Ahmad Q. said his whole town welcomed him with open arms when he was first released from prison. “I felt so loved, all of my friends and family were waiting for me,” he said. “Now, most of the time I sit in my room and don’t go out.”
Children sometimes self-restrict their movements after arrest, fearing interactions with soldiers. Ahmad Q. told DCIP he is too afraid to visit his grandfather, who lives in the neighboring town. “I’m scared of being anywhere near the soldiers,” he said. Ahmad A. also said fear has motivated his reduced movements. “I never leave my village,” Ahmad A. told DCIP. “I always try to avoid the soldiers.”
Counseling may help a child cope with their experience of night arrest and mitigate some of the negative psychological side-effects. According to Murad Amro, a clinical psychologist with PCC, treatment is most effective when a child receives help “within the first hours and first days.” Ahmad A. received counseling after his release, and said it has helped him manage his feelings, but still suffers from multiple psychological symptoms.
The Palestinian Counseling Center regularly reaches out to children who underwent military night arrests through home visits. “Many of these children don’t know that they need any therapy,” Faraj said. “We help them by rebuilding their confidence through play therapy, stories, and activities.”
In 2013, a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, Children in Israeli Military Detention Observations and Recommendations, found “widespread, systematic, and institutionalized” ill-treatment in the Israeli military detention system. It offered 38 specific recommendations to address the abuse, including that “[a]ll arrests of children should be conducted during daylight, notwithstanding exceptional and grave situations.”
UNICEF has engaged in a dialogue with Israeli authorities since releasing the report to implement the recommendations.
In February 2014, Israeli military authorities implemented a new pilot program in parts of the West Bank involving the use of written summonses as an alternative to night arrests. Despite general compliance with summonses, which are often provided via phone or delivered at night, they have not improved the situation for Palestinian child detainees. Once in Israeli military custody, Palestinian children still experience physical violence and other forms of ill-treatment, according to DCIP documentation.
In the first half of 2016, night arrests have shown no sign of slackening, with 46.6 percent of child detention cases documented by DCIP involving the practice.
Night arrests violate Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that the best interests of the child must be the primary consideration guiding a state’s treatment of any child. Arrest of children should be a last resort and children should be presumed innocent, informed promptly and directly of charges against him or her, and have prompt access to legal assistance and to be accompanied by their parents during questioning.
“If I had been notified of my arrest ahead of time instead of being taken from my home, I would have been prepared for it,” Ahmad A. said. “I never knew they were coming for me. I never thought they would take me from my home.”