In a family photograph, Qais Omran is seen playing the organ at a concert. He plans to study music.
On April 18, during the night, about 200 Israeli occupation soldiers descended on the village of Burin, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, arresting 10 teenage boys.
One of them is a 17 year-old Palestinian-Cuban high school senior called Qais Bilal Muhammad Omran. Although I’d heard about the raid from the International Solidarity Movement, Qais’ name caught my attention when Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer tweeted it earlier today:
I decided to find out more. Addameer shared some more information with me, and I spoke to Qais’ Cuban mother Niurka Portocarrero, who has lived in Palestine for the past 14 years.
Qais and one of his siblings were born in Havana, where his parents met while his father was studying medicine. Qais holds a Cuban passport.
A gift for music
Qais, his mother told me, is a studious boy who has never been in trouble. He is musical and plays the organ – so well that he earns extra money performing at weddings and parties. He plans to study music after graduating from high school.
Seized in the middle of the night
Ms. Portocarrero told me that at about 2.30 AM dozens of soldiers came to the house, demanding Qais. At first, the family thought they meant an older relative, who is also called Qais. In any case, Qais Bilal Muhammad Omran wasn’t home.
“He was sleeping at his grandfather’s house,” his mother said, “He and his cousin are both studying for their high school exams, and when they study late, sometimes they sleep here and sometimes they sleep there.”
The soldiers demanded to be taken over to the grandfather’s house, and when they found Qais, they handcuffed him and took him away.
Cuffed, blindfolded, abused and threatened with guns
This is what happened next, according to an account Qais gave to Addameer’s lawyer, who visited the teen in detention:
The Israeli forces made him walk to the nearest settlement [about 2 kms] with his hands shackled, and also forced him to run. There were about 15 soldiers and another detainee from the same village walking with him. He reported that they tried to scare him multiple times by yelling at him and continuously insulting him.
They also tightened the shackles and played with their guns around him and near his head. One of the soldiers was yelling in Arabic: “Shoot, shoot”. After spending half an hour in the settlement, they transferred him to Howara in a military jeep, where they made him sit in a painful manner. They put him in a room and didn’t allow him to go to the bathroom, drink water or eat.
He was sent to interrogation in Salem. The interrogator tried to pressure him into confessing that he was throwing rocks but he denied it. In Salem, they kept him in a room with 14 other prisoners from 8am till 2pm (water, food and bathroom were not allowed). He’s now being held in Megiddo and in interrogation in Salem.
Qais’ mother says she has been told by Qais’ lawyer that her son will be taken before a military court in the next few days. “But we don’t know what he is accused of or what will happen,” she said.
We do know that what Qais is unlikely to get is justice in Israel’s military court system where arbitrary arrests and coerced confessions are the norm.
Indeed, nearly 100 percent of cases in the military courts, where prosecutors and judges are in fact officers of the Israeli occupation army, end in conviction.
Sharp increase in detention of Palestinian children
What’s extraordinary about Qais’ case is that it’s not extraordinary; it’s common. The anxiety and fear that Qais’ family feels is shared every year by hundreds of families for whom normal life, and a future for their children is made impossible by Israel’s brutal military rule.
Israeli arrests of children are sharply up, according to Defence for Children International - Palestine Section. There has been a 53 percent increase in the number of children held in military detention since December 2011, according to the organization, and March saw a 29 percent increase in the number of young children (12-15 years) being detained. As of the end of March, 207 Palestinian children were imprisoned by Israel.
“What can I say, when they take your son from the house and he hasn’t done anything wrong, and all you want is for him to suceed in life, you just feel terrible,” Ms. Portocarrero said.
I hope to stay in touch with the family to find out what happens next.