There's no feeling of safety

The effects of youth detention in Palestine and Israel

It was around 2 a.m. when Israeli soldiers arrived to arrest 15-year-old Jarrah Masalmeh. He was outside with his dad watching TV after returning home from visiting friends. He didn’t get a chance to sit down.

His father, Walid, hid Jarrah behind his back. “I put a jacket on him and I begged them not to hit him,” Walid says. The soldiers agreed, and took Jarrah away. But once they got farther down the road, Walid heard his son screaming.

“They tied my hands behind me, and put my head in the sand,” says Jarrah. “[The soldier] put his foot on my head. They put something on my head and tightened the handcuffs on my wrists.”

Back at the house, Walid desperately wanted to make it stop. “The neighbours held me back. I didn’t know what to do to help my son. I was hearing him screaming and I could not reach him. I was going out of my mind,” he says. 

When Walid was a young man, he was shot in the stomach and doctors said if he lived he would never have children. “Jarrah’s birth was the most joyful moment of my life,” he says. “I was the happiest dad on the whole earth.” Walid took his young son everywhere with him. He says Jarrah was a social child, and all the neighbours loved playing with him.

Then he watched his son get arrested. The family was not allowed to communicate with Jarrah while he was interrogated. It was five days after his arrest when a lawyer told the family where he was detained. Ten days later the family attended court during the trial but they couldn’t speak to Jarrah. Walid says this was one of the worst experiences in his life. “I never had tears in my eyes except for in court,” he says. “I was looking at my son, my son was looking back at me and when Jarrah saw I was crying, he started crying as well.”

Eventually Jarrah was convicted of throwing stones, the most common conviction for Palestinian youth1, and sentenced to nine months in military detention. Throwing stones is a common act of resistance among Palestinian youth that became symbolic after the first intifada from 1987–1991. Jarrah maintains he has never thrown stones at soldiers and was only nearby watching as others hurled the rocks.

Children locked up

VIDEO: Jarrah Masalmeh and his father tell the story of when Jarrah was arrested and detained by the Israeli army.
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A common experience

Walid himself is no stranger to being detained by Israeli police. He’s been arrested from his home and put in prison twice. The first time he was taken it happened at midnight in winter, he was left outside a military watch tower overnight, then moved to a detention centre in the morning. He was charged with throwing Molotov cocktails and put in prison for 14 months. The second time, like Jarrah, he was charged with throwing stones and sentenced to six months. But he never thought his son would receive such a long sentence. “I was shocked in court when I heard nine months. I told them: I will pay whatever you ask for, but let him go home with me,” he says. 

Arrests and detention of Palestinians under the age of 18 are common. In 2016, there were nearly 400 youth in Israeli prisons2, some only 12 years old. Many other younger children are arrested for a few hours at a time before being released.

The legal system looks very different for youth depending whether they’re Palestinian or Israeli. Palestinian youth are taken to military court, while Israeli teens go to the more transparent civilian courts. Israel is the only country in the world where children under 18 are automatically taken to military court.3

For Palestinians, the rate of conviction is 99 per cent.4 For Israelis, it’s only eight per cent.5 (Learn more about youth detention and the court system).

More than half the arrests of Palestinian youth, like Jarrah, take place in the family home in the middle of the night, causing trauma to the person arrested and the rest of the family. The home no longer feels safe. Walid says soldiers have visited the family more often since Jarrah was arrested. “For me it’s becoming a routine,” he says. “But for my children, they are still afraid and they cry every time the soldiers come.”

Jarrah Mesalmeh’s father, Walid, and his sons Yousef and Issa.MCC photo/Meghan Mast

In prison at 15

Jarrah was held in a prison far away from home, a journey that would have taken his family five hours to make. So he heard news of home from other young men who came into prison after him. For his family, life at home grew quiet. “[When Jarrah was arrested] it was as if someone was dead,” says Walid. “Everything was different in the house. We didn’t enjoy eating. You never heard laughing.”

