A call last week by a group of UN human rights experts urging the Israeli government to release Ahmad Manasra, a 20-year-old Palestinian who has been languishing in Israeli prisons since he was 14, brought to light that within the broader picture of the harshness and cruelty of Israel’s occupation and blockade of Palestinian lands and people, there are elements that are even darker and crueller.
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child means every human being under the age of 18. However, this might challenge the justice systems in many countries regarding the age at which criminal responsibility should be set. Moreover, the UN body working for children in danger, UNICEF, rightly argues that “youth justice processes and practices should never operate to undermine children’s rights, but should always seek to empower and uphold them.” Arresting and applying criminal law to Palestinian children as young as 12, and detaining them at times with adults, is a travesty.
For those who suffe6r from life under occupation, resisting it is a badge of honor, mostly through legitimate forms of p-67rotest, but sadly also at times by acts of militancy against civilians, as was the case with Manasra.
In this tragic environment, rights and wrongs are seen very differently and get muddled. Nevertheless, when children commit an act of violence, this should still be treated with due regard to the cognitive development of a child, not an adult.
All cases of the detention of minors are a cause of deep worry, but Manasra’s is particularly disturbing as he has been detained for a long time and suffers from serious mental health issues. As the UN experts said in their press release: “Ahmad’s imprisonment for almost six years has deprived him of childhood, family environment, protection and all the rights he should have been guaranteed as a child.”
In 2015, Israeli security forces arrested 13-year-old Manasra and his 15-year-old cousin Hassan Khalid Manasra in relation to the stabbing of two Israeli citizens in the Israeli settlement of Pisgat Ze’eve in East Jerusalem.
Asking for compassion to be shown to the younger cousin might be misconstrued as an expression of approval of the stabbing of innocent people, especially in this case where one of the victims was a 13-year-old Israeli riding his bicycle. Yet, the details of the case are important in order to understand why keeping Manasra in jail is inhuman and a perversion of justice. His age when he was involved in the attack, the crime for which he was sentenced, and his mental state are obvious reasons for leniency, but so also is the fact that it was his cousin who carried out the stabbings before being shot dead by police.
Moreover, before police arrived on the scene the young Manasra was hit by a car, and then viciously assaulted and almost killed by a group of Israelis. In the aftermath of his arrest, according to some videos circulating online, he was ill-treated during his police interrogation, not to mention that the interview was conducted without the presence of a lawyer or any support from family members or social workers.
Amnesty International reports that Manasra has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and is suffering from psychotic delusions and severe depression with suicidal thoughts; hence, jail is no place for him. Spending his teenage years, and now his early adulthood, behind bars and at times in solitary confinement can only exacerbate his problems.
Many in Israel would hasten to dismiss these arguments, claiming that he should not have been involved in terrorism in the first place and, hence, deserves his 12-year sentence, which was later reduced to nine-and-a-half years on appeal.
Yes, we would all love to see children of his age go to school, fulfill their potential, and enjoy a happy life with family and friends on their way to adulthood, like any other teenager in a normal country. But nothing about life in the West Bank and Gaza is normal, especially for children who see family members and friends killed, maimed and detained by the forces of the occupation.
No one in their right mind would like to see or would endorse children getting involved in violence or becoming easy targets for extremist indoctrination, and ending up dead, badly injured or detained. Nevertheless, the manner in which Manasra is being treated is fueled by a desire for revenge and shows not the slightest degree of compassion for an individual who is clearly unwell.
At any given time there are between 150 and 200 Palestinian children held by Israel in detention centers and prisons. Most of the detainees have not been convicted of any wrongdoing, but are being held in pre-trial detention. Figures suggest that since 2015 more than 9,000 children, some under 10 years of age, have been detained. In other words, they have already been punished, in what must be a terrifying experience of being arrested by heavily armed soldiers, handcuffed and blindfolded, then put in the back of a van, before being thrown into a detention center.
Israel might believe that this kind of treatment punishes and deters those detained and others who might contemplate joining the resistance, but this is clearly not the case: It only fuels anger and hatred.
Nothing about life in the West Bank and Gaza is normal, especially for children who see family members and friends killed.
Calling for Manasra’s release is not to belittle the pain and hurt caused to the victims of the attack in which he took part, even if he was the lesser culprit. It is about showing humanity, compassion and forgiveness despite his erring as a child, especially one who was subjected to the brutality of passers-by in the aftermath of the stabbing, as well as by those in charge of law and order.
Not only has he already been punished, first illegally by a mob, then by harsh interrogation and years in jail, but even if he were to be released today, his road to recovery and any semblance of normal life would be long and arduous.
Releasing Manasra would indicate the strength of Israel’s society, not its weakness. There must surely be someone in a position of authority who understands this, and is sufficiently wise and compassionate to do the right thing.
- Yossi Mekelberg-