The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Palestinian parents fear for their children as Israel’s far right rises

Mourners at the funeral of Palestinian Raafat Issa on Thursday in the West Bank city of Jenin. The Israeli military said Issa, 29, was shot after being caught trying to damage the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank. (Mohamad Torokman/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — Rania Elias, a Palestinian mother of four, hasn’t had time to worry about Israel’s recent election, which is likely to produce the most right-wing government in the country’s history. Instead, she has been frantically seeking updates on her son, who was detained by Israeli police last month.

After seeing her teenage child beaten by officers and hauled away while bleeding, Elias said she doesn’t see much difference between Israeli politicians.

“The situation,” she said, “is becoming worse, day after day.”

In response to a spate of Palestinian attacks that began in the spring, Israeli forces have been carrying out near-nightly raids in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel’s government says it is targeting newly formed militias. Palestinian authorities have decried the crackdown as collective punishment, and say children are increasingly caught in the dragnet.

Nearly 130 Palestinian minors were in prison on security grounds at the end of September, according to Israel Prison Service statistics. The annual total to date — including minors detained for at least several hours — is no doubt much higher. Seventy-three percent of Palestinian children in Israeli custody last year reported being subject to physical violence, an all-time high, according to Military Court Watch, a watchdog group based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

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As former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to return to power with the help of Israel’s far right, Palestinian families say that well-rehearsed warnings to their children about dealing with Israeli security forces have taken on new urgency.

Isa Kussba, 46, lives with his wife, 14-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son in the Qalandia refugee camp, near Ramallah. The camp is adjacent to Israel’s busiest military checkpoint, where thousands of West Bank day laborers cross into Israel and night raids by Israeli forces have been increasing.

Kussba tells his teenagers to be careful around Israeli soldiers, especially if stopped at a checkpoint. “I tell them, stay calm, don’t move. Because any kind of movement, and they will shoot them,” he said.

But there is little Palestinian parents can do to prepare for Israeli incursions in the middle of the night.

On Oct. 18, Elias’s youngest child, Shadi, 16, was arrested by Israeli police in an early-morning raid of their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. Plainclothes officers presented Elias and her husband, composer Suhail Khoury, with a Hebrew arrest warrant they couldn’t read, she said, then beat Shadi in his bedroom and dragged him from the house, leaving a trail of blood on the floor.

The officers didn’t tell Shadi’s parents what he was charged with or where they were taking him, Elias said. Only after six court hearings did she learn that her son was accused of being part of a group that was throwing stones at an Israeli family’s car during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot — no injuries were reported in the incident.

Shadi was indicted on charges of stone-throwing and attacking police officers based on “evidence against him,” a spokesman for the Jerusalem division of the Israeli police told The Washington Post. He did not specify what the evidence was. Elias says that her son did not throw stones, and that it was the officers who were attacking Shadi, not the other way around.

“We are traumatized from the situation, from when we saw our kid being beaten like this and felt helpless to do anything to support him or to save him,” said Elias, who directs a prominent Palestinian cultural center in Jerusalem.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, 2022 is on course to be the deadliest year for Palestinians since the United Nations began tracking fatalities in 2005. At least 28 Palestinians younger than 18 have been killed so far this year, compared with 17 in all of 2021, according to U.N. data. More than 800 minors have been injured. The United Nations voiced concerns last month that Israel is using excessive force against children.

Rights groups say Israel routinely violates international law in its treatment of Palestinian minors in detention, including by physically and verbally abusing them and failing to inform them of their rights.

“The detention and arrest of those involved in the commission of crimes is carried out in accordance with the law, while safeguarding the rights and health of the detainees,” the Israeli military told The Post.

But Palestinian parents live in fear that their children will be swept up in an Israeli raid, detained at a checkpoint or shot by Israeli forces, said Maysam Jahajha, executive director of the Child Center for Culture and Development at the Qalandia camp.

Jahajha doesn’t let her children, 5 and 8, walk to school for fear they’ll be targeted on the way. When the family visits Jerusalem, she explains to her son, who is scared of Israeli soldiers, that they must pass through checkpoints because they live under occupation, in a refugee camp that “is not our home.”

She and her husband have considered leaving the country to protect their kids.

“A mother spends her life raising her children to become a student at the university,” she said. “But in the end, in the blink of an eye, she loses them.”

After last week’s election, many Palestinian parents worry the situation will grow more volatile. Netanyahu scored a decisive victory, thanks in large part to the growing popularity of his far-right Religious Zionist allies, and one man in particular — Itamar Ben Gvir.

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Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party is the political descendant of the far-right Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset for being racist and undemocratic. Ben Gvir has been convicted multiple times for inciting hatred against Arabs and was exempted from mandatory military service as a young man after he threatened Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for trying to make peace with the Palestinians. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist three weeks later.

Now, Ben Gvir is likely to become Israel’s next public security minister, in charge of the police, prisons and security around Jerusalem religious sites, which have long been flash points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He has called for giving police and soldiers wider latitude to use live ammunition and shielding them from criminal prosecution for killing or injuring Palestinians.

“Israel is tending toward radicalism, so I expected him to win,” said Ibrahim Khalif, 53, a plumber in Ramallah with four children ages 10 to 23. “With Ben Gvir, things will get worse.”

Ben Gvir’s rise was fueled by Israeli settlers, who today, half a million strong and growing, are central to Israel’s political establishment. The fortification of the 55-year-old occupation — considered illegal by much of the international community — is critical to making Israel “the landlords of this country” again, in the words of Ben Gvir’s campaign motto.

Ayed Abu Eqtaish, accountability program director for Defense for Children International in the Palestinian territories said that, among his neighbors, there is a fear that Netanyahu’s embrace of the far right will “put the whole area on the brink of more explosions.”

Sufian Taha in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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