Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ahmad Manasra: A Childhood Lost Behind Bars

Ahmad Manasra
Ahmed Manasra (C) arrives for his sentencing hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on November 7, 2016. AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP

Dana Hourany

When an Israeli court accused Ahmad Manasra with two counts of attempted murder in 2015, he was only 14 years old.

A year earlier, Ahmad had been accompanying his cousin, Hasan Manasra, 15, who had allegedly carried out a knife assault, wounding two Israeli settlers near the illegal outpost of Pisgat Zeev in occupied East Jerusalem.

While Hasan was shot dead by Israeli police, Ahmad who had been present at the scene was attacked by an Israeli mob before being run over by a driver, resulting in a fractured skull and internal bleeding. Israeli passers-by were also seen cursing at the youngster and yelling in Hebrew, “Die, son of a whore, die!” in online footage.

Ahmad was only 13 at the time of his arrest, and while Israeli law did not hold children under the age of 14 criminally responsible, Israeli authorities revised the legislation, allowing juveniles guilty of major crimes such as murder, attempted murder, and manslaughter to be imprisoned.

Though the young boy had survived his injuries, he was sentenced to nine years behind bars. During his latest hearing on April 13, 2022, the Israeli judiciary dropped the “terrorism” charges against the now 21-year-old Manasra and by Israeli law, this allows Manasra’s lawyers to present their argument in front of a parole committee that must review the case. The detainee’s family now hope for a potential parole, though the date of the parole committee session remains unclear.

Manasra’s case is not an isolated incident. Since 2015, more than 9000 Palestinian children have been reportedly detained by Israeli forces, the majority of whom hail from occupied Jerusalem. Arbitrary and illegitimate arrests, according to humanitarian experts, are scare tactics aimed at crippling Palestinian resistance and traumatizing younger generations by generating long-term emotional and mental traumas.

Reasons behind the arrests

According to Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability program director at Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP), an NGO that offers legal advice and support for Palestinian children detainees, Israel uses two distinct judicial court systems in the same geographical area; the military system to prosecute Palestinians whereas Israeli juveniles, even those who live in illegal West Bank settlements, are treated under the civilian system. This makes Israel the only place in the world where children are prosecuted in military courts, Abu Eqtaish told Fanack.

“The civilian court is supposed to be more placid with its detention and rulings since this is where Israelis are prosecuted. But in the case of Palestinian detainees, it doesn’t matter, the police will brutalize them either way,” he said.

The director explains that Israel exports the idea of self-defense against terrorism globally to justify its abuse of the Palestinians, especially children who are arrested for stone-throwing, peaceful protesting, or for ambiguous reasons that are not disclosed even to their defense attorneys.

“These are typical oppressor tactics; they want us to feel convinced that we deserve this treatment. They aim to tame the Palestinians and relay the message that this is what happens when they [the Israelis] are challenged in any way,” Abu Eqtaish said.

He notes that the wave of juvenile arrests peaks during times of political turmoil, such as the October 2015 protests in Jerusalem. To make matters worse, he adds that Israeli police have stopped giving detailed data on child arrests, ostensibly due to a personnel shortage, limiting the organization’s ability to determine how many Palestinian children are still confronting the horrible reality of life behind bars.

Abuse tactics

According to Abu Eqtaish, all captured juveniles are imprisoned as soon as they are apprehended. As a result, during the pre-trial hearing, defense counselors are prompted to discuss plea bargains in a bid to reduce sentences. The terms of the settlements vary case by case, but it is regarded as a better alternative to a protracted judicial process in which lawyers cross-examine witnesses and hold many hearings, which could ultimately result in prolonged detentions.

Abu Eqtaish states that children are subjected to harrowing forms of abuse while in detention, including physical beatings, position abuse (standing or sitting in painful positions), blindfolding, denial of access to the toilet, verbal humiliation, and emotional blackmail by threatening to arrest other family members or have their working permits in Israel revoked.

Regardless of whether the children have a confession to make or not, Israeli forces will go to any length to extract one from them, causing irreversible damage to their education, including forcing them to miss school for extended periods of time and destroying their social skills, Abu Eqtaish said. Children report feeling isolated and unable to reintegrate with their peers if and when released.

Mental health issues

In Ahmad Manasra’s case, the young man was held in solitary confinement for a period of five months. His mental health has been clearly worsening since a year and a half ago, according to family members. In December 2021, an international specialist – a psychiatrist from Doctors Without Borders – was allowed to meet Manasra for the first time since his incarceration, and the doctor confirmed in his medical report that Manasra was suffering from schizophrenia.

“His mental health is deteriorating inside the prison. He keeps crying, he imagines things and situations that don’t exist, he mixes up his speech,” Manasra’s uncle told Al Jazeera. “I’ve been in prison and I’ve seen cases like this – we thought it was a phase that would pass – but he is only getting worse.”

Manasra’s lawyer, Khaled Zabarqa said that the young man had asked him if he was certain about the unlawfulness of suicide in Islam.

Save the Children in Occupied Palestinian Territory notes in its 2020 report, “The Impact of the Israeli Military Detention System on Palestinian Children,” that Israeli forces ignore international juvenile justice norms and continue to commit various violations against Palestinian children despite evidence provided by parents, NGOs, and the children themselves.

According to the report, more than half of the children interviewed indicated they were refused support and comfort from their relatives, while being conditioned to believe their families had abandoned them. Children said they suffer from worry, despair, behavioral changes, eating and sleeping disorders, as well as physical symptoms such as chest ache, fatigue, and lethargy, even in the aftermath of their release.

Because the bulk of the children are arrested during puberty, a sensitive period that requires nurture and care, Abu Eqtaish claims their development is stunted and many suffer visible behavioral changes that the youngsters may deny, but which their parents are quick to notice.

“Their parents tell us that after the children are released, they no longer relate to the version of themselves that existed prior to their arrest,” Abu Eqtaish added.

Manasra’s case has caused a massive social media uproar backed by a global campaign under the hashtag #FreeAhmadManasra and an online petition that has garnered more than 306,000 signatures at the time of writing. The trial date was set for June 26, but whether the young man or other juveniles, will be released any time soon remains to be seen.