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Palestinian kids swept up in wave of Israeli arrests

Lawahez Jabari / NBC News

Ahmed Jawabreh, 14, was arrested in the middle of the night for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank refugee camp where he lives and wasn't released for another 18 days. His was only one of a recent wave of arrests of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities, human rights groups say.

TEL AVIV – Ahmed Jawabreh, 14, was asleep in his home in early April at the al-Arub refugee camp near Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, when Israeli soldiers came looking for him. He had been anticipating exams at school in the morning, not a knock at the door at 3:30 a.m.

Ahmed was arrested that night for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the camp earlier in the day and wasn’t released for another 18 days, when a judge ordered that a fine of $1,100 be paid and that Ahmed be placed under house arrest.

His was only one of a recent wave of arrests of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities, human rights groups say. According to Defence for Children International (DCI), an independent non-governmental organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, since the beginning of this year there has been a 17 percent increase in arrests of Palestinian children. An average of 198 children were arrested each month in 2012; that average has risen to 232 arrests during the first three months of 2013, DCI reported.  

Human rights groups say that in Hebron in particular – where Ahmed was detained – there are clear violations of international law on a daily basis, with children as young as 8 being held for violations ranging from throwing stones to being in restricted areas illegally. On March 20 alone, Israeli soldiers arrested 27 children in Hebron.

Reports of this spike in arrests come on the heels of a UNICEF study released in February which estimated around 700 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 are detained each year. Over the past decade, the report said, around “7,000 children have been detained, interrogated, prosecuted and/or imprisoned within the Israeli military justice system – an average of two children each day.”

'Prevalence of minors'
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said in a statement that there has been an increased threat to Israeli civilians and security forces recently in the form of “popular violence and rioting in Judea and Samaria [also known as the West Bank],” and that there was “a prevalence of minors taking part in such riots.”

The statement added: “It should be noted that these arrests do take place at night in order to prevent large-scale riots that would ultimately escalate the situation.”

Under Israeli military criminal law it is possible to arrest and put on trial anyone 12 years or older. Statutes in that law also state that anyone throwing stones on "a fixed target" can face a term of up to ten years, and that throwing a stone "on a moving target" can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison.

Beyond the immediate concern about abuses carried out against minors like Ahmed, the consequences of imprisoning and convicting young people in this way are widespread and long-term, said Khaled Quzmar, a lawyer with DCI.

"(A) big number of those children end up leaving school or are recruited by the Israeli forces to collaborate with them following threats during investigations,” he said. “They threaten them with imprisonment if they did not collaborate."

In Ahmed's case, the soldiers were accompanied by an Israeli TV crew filming the arrest for a documentary. During the filming, Ahmed is seen begging to be allowed to take his exams in the morning. The soldiers are polite but still handcuff and blindfold him.

Ahmed, who says he admitted to throwing stones only after being mistreated, said the soldiers beat him after the cameras were turned off.

His mother thought the arrest could have been handled differently.

“They could've asked me,” she said. “I would've taken him to the police station. But not at 3:30 in the morning – to take a child from his bed!"

In 2009, the IDF established a juvenile court with special provisions for trying minors in criminal cases. The minor is given a court-appointed defense attorney and a parent or relative is required at the hearing. Minors have the right to be informed of their rights prior to an investigation, the IDF says.

However, UNICEF reported minors are often held without a parent or legal guardian present, they are often not provided with legal counsel and in some cases they are handcuffed, blindfolded and confined inside checkpoint containers.

Ahmed’s version echoes UNICEF’s findings.

"I was left outside in the sun in the daytime and in the cold at night. I was beaten many times. I was screaming," he said. "In the end I admitted to throwing two stones." 

NBC News' Marian Smith contributed to this report.

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