Life in limbo for Palestinian teens under house arrest

Israel’s house detention system sees family life upturned and schooling disrupted when children are arrested for protesting

The road leading from Jerusalem toward the West Bank is a bleak landscape. Running along the base of the stark gray separation barrier, it edges a scrubby wasteland that stretches toward Qalandia checkpoint, scattered with small businesses, used car dealerships and scrap metal depots.

For more than two months, one of those dealerships has been home to Mohammed Suyuri. For much of his time, the 16-year-old has been confined there for 24 hours a day, unable to venture beyond the chainlink fence that encircles the parking lot and with little more than a television and a trickle of customers to keep him occupied.

Trapped in this semi-industrial no-mans land has made Suyuri – a normal teenager from East Jerusalem – frustrated, confused, angry, and perhaps most of all, bored.

Accused of throwing stones near his home in Ras al-Amud, near the Old City of Jerusalem, Mohammed was placed under house arrest in December. He’s already been through a perplexing series of court appearances, imprisonments and referrals. Like most children in his position, the registered address for his detention can’t be his family home: as a result, it was his father’s office – a chilly caravan in the corner of the car dealership -that became his home and prison.

“I don’t go anywhere, I’m stuck in one place,” Mohammed told Middle East Eye. Round-faced and dressed in grey sports clothes, he’s as restless and cautious as any other 16-year-old. “I help my dad around the place, I work, I study. At night I just try to go to sleep.”

Toward the end of January, things improved for Mohammed when a court hearing deemed he would be able to go to school, a right he had previously been denied. The conditions demanded by the court, however, were harsh: it was demanded that his father drive him to and from the building, and the family had to pay $2500 in bail on top of the $750 they’ve already had to put forward for court costs and fines.

The teenager is happier to be living with some semblance of a normal life, but things are still stressful. Catching up with the work he’s missed has been hard: his family say he always did well in school but after two months out of the classroom Mohammed felt like he was lagging far behind the other students.

“The only person that’s allowed to take him anywhere is me,” Mohammed’s father told MEE. “He’s allowed to go to school and back, but for him to go anywhere else but the dealership is forbidden. That’s it. I’m here with him the whole time: I have to wake him up and take him to school every day.

“It’s way more stressful than should be necessary,” he continued. “They’ve ruined my son’s life and he’s done nothing wrong.”

Mohammed is one of hundreds of children to have been given house arrest sentences in East Jerusalem in recent months. According to Palestinian prisoner rights organisation Addameer, child house arrests spiked in the city over the summer, thanks at least in part to a broad crackdown on Palestinian residents that saw hundreds of arrests and detentions. Hundreds of Palestinians were arrested in Jerusalem in the second half of 2014 alone, and last month 77 Palestinian Jerusalemites, including 33 children, were detained.

But while there appears to have been an increase in the number of cases, precise figures when it comes to child house arrests are difficult to find. Often, children are confined to the home for short periods of time, while they’re waiting for details of their charges or court case to be tied up, for example, and details of the house arrest are lost in documentation.

Randa Wahbe, an advocacy officer at Addameer who deals with house arrest cases, is working with other organisations to coordinate monitoring of house arrests and collate conclusive figures. While alternatives to imprisonment in jails are sometimes lauded as more humane measures when it comes to young people, Wahbe believes it’s just a different tool of occupation.

“There are so many intricacies in this, in how it works and its psychological effects. So we don’t say that house arrest is a ‘better’ way – it’s different, with different effects and complexities,” she explains.

“When a child is in prison, the role of the police is clear – they’re the ones keeping the child incarcerated. They’re the ones controlling the child. But with house arrest, the parents have to do that. The parents or guardians become the jailers, and that causes animosity within the family,” she continues. “The terms often state that the child should be kept under house arrest in another neighbourhood. This means parents have to make some arrangements for the child’s stay. It can mean financial difficulties for the parent too.”

For Mohammed and his father, the particular difficulties of this form of arrest have been very keenly felt. They laugh when they say they’ve been spending a lot of time together over the past few months, but their circumstances are stressful at the least. Mohammed has been sleeping in a small bedroom, not bigger than two square metres, to the back of the dealership’s office, with his father on a sofa used in the day for customers. When his son is not at school, it is the guardian’s responsibility for overseeing his whereabouts at all times.

And after months of being isolated from society, small gestures of support don’t appear to go very far for Mohammed. And as time goes by, his isolation only seems to increase. “My friends know I’m depressed and they come here sometimes, but they know they can’t do much,” he explained. “I miss seeing my family like I would normally. They just come here to the shop to see me a few times a week. It’s hard.”

For the family, too, the tension of having one member confined is profound. Last month, Mohammed’s father told MEE, they wanted to plan a trip to Jaffa by the sea for a picnic and fish barbecue – a chance to spend time as a family. “My daughter wanted to go very badly and started crying. But I didn’t feel like we could go and enjoy our time without my son,” he explained. “Every time we want to go out and do something as a family we don’t feel we can because of this situation. It’s getting to the point that Mohammed feels like it’s his fault, like he’s causing problems for the family, when of course that’s not the case.”

Like every case of house arrest, this one is unique – a particular combination of obstacles and ambiguities that only amplify the stress for the families involved. Since Mohammed was arrested in November he’s been imprisoned, interrogated and transferred through a seemingly endless series of police cells and court appearances that left his family feeling lost and desperate.

Today, the family feel that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Mohammed has a court hearing scheduled for the middle of this month, and his father is hopeful about the potential outcome.

But the experience has been a shock, and often the end of detention is not the end of the story for children like Mohammed. When children return to normal life after being undergoing detention of any kind, Wahbe says, they often experience problems settling back into their old life. Support from authorities after detention is almost non-existent: behind at school academically and socially and often suffering from post-traumatic stress following the abuse of interrogation, detained children are significantly more likely to drop out of education altogether.

“We felt like we were in hell. I closed my shop. Every day, morning to evening, I was in the courthouse,” Mohammed’s father told MEE. “I felt like I was in a film. Never in my life did I think that Mohammed would be arrested. Never in my life did I think he’d go to jail. He’s a good kid.”