‘His childhood disappeared’: A Palestinian teen’s nightmare in Israeli detention

An Israeli military court ordered his release on medical grounds. Then the Shin Bet locked him up for another 16 months without charge.

A blond man from the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, put two bowls of sunflower seeds and pecans on the table and asked Amal Nakhleh — then an 11th-grade student — if he wanted a smoke. Nakhleh, a pale boy whose hands had turned red due to the strain from the handcuffs around his wrists, said no.

It was his fourth month in prison under administrative detention, without having stood trial or having been charged with any crime since his arrest in January 2021. His detention order was due to expire and he was waiting to be released so he could go home to Jalazone Refugee Camp, near Ramallah.

According to Nakhleh, the Shin Bet agent told him that if he wanted to be released he must promise that he would pass on information from inside the camp — to become a collaborator. “He said it to me clearly,” Nakhleh told +972 last month, after having finally been released from administrative detention after 16 months in jail without trial.

“If you refuse, I will keep you in administrative detention,” the man told him. “If you help me, I will help you and you can go home.” But Nakhleh did refuse, because “I do not want to be a collaborator,” and he was taken back to the minors’ branch at Ofer prison.

The Shin Bet and the military would subsequently extend Nakhleh’s detention three more times. Only eight months after he was arrested did they allow his parents to visit him for the first time. His father, Muammar Nakhleh, said that he couldn’t recognize his son because of his muscle growth and new beard.

“His childhood disappeared there,” his father told +972 in his office at the Palestinian news agency Wattan, which he manages, moments before his son walked into the room for the interview.

“Each time I was supposed to be released when the period of my administrative detention ended [initially after six months, then every four months], and I was already dressed up [to leave], they would renew it again,” Nakhleh said, glancing every now and then at his father who was on the phone.

‘Work with me and I will give you money’

Administrative detention is based on supposedly secret evidence, which the Shin Bet claims proves that the detainee is likely to “endanger the region.” The campaign for Nakhleh’s release attracted attention from activists around the world, both because he is a minor and because he suffers from a rare autoimmune disease called Myasthenia Gravis, which affects the muscles and can also affect breathing.

A few days before Nakhleh’s release, the blond man from the Shin Bet summoned him for another conversation. Nakhleh understood from the way the man spoke this time that he was about to be released.

“He asked what I will do when I am out, and I said I do not know,” Nakhleh recalled. “He said: ‘What was your dream when you were young?’ ‘To be a football player in Real Madrid,’ I told him.

“Then he tried to trick me,” Nakhleh continued, “and said: ‘I will show you Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema, and you’ll give me intelligence information?’ I told him that I loved them when I was a kid but I’m not a kid anymore and I do not care about them. Then he told me: ‘If you are out, I will prevent you from traveling abroad to Turkey to visit your brother. But if you collaborate, I will not.’ I told him to do whatever he wants.”

Nakhleh went on, recalling how the man from the Shin Bet had asked him if he intended to study at university. “He told me: ‘At the end of the day you will hang your degree on the wall and not earn anything from it,’ before pointing at the degree on his wall. ‘I know you do not have money. Work with me and I will give you money.’ I told him no.”

Nakhleh showed me a contact in his phone under the name Captain Saher. “This is his number,” he said. “I saved it after all the times he called my phone.” Judging from his looks and his Israeli accent, Nakhleh believes that “Saher” is an Israeli Jew. Shin Bet officials often call themselves “captain” and choose Arabic names for themselves.

Captain Saher

Nakhleh was first arrested in November 2020 at the age of 16 on suspicion of throwing stones. Captain Saher called him ahead of the arrest and summoned him for an interrogation. Nakhleh said that he went twice, but the captain was not there. When the man called him a third time, Nakhleh told him “I do not want to come. Come and get me yourself.”

A few days later, Nakhleh was arrested by soldiers who ambushed him and pulled him out of the vehicle in which he was traveling with his friends. “It was like a kidnapping,” he said. “We were on our way back from Rawabi, we were eating ice cream, and they pounced on the car out of nowhere.”

In detention, Nakhleh met the Shin Bet man for the first time. “See, I could bring you to me whenever I want,” Nakhleh remembers the man telling him.

Nakhleh was detained for 40 days. The military prosecution submitted an indictment against him over throwing stones at Israeli forces in four different incidents, but the revised indictment stated that “the defendant struck army vehicles on two occasions.” The military prosecution said later that the incident is “not traced,” meaning that the indictment is based on a confession — maybe by Nakhleh during the Shin Bet investigation, or maybe by another minor who incriminated him.

Two military judges ordered for Nakhleh to be released on bail. “The minor suffers from severe medical complications, cancer among others, and a heart condition,” one of the judges explained. “His mother is a doctor who is present in the courtroom. After hearing her speak, it is seen that in the special circumstances of this case and only due to his medical condition, it is permitted to order his release.”

The Shin Bet and the military prosecutor were not pleased with that outcome. They requested to keep Nakhleh under arrest until the conclusion of procedures, as is customary in military court, and explained that he is a danger to regional security. The prosecution threatened that if he is to be released, he will be arrested under administrative detention.

That is exactly what happened. In January 2021, soldiers broke into his home in the middle of the night — with Captain Saher alongside them. Nakhleh was taken away and placed under administrative detention.

A direct line to the refugee camp

On his Facebook page “Captain Saher – The Israeli Intelligence in East Ramallah,” the man from the Shin Bet addresses the residents of Jalazone refugee camp directly in Arabic. Facebook is full of pages like this, belonging to Shin Bet coordinators responsible for supervising different parts of the West Bank.

