Girl, interrupted – but free from Israeli prison

After almost 2 months in jail, Malak al-Khatib, 14, the youngest female Palestinian prisoner ever, has been released. She denies all charges against her.

Did you throw stones at the road? “Not true.” Were you wearing a mask? “A lie.” Did you throw a knife on the ground? “A lie.” And then, “Maybe they thought my pen was a knife and my notebook was a stone.” Did you try to run from the police? “I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t run.”

Malak al-Khatib, the 14-year-old girl about whom we wrote last week, the youngest female Palestinian prisoner ever, is back home. Sentenced to two months in an Israeli prison for throwing stones and being in possession of a knife, the eighth-grade schoolgirl from the West Bank village of Beitin was released last Friday, after her sentence was reduced by two weeks.

Her father, Ali Yusuf al-Khatib, had to pay a fine of 6,000 shekels (almost $1,500) to obtain her freedom. He also vowed that on the day of Malak’s release he would shave off his beard. This week we met him – he’s now clean-shaven – on the same closed balcony of his home where we spoke to him a week earlier. Malak, the family’s youngest child, was sitting by his side. The lone bird in the cage hanging from the wall now had a companion; both birds chirped merrily.

Malak is prettier, softer-looking and more charming than the girl on the posters that called for her release. Those posters have now been replaced by new ones welcoming her back.

The house was packed with well-wishers. While we were there, all the girls from Malak’s class arrived, with their teacher. Malak wanted most of all to be with them, instead of sitting with us and answering questions.

She has a dimple, a few small pimples and a winning smile that she flashes only rarely. She seems to possess self-confidence – she asked her father not to smoke next to her – but doesn’t resemble the person in the description rendered by the judge in the Israel Defense Forces’ military appeals court, Lt. Col. Ronen Atzmon.

Atzmon had written, like some expert on child development specializing in adolescence, “The sum total of the circumstances I described above create a picture of a young but independent girl, to the point of rebelliousness. She does not obey the authority of the adults around her – neither her parents nor the school principal nor her lawyer. Her behavior during the interrogation and in court also suggests exaggerated self-confidence, stubbornness and aggressiveness.”

Exaggerated self-confidence? At what point, exactly, does self-confidence displayed by an incarcerated 14-year-old girl become exaggerated? When she doesn’t break down or kowtow to her interrogators and judges? The Military Advocate General’s unit posted these comments by Judge Atzmon, along with many other quotes, on its Internet homepage. Under the headline “The military handling of the matter of Malak al-Khatib,” the army prosecution tried to respond at length to the allegations that were raised, in Israel and mainly abroad, against the military justice system in Israel for trying and jailing a 14-year-old girl.

But the serious questions remained unanswered. In addition to the fact that a girl of her age was thrown into prison, Malak was questioned without the presence of either her parents or her lawyer – even though that is obligatory under such circumstances for Israeli children – and she was compelled, she says, to sign documents in Hebrew whose content she did not understand. In fact, she signed a confession, on the basis of which she was convicted and sentenced to two months in prison in a plea bargain.

Her lawyer, Juad Bulus, explained to us last week that he agreed to the plea bargain after Malak was ordered to remain in custody until the conclusion of the proceedings against her, and it was clear to him that every legal move would take longer than the two-month period of her sentence. The MAG’s unit says everything was done according to the law and cites the judges’ remarks as proof.

A keffiyeh draped over her shoulders, her smooth hair pulled back and uncovered, Malak relates that when she left school after an English test on that fateful Wednesday, the last day of 2014, she went for a walk along Highway 60, as she sometimes does after school, especially after exams. (Her father also told us last week about her love of hiking in nature.)

She denies throwing stones at the road, denies that she was masked – as the police officers who arrested her claimed – denies that she tried to run away from them, and denies that she threw a knife on the ground as she was running, as the statement by the Samaria and Judea District police alleged.

According to Malak, four policemen got out of a van as it passed by, seized her, bound her and put her into the vehicle. They took her to the Binyamin station, where she was interrogated for about two hours. Only afterward was she allowed to meet with her parents, and that for a few minutes – as her father told us last week. She denies the claim by the police that she was given the opportunity to consult with a lawyer by phone before the interrogation, but refused.

At the end of the interrogation, she says, she was presented with papers written in Hebrew to sign, but declined to sign them because she didn’t understand what they said. The interrogator, Malak says, told her that if she didn’t sign she would not be able to return to her family. Thus, when she was finally allowed to see her parents, after signing the papers, she was convinced she was about to be released. Shortly afterward, however, she was taken to Hasharon Prison, near Netanya. As she tells her story, she holds her father’s hand.

Malak was incarcerated in a cell that also held three other young Palestinian women, all of them older than she. Prison-savvy, they instructed her about the procedures and warned her about the female guards, whom they said were aggressive and raucous. She should try to keep her distance and avoid confrontations with them. She was cold at night, Malak explains, with only one blanket, and the food was meager and tasteless. But hardest of all were the days when she was taken to court.

She would be taken from the prison in the middle of the night and returned late the following evening; for most of that time her hands and feet were bound. A bandage on her ankle covers a still unhealed sore caused by being shackled for lengthy periods. Malak was taken to court six times during her detention, until her conviction on January 21. Her only occupation in prison involved doing handicrafts with beads, which were supplied by the International Red Cross.

But nothing could relieve the distress Malak felt at being cut off from her family: That was the hardest part of her ordeal. Still, she did not cry even once in prison. “My place is at home, in school, not in jail,” she told herself over and over.

Last Friday morning, she was told to gather her belongings, as she was about to be freed. She was released at about 10:30 at the Jabara checkpoint, near Tul Karm, where she was greeted by her parents, her brothers and a large crowd, including the Palestinian minister for prisoners, the governor of Tul Karm and other officials. For a brief moment the girl had become a symbol. “I returned to my family,” she says laconically.

She’s still not sleeping well, she tells us, because she is constantly thinking about the fate of those who remained behind in prison. “They need my thoughts,” says Malak, who told us she wants to study law when she grows up.

Have you changed because of what you experienced, we asked. “In prison I saw the truth about the occupation,” she replies. “I understood that the occupation is more aggressive than I thought. But this arrest also made me stronger.”

Now she really is dying to go upstairs, to the neighbors’ apartment, where her classmates are waiting for her. She hasn’t seen them for two months.

Malak enters the room as a heroine, shaking hands with all the girls, kissing and hugging them, as her mother hands out candies.

Malak is now malkat hakita – queen of her class. The littlest girl prisoner has come home.