When Israel turns houses into jails

Fadi Shaludi, 14, has not left his house since November. Every day, he sees the children from his neighborhood go off to school. He especially misses playing football with his friends and walking around Jerusalem’s Old City.

Fadi is under house arrest. He fears going downstairs, let alone to the corner shop next to his home. His punishment came after he was charged with throwing stones at Israeli troops during confrontations in Silwan, the area of occupied East Jerusalem where he lives, in October.

That incident also resulted in his mother, Shifa Obeido, being put under house arrest on charges of “incitement.” She awaits a trial that will likely see her forcibly transferred from Jerusalem.

Originally from Hebron, Shifa was granted temporary residency and began a family unification process after marrying a Jerusalemite. Her residency was revoked, however, after her husband married a second time.

Without papers from the Israeli authorities, Shifa is already prepared to be transferred.

Samer Shaludi, Shifa’s 17-year-old son, was meanwhile sentenced to five months in prison, also on charges of throwing stones with his brother.

But it is the younger of the two children that Shifa worries about the most.

“He is utterly devastated,” she said. “This house arrest has completely changed him. He is nervous and angry all the time. He bangs his head against the wall in frustration. He used to have a strong and daring character, but his voice is barely audible now and he can hardly string sentences together.”

Punishments for minors

Making matters worse is a constant feeling of guilt.

“He blames himself for what has happened to me and to his brother Samer,” Shifa added. “He was very close to his brother and since his sentencing, he has frequently repeated that he doesn’t want to live anymore while his brother is in prison.”

Fadi is among dozens of Palestinian minors in Jerusalem held under indefinite house arrest as they await trial. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, said Amjad Abu Asab, spokesperson for the Jerusalem-based Committee to Support Prisoners, Former Prisoners and their Families. But he estimates that at least 60 currently face indefinite or lengthy periods of house arrest.

On no occasion yet has a minor under house arrest escaped further punishment at trial.

“Indefinite house arrest is not just a nightmare for the child but [also] for his family,” Abu Asab told The Electronic Intifada. “Harsh conditions are imposed in order to release the child to house arrest, including paying an expensive bail, banishing the child out of his neighborhood and occasionally out of Jerusalem altogether.”

This forces some families to rent apartments outside Jerusalem to meet the conditions of house arrest without knowing how long the situation will continue.

Daily raids

Apart from the strict conditions imposed on them and their families, children under house arrest face almost daily raids by Israeli police.

“The police break into our house regularly. They come after midnight to confirm that my son hasn’t violated the house arrest,” said Abir Abu Shahwan, mother of Nour Abu Shahwan, who has been under house arrest since June last year.

Abir believes that the aim of such raids is intimidation and retaliation.

“They obviously know that the child has not left and will not dare to go out, yet they choose to raid the homes when the entire family is sleeping,” she said.

“The raids and the lengthy house arrest forced on my son have destroyed him,” Abir added. “He has become aggressive and introverted. He even beats his cousins when they visit him. He can’t take this anymore.”

For his part, 16-year-old Nour complains of boredom and frustration.

“My father films weddings. I used to help [him] and I really loved photography,” Nour told The Electronic Intifada. “But now I cannot do anything: I am prevented from going to school, from helping my father, and from doing all the things that I loved. All I do is eat, sleep or use the Internet.”

Palestinian social worker Dalal Ali-Oweis believes that the impact of house arrest on children and their families have not been adequately studied.

Mothers as enforcers

“House arrests shift the battlefield from the courts and prisons to our own homes,” the social worker said. She was on her way back from a visit to her imprisoned — in an actual prison — 17-year-old son.

“They transform the house into a prison, the mother into a prison guard who ensures her son does not violate the conditions of his house arrest. This provokes endless divisions and conflicts among the one family,” she said.

Fatena Tawil’s two children, Zaid, 16, and Seif, 15, have been under house arrest since 27 June. Fatena and her husband paid 20,000 shekels ($5,000) for each in bail and now have to ensure their children do not leave the house as they await trial.

“I have been imprisoned with them for almost eight months now,” she said. “According to the bail we signed, I have to stay with them all the time, meaning that I cannot visit my parents or my married daughters. It is suffocating. I try my best to make them feel comfortable and help them cope with this situation, but I think I need a psychologist myself to cope.”

Seif and Zaid used to go to the gym every day after school and play football in Beit Hanina, another part of East Jerusalem. Despite the boredom, they say they have never thought of violating the house arrest.

“We have to resist the temptations because our parents will pay a huge amount of money if we don’t,” said Seif, who, despite eight months caged in his house, remains optimistic. He spends most of his time following the news on TV or social media.

He and his brother have also begun helping their mother with chores like cleaning and washing up.

“The only positive things that have emerged out of this terrible situation is that it has forced them to become more patient and endure hardships like adults,” Fatena said.

Zaid has a hearing scheduled for later this month.

“If I had to choose between house arrest and actual prison, I would choose the latter,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “At least in prison, you know when you’ll be out and you don’t force your entire family to suffer with you.”

Time spent under house arrest does not count toward any sentence from the court. Many children end up serving the full prison sentence imposed on them on top of house arrest.

The lesser of evils

Zaid’s preference for jail over house arrest is therefore not unusual.

Baker Oweis, son of social worker Dalal Ali-Oweis, also opted for prison over house arrest.

“Among the conditions of his release to house arrest were that he should remain in a house outside Jerusalem,” Dalal recalled.

“Not only could we not afford that, but Baker also rejected the idea of leaving Jerusalem. I also did not want to subject my other children to the trauma of seeing police break into our house to check that Baker is at home. So for us, prison the lesser of two evils,” she said.

Now held in Megiddo prison, Baker is serving six months on charges of stone-throwing.

The throwing of stones or Molotov cocktails are the most common charges that lead to children being placed under house arrest in Jerusalem.

Children under house arrest do not receive psychological counseling. The frustration remains within the family.

“Not all the families have the financial resources and the mental fortitude to deal with this for a long time,” said Dalal, lamenting the lack of social networks to support affected families.

“Imprisonment, whether in your house or in a real jail, is always difficult. But if you feel that others are supporting you, it mitigates the pain a little. You are not alone,” she added.

With the hearings of both her sons approaching, Fatena Tawil is more nervous than ever.

“It is really hard to expect a positive outcome. We cannot count on their courts to bring justice,” she said of the Israeli legal system.

“Under occupation, there is no difference between judges and jailers.”

Budour Youssef Hassan is a Palestinian writer and law graduate based in occupied Jerusalem. Blog: budourhassan.wordpress.com. Twitter: @Budour48