The profile’s cover photo is of a Muslim man and a Jewish man embracing; the profile photo shows a handshake, with his phone number underneath. The many posts on the Facebook page include photos of minors from the camp handcuffed or blindfolded, after being arrested for stone throwing or arms dealing. In one post, “Captain Saher” even uploaded screenshots of his correspondence on WhatsApp with kids from the camp.

“Lately, little kids from the camp are sending us messages begging us to come and arrest them,” he wrote. “What will come of this? Parents, stop pressuring your kids, shame on you. Later they will do something and say this is for Palestine.”

In the photos he uploaded, showing messages that kids in the camp had allegedly sent him, one kid wrote: “I want to turn myself in, if you are a man come and take me from my home.”

In his latest post, from mid May, “Captain Saher” shared a photo of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and blamed Palestinians for her killing. “I’m curious: why is Hussein al-Sheikh [the Palestinian Authority’s civil affairs minister] preventing an examination of the bullet that killed Shireen? Maybe because everyone knows how she died?” he wrote to the camp’s residents.

‘One kid leaves, ten arrive’

Nakhleh showed me a video on his phone from his reception in the refugee camp after he was released. Around him stood three masked, armed men who fired shots into the air. Someone tall was carrying Nakhleh on his shoulders, while he clapped his hands to the rhythmic music. “When I returned home I couldn’t sleep, I don’t know why,” he said.

During his first couple of months in prison, Nakhleh said he struggled with homesickness, especially because the Shin Bet refused to let his parents visit. He passed the time by working out, tying together bags of sugar and salt or water bottles to use as weights. “I gained 15 kilos in prison,” he told me. “I realized quickly that if I thought about life outside, it would be useless. I would be devastated. So I thought about what I would do in the next hour: working out, counting [in my head]. I wanted to forget life outside.”

During that period, Nakhleh was having a recurring dream about his friend Ahmad Kharoub, who soldiers shot dead in 2016 when Nakhleh was 13. In a video from the incident, 19-year-old Kharoub, who Nakhleh knew through his older brother, can be seen standing next to other young men and throwing stones at military Jeeps, which were leaving in a convoy from Kafr Aqab after a nighttime military operation.

Such a scene is relatively standard in the West Bank: groups of minors and young men throwing stones at the armored vehicles as they retreat from the village. Nakhleh was accused of a similar act, but at the end he was jailed without conviction under administrative detention, which is a separate procedure.

“I kept having the same strange dream about my friend [Kharoub],” Nakhleh recalled. “I walk into a white room, you can’t see the walls or the floor from all the whiteness. There is a door in the room which I try to open but it does not open. Then my dead friend calls me and asks where I am. I tell him: ‘Here, I am coming to you.’ Then I wake up.”

Nakhleh says there were always around 70 other minors with him in prison, most of them serving sentences of around one year for throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. “There are also those who carried out stabbings — they are given longer sentences, 10 years let’s say,” he explained. “But that is more rare; most are kids who threw stones or Molotovs.

“In my time I saw dozens of kids. The youngest was 13 from Hebron. He said that he threw stones at a settler’s car and she had an accident. One kid leaves, ten arrive. They leave, another ten arrive. This is how it was.”

A bridge to the sun

Statistics show that in the last couple of years, on average 154 Palestinian minors were being held in Israeli prisons in any given month. The children and minors change, but that number remains more or less constant. Whereas according to Israeli civil law it is forbidden to imprison a child under the age of 14, according to military law, to which Israel subjects Palestinians, children between the ages of 12 and 14 can receive a prison sentence of up to six months.

During the interview, Nakhleh showed me on his phone a report by the Israeli journalist Ohad Hemo on the Channel 12 news website, headlined “13-year-old terrorists: I do not regret stabbing.” The report documents Hemo’s visit to the minors’ branch at Ofer military prison. “So you can see where I was most of the time,” Nakhleh said.

When Nakhleh turned 18, he was transferred to the adult branch in Ofer. “But the minors’ was harder,” he said. “The prison guards are more controlling there.” The scariest part, he added, was the raids on the cells at night when the guards suspected that someone had smuggled in a phone.

“This is the bridge,” he said, pointing at a staircase in the minors’ branch in the report that we watched on his phone. The stairs lead to a few more prison cells, which overlook the yard with the prison’s red floor.

“It is rare that the sun gets into the prison,” said Nakhleh, “but here on the bridge there is a corner which sometimes gets sun from the window in the ceiling. So I used to go and sit in this corner. When I was released, they dropped me off at the checkpoint and even though it was nighttime, every time I looked at the sky my eyes hurt because I was not used to the light.”

Nakhleh studied for his final high school exams from his cell in prison; the Palestinian Authority has a different study plan for prisoners. He scored 79, and his final project was on a research book that looks at the history of administrative detention.

“It started with the British colonizers,” he said, trying to remember what he wrote. His father came back to the room and said: “Did you see what an educated child I have?”  Amal smiled.

Since his release, the Shin Bet officer has not called him again. Nakhleh is planning to study for a degree in Political Science at Birzeit University, and at the same time open a car washing business.

“It is hard for me with all the press attention that I am getting right now,” he said “I was the only minor under administrative detention for a while, and people who I don’t even know recognize me in Ramallah.”

At the end of the interview, I told Nakhleh that it was nice talking to him and he asked me where I will go afterward. “Back to Jerusalem,” I said. “How fun,” he replied. “I never got a permit to go ‘inside.’”