On October 2, footage of a captive Israeli soldier was broadcast around the world. The sergeant, 23-year-old Gilad Shalit, was captured by Palestinian militants three years ago and has been held in the blockaded and bomb-struck Gaza Strip. The video–which showed a healthy but sallow Shalit–reached Israeli hands in exchange for the release of twenty female Palestinian prisoners. Tucked tightly away between the lines of the news was the story of another, even more youthful captive, Bara’a Malki: a naïve 15-year-old runaway, improbably convicted of attempted murder and now one of the twenty discharged.
Last year, Bara’a and her classmate Samah decided to run away from home to escape overbearing parents and, in Samah’s case, the prospect of a forced marriage to a man two decades her senior. But the West Bank, carved up as it is by 613 army-imposed obstacles–checkpoints, roadblocks, trenches–and overlaid with a web of community connections, did not present the two girls with many hiding places. So on December 2 they left the Al Jalazun Refugee Camp with a desperate plan to get arrested and imprisoned.
Packing kitchen knives in their school bags, they entered the Qalandya checkpoint outside Ramallah. At the ID check, Bara’a pulled out her knife and placed it in front of a female soldier standing behind bulletproof glass. Security officers quickly marshaled her into a room. When an officer shouted, “Why do you have a knife? Do you want to kill one of us?” Bara’a replied, “I have problems with my family, and I came to the checkpoint to get arrested.”
Bara’a was then taken to a detention center in Jerusalem, where an Israeli interrogator, refusing to believe her story about an unhappy home life, repeatedly insisted that she had come to the checkpoint to kill a soldier. Finally, Bara’a echoed the interrogator’s words back to him. On the basis of this confession, an Israeli military court sentenced Bara’a to eleven months’ imprisonment for attempted murder.
Bara’a and Samah are just two of the 700 Palestinian children Israel detains and prosecutes annually. Every year there are a handful of cases like theirs, in which Palestinian girls with difficulties at home deliberately take knives through checkpoints in order to be arrested. But the most common charge brought against Palestinian children is stone- throwing–often at the concrete mass of the separation wall–an offense punishable by up to twenty years’ imprisonment under Israeli Military Order 378, one of 1,500-plus orders that have dictated Palestinian life under occupation for more than four decades.
In 95 percent of the 700 annual child cases, convictions result from false or improperly obtained confessions, including many that are wrung out of unaccompanied children through coercive interrogation methods or even torture. According to a recent report by Defense for Children International (DCI), “The ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities is widespread, systematic and institutionalised.” During interrogation children as young as 12 are often subject to solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and painful shackling for long periods of time. One boy was told, “I will shoot you in the head if you don’t confess and stick your head in a bucket full of water until you choke and die.” Another yielded after a knife was held to his neck. One 15-year-old, after being shot and arrested, was deceived into signing a confession written in Hebrew while still in the hospital, after officers convinced him it was an approval form for his operation.