A year after his arrest and detention by the Israeli military in Bethlehem, Hamza, a 17-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank, is seeing a social worker to try and overcome the trauma he suffered in a small cell with 10 other people.
"They blindfolded me, tied my arms together and took me away to prison in an army jeep. We were 10 people in a small cell, and they kept asking me why I threw stones a few times every day," he told IRIN, as he waited for the social worker at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) office in Beit Sahour.
When Hamza was detained about a year ago, he was 16. "There were settlers outside our school and then clashes broke out. I threw stones and got caught," he said. "During four and a half months in detention, I was not allowed to see my family once. When I got out of prison, I just didn’t know where to begin," he added.
For many child ex-detainees, the months-long imprisonment away from friends and family is a rather traumatic experience, according to the YMCA, which has been running a post-trauma rehabilitation programme for ex-detainee children, since May 2009, supported by Save the Children Sweden and the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department (ECHO).
Each year 500-700 Palestinian children from the West Bank aged 12-17 are detained and prosecuted in Israeli military courts, mostly on charges related to throwing stones. "These children go through a very painful time. They are often deprived of sleep, humiliated and forced to confess that they did something wrong," Nader Abu Amsha, director of the rehabilitation programme in Beit Sahour, told IRIN.
Amsha’s assessment is supported by a new report released by the group, Defense for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-Palestine), which points to widespread ill-treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli military detention, thereby reinforcing past concerns over torture and ill-treatment.
"Most children undergo coercive interrogation, mixing verbal abuse, threats and physical violence, generally resulting in a confession," DCI said in the report, entitled Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted: Children held in military detention.
Based on 311 testimonies of children ex-detainees, DCI-Palestine found that 75 percent of them complained about physical violence. Of the 311 children interviewed, 116 were aged 14-15 at the time of detention, while most of the 75 percent were 16-17.
"As stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the detention of children should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time," said Jean Gough, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) special representative in the occupied Palestinian territory.
The Israeli army rejects such criticism and points to the dangers emanating from Palestinian stone-throwers.
"One thing is clear: Many of these stone-throwers are not aware of the danger they pose. In some cases, stones actually killed people," Israeli Army spokesperson Arye Sharuz Shalicar told IRIN, referring to the death of an Israeli man and his one-year-old child last year in a road accident, which according to Israeli police investigations was caused by a stone thrown at the car close to the Israeli settlement Kiryat Arba, near Hebron.
"But not all of those teenagers are just stone-throwers. Some of them are also accused for more serious crimes," Shalicar added, without specifying the crimes.
YMCA officials say when the children are finally released after months-long detention, they often face serious obstacles on their way back to normal life. Psycho-social rehabilitation programmes provide some answers and help children ex-detainees to overcome the fearful experience gained during detention.
"After their release, the children often don’t go to school or work. You find them sleeping all day, left without energy," Amsha said.
The 17-year-old Palestinian Hamsa had a similar experience after his release. "I was so frustrated about what happened. I didn’t want to eat and had no motivation to leave the house," he said. "I felt angry and tired at the same time."
Every year an average of 350 children receive psycho-social support by the YMCA’s rehabilitation programme, Amsha said. The project is implemented in 11 areas in the West Bank, combining psychological counselling with vocational support and structured ventilation activities, in which the participants are meant to release stress and anxiety through guided interaction with other ex-detainees and counsellors.
"One part of our programme is helping the teenagers to find a job. Supported by our counselling, they find out what kind of work they are interested in," Amsha said.
Part of the vocational training is to show the ex-detainees where their physical and mental abilities are, Amsha said, adding that once this step is done, the YMCA usually connects them to specific employers and industries.
"When I got out of prison, I just didn’t know where to begin. With the help of the counselling sessions, I got back on track and started to work as an electrician," Muath, a 19-year-old Palestinian previously detained by Israeli security forces for eight months at the age of 17, told IRIN.
At the core of the YMCA’s rehabilitation programme lies psychotherapy, aimed at alleviating ex-detainee children’s traumas. "Many have post-traumatic stress disorders and suffer from recurring nightmares. All of these symptoms have to be dealt with," Abu Amsha said.
After their release from detention, the teenagers often feel much more mature than they actually are, Amsha said, adding that this would cause frequent tensions within their families, who tend to overprotect newly released children.
"Some of the children talk about themselves as if they were heroes from a movie, without realizing or admitting how much the whole experience actually affects them," he added.