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Palestinian boy is free from jail, but not from nightmares

By Gideon Levy and Alex Levac

[9 April 2015] - This teenager needs psychological therapy. He stares at the floor, grimaces when asked to relate what happened to him a few months ago, and doesn’t sleep at night. His parents are aware of his situation. But there’s no one to help him, much less pay for any sort of therapy. Apart from one visit by members of Doctors Without Borders, no one has diagnosed or treated him.

These days, 16-year-old Hamzeh Abu Hashem spends most of his time at home, silent, eyes fixed on the floor. Occasionally he gazes through a window at the street; sometimes he goes to his brother’s small store, down the street, to help out.
His older brother, Mohammed, 19, is still in an Israeli prison. Qusay, his 13-year-old sibling – who is apparently wanted by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service on suspicion of throwing a Molotov cocktail – hides out at night with relatives to avoid arrest.
Hamzeh, terrified that soldiers will come back to his house in the dead of night, as they have more than once in the past, and still shaken by the barking of stray dogs, is waiting for better times.
When will you go back to leading a regular life, we asked him this week. “God knows,” he replied indifferently.
IDF soldiers sicced dogs on Hamzeh last December. Two months later, the ultranationalist former MK Michael Ben Ari posted a video clip documenting the event on his Facebook page, writing, “The soldiers taught the little terrorist a lesson.” His purpose in posting the clip, he explained, was to ensure “that every dinky terrorist who plans to harm our soldiers will learn that there’s a price [to be paid].”
Soldiers from the Oketz canine unit were seen in the clip taunting the petrified boy as one of their dogs sank its teeth into him and held him in a vice-like grip. “Who’s a chicken, who’s a chicken, you son of a bitch,” they yelled at the teen, urging the dogs on.
The video generated a furor. The IDF, admitting that what had happened was a “serious incident,” suspended the use of dogs to neutralize stone-throwing children, at least temporarily. But no one thought to free the victim of the attack after what he’d gone through. Hamzeh remained in prison. His parents were not allowed to visit him even once. Their only contact with him was in the form of hurried encounters from a distance in the courtroom, once when the boy was brought to have his remand extended, and then at his trial on a charge of throwing stones at soldiers.
We visited the family a month ago (“A soldier’s best friend, a Palestinian’s worst nightmare,” Mar. 13). Last week, after an incarceration of three months and one week, Hamzeh was allowed to return. A convoy of cars, horns blaring, escorted him from Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, to his home in Beit Umar, north of Hebron. His release was marked with a celebration attended by family and many of the townsfolk.
This week, the celebrations over, we found a shaken and broken boy. Withdrawn and taciturn, he could barely bring himself to answer questions. His expression became anguished when asked to talk about the incident with the dogs. All he wanted, it seemed, was for this new nightmare, too, to end: that is, for us to leave and let him be.
Hamzeh said that after he’d been mangled by the dogs, the soldiers knocked him to the ground and hit him on the head with rifle butts. His mother shows us a scar on his head. He was then handcuffed and given first aid in a military ambulance that brought him to the nearby settlement of Karmei Tzur. He remembers that the soldiers demonstratively hugged and petted one of the attack dogs.
From there he was taken to Hadassah University Hospital in Ein Karem, where he was hospitalized for three days. His hands were bound to the bed day and night, and he was guarded by six soldiers.
The medical personnel wanted to let him at least speak to his parents by phone, he says now, but the soldiers refused to allow him even one call. For his parents to visit him in the hospital was out of the question, of course. Security considerations.
He was then taken to Ofer Prison. After being incarcerated with 10 others in a single cell in the prison’s juvenile section, he now seems deeply agitated. The wounds inflicted by the dogs have healed and scarred. At his parents’ request, though with manifest unwillingness, he removes his shirt and shows the scars: along his left shoulder, in the front and back, below his underarm, also along his right leg, where the dogs sank their fangs in or clawed him. It’s hard for him to lift and use his left arm. Still, his mental scars are apparently more serious. His parents, Hamda and Ahmed, sit next to him.
How do you feel, Hamzeh?
“I don’t sleep.”
Did your friends come to visit?
“No. They are in jail.”
Four of his friends are in prison, it turns out.
What was hardest in prison?
“Everything is hard in prison.”
Apparently Hamzeh has taken to wrapping himself in four or five layers of clothing, as if to protect himself still against the cold he experienced in prison. Watchdogs patrolled along the prison perimeter. At night they barked, he says; his fear prevented him from getting a wink of sleep. The IDF’s dogs continue to haunt him in his nightmares.
After Hamzeh was discharged from hospital, the “dinky terrorist” was interrogated by the Shin Bet. He was asked about other stone throwers, and about his brothers and his family.
It’s hard to get more details from him. He explains that he was required to sign a confession stating that he threw stones that hit soldiers. But this week back at home, he said he didn’t throw any.
Be that as it may, it was only three weeks after he was wounded and arrested that his parents were allowed to visit him.
Their home has had its share of arrests. In 2012, the father and three of his sons were detained by the Israeli forces. This was Hamzeh’s third fourth jail sentence for throwing stones – the previous ones were shorter. In court, he had a momentary meeting with his brother Mohammed, who, a few weeks earlier, had been sentenced to 14 months in prison.
Another brother, Yusuf, now enters the living room; he was released from prison five months ago.
On previous occasions, to get Hamzeh released, his father – who operates an illegal taxi – had to pay thousands of shekels in fines or as bail. This time, he says with a smile, he didn’t have to.
A few days ago, someone from the prison called and told the family that the army and the Shin Bet want Qusay. Everyone is waiting for another brutal arrest.
Hamzeh now has a new form in his wallet, folded up next to his green ID card: “Confirmation that you were a prisoner.” He carries it with him at all times.