At first Jarrah was interrogated in efforts to have him confess. According to a 2013 report from UNICEF on child detention in Israel, “interrogation mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess. Children are restrained during the interrogation, in some cases to the chair they are sitting on.” Some, says UNICEF, are also threatened with solitary confinement, physical or sexual violence against themselves or their family members.6

Jarrah Mesalmeh in the barbershop he runs below his family home. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

“I was only 15 and I could not bear that,” says Jarrah. “I think it will be easier for someone who’s 25 years old, but not a boy like me.”

He was far from the only child in prison. He shared a cell with boys as young as 12 or 13. Sometimes it was so crowded they slept on the floor. One young boy would get up in the morning and say “Good morning, dad” to another older prisoner he didn’t know. 

They can't imagine a hopeful future

When Jarrah talks about his experience, he seems calm. But watching more closely, it’s clear he holds his jaw tight when talking. His body is very still. He refrains from giving too much detail or getting too emotional. “His body is telling much more than he is verbalizing about the experience,” says Snežana Andjelic, an MCC representative for Palestine and Israel, as well as a psychotherapist specializing in childhood trauma.

That’s how trauma works for many people when they haven’t fully processed the experience. They learn to resume their normal life, just a smaller version of it. They’ll leave the house, but they won’t go as far. “We get satisfied with people who are socially functioning, says Andjelic. “It means they are polite, they do their job … but these people are screaming in pain inside.”

While interrogation and imprisonment can be traumatic for anyone, it’s different for children, says Andjelic. Adults have more capacity to process what’s happening and enough life experience to imagine an end to the situation. Forming those pictures of a future where you’re not detained or tortured, even if that picture is unrealistic, helps people come through traumatic experiences.

Youth like Jarrah, however, aren’t able to picture a brighter future, and living their whole lives under occupation means they have enough information to imagine a darker one. “Youth will mostly rely on the stories they heard from their neighbourhoods,” says Andjelic. “Those stories could be very scary because they are experiences where people were in jail for 15 years, for 20 years. What they have in their heads is very scary and they are old enough to understand that.”

Without someone to help process the experience while they’re living it, youth can freeze. They learn to keep the trauma inside of them, internalizing the fear and helplessness that arrest and detention can bring. (Learn more about the effects of trauma in a Q&A with MCC representative and trauma therapist Snežana Andjelic.

The effects remain

Jarrah says the day he was released from prison was the happiest day of his life. His father was there waiting for him, and the reunion brought Walid to tears again. “By the time he reached me, my t-shirt was full of tears. Then he hugged me and we hugged for half an hour,” Walid says. “When my wife was pregnant with Jarrah, I couldn’t wait to see him. This experience was even more.” 

Jarrah Mesalmeh, with his family, from left to right Walid, Yousef, Rawa’a, Issa, Hana’a and Rahma. MCC photo/Meghan Mast

But after his homecoming, Jarrah wasn’t the same young man. He was afraid to leave the house. He couldn’t sleep, and when he did, he was plagued by nightmares. He didn’t feel he could talk to his family about what had happened. He even maintained some of the routines of prison, reciting his identification number each morning when he woke up.

After working for a year with a counsellor from an MCC partner, the East Jerusalem YMCA, Jarrah has resumed much of his life. He’s taken vocational training and is running a barbershop just below his family’s home. At 18, he’s the primary breadwinner.

Still, pieces of the trauma remain. He’s able to leave the house, but doesn’t go far.  “Some people feel safe to go anywhere, to travel, but for me I don’t feel safe to even go out into the street.”

Learning to live with that fear is the final step in recovering from trauma, says Andjelic. Accepting that trauma could happen again, but recognizing that, if it does, you will survive and end up stronger. It’s not enough to learn how to live a normal life again just on the surface. “As long as they are in pain, they should scream,” she says. “What do we do when we are in pain? We cry, we scream, we ask people for help. So they should have freedom to do that until we all put enough healing touches on their wound and the wound is healed.”


1. Defence for Children International, Palestine
2. B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
3. Defence for Children International, Palestine
4. Haaretz
5. Yesh-Din


Jarrah's story is part of an MCC campaign called A Cry for Home. Learn more about the campaign and see how you can get involved. 

Read more stories from the A Cry for Home campaign 

View A Cry for Home fact sheets