Generation after generation, Israeli prison marks a rite of passage for Palestinian boys

The release of Palestinian prisoners under the Israel-Hamas cease-fire agreement last week has touched nearly everyone in the occupied West Bank, where 750,000 Palestinians have been arrested since 1967

Isabel Debre
Wednesday 06 December 2023 05:41 GMT

For all Palestinian parents, Marwan Tamimi said, there comes a moment they realize they're powerless to protect their children.

For the 48-year-old father of three, it came in June, when Israeli forces fired a large rubber bullet that struck the head of his eldest son, Wisam. A week later, Marwan said, soldiers came for the 17-year-old, dragging him out of bed with a fractured skull.

Wisam was charged with a range of offenses he denied — throwing stones, possessing weapons, placing an explosive device and causing bodily harm — and sent to prison. Last Saturday, after six months behind bars, he returned home with 38 other Palestinians in exchange for Israeli hostages — part of a temporary cease-fire in the war that started after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack.

His parents said they hadn't seen or heard from him in two months, since the war started. Wisam said he stayed in an overcrowded cell, was beaten and interrogated, and lacked food and medication.

“I yelled, ‘No, he’s my boy, you can’t take him, he’s injured,’” Marwan Tamimi said. “If I stop them, they will put his life in danger.”

Wisam's homecoming last week, along with the Wednesday release of his well-known activist cousin, Ahed Tamimi, touched every home in Nabi Saleh, a village where prison is a grim rite of passage for Palestinian boys.

People clapped. Tears fell. Wisam hugged loved ones. But the euphoria spoke to pain as much as joy in the West Bank, where the U.N. estimates 750,000 Palestinians have been arrested since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.

The competing claims of Palestinians and Israelis have left scars on Nabi Saleh, home to activists, journalists and lawyers. Once an idyllic village on a hilly stretch of farmland, it's now a powerful example of how Israeli prison over decades of war has crushed families, constrained lives and stamped out popular resistance.

Israel's security service didn't respond to questions about Wisam’s case. The military defended large-scale arrests of Palestinians, including minors, to prevent militant attacks. In a statement, the army said it aims to “preserve the rights and dignity" of suspects and that convicting a minor “requires a burden of proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt."


Most of Nabi Saleh's 550 residents are related by blood or marriage. Nearly all share the surname Tamimi. Most boys — like their fathers and grandfathers — have landed in prison at some point, as the close-knit village became known for its protests.

“We live in a village of resistance,” Wisam said. "Every house has its own story."

Before Israel and Hamas resumed their war Friday, the militant group had pushed for the release of high-profile prisoners in exchange for remaining Gaza hostages.

But the vast majority of Palestinians passing through Israeli prisons, experts say, are teenage boys and young men who mostly go unnamed, plucked from bed in the middle of the night for throwing stones and firebombs or associating with militants in towns and refugee camps near Israeli settlements. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements illegal.

Under the weeklong cease-fire agreement, Israel released 240 Palestinian minors and women. Most of the the 14- to 17-year-olds freed were detained for investigation and not convicted, reported the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group, based on Israeli Prison Service data. Over that same week, Israel arrested 260 other Palestinians, the group said.

Yearly, the Israeli military court sentences hundreds of minors to prison, mostly for throwing stones, according to Military Court Watch. Most are 16 or 17. Israel says stone-throwing can be dangerous and deadly.


The conviction rate for security offenses in the West Bank is more than 99%. Lawyers often encourage young clients to plead guilty to avoid lengthy trials and detentions. Some are never formally charged or tried, held under a practice known as “administrative detention.”

Israel has arrested 3,450 Palestinians across the West Bank since the war erupted. An all-time high of 2,873 Palestinians are in administrative detention, according to Israeli rights group HaMoked.

“The crackdown in a way contradicts our intention not to open another front in the West Bank,” said Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. “We understand the more people killed and arrested, the more hatred rises. But on the other hand, we don't want to pay the price in terrorist attacks.”

The intensifying violence and constraints on Palestinian freedom of movement have generated fear in Nabi Saleh. It's the latest chapter in the tumultuous history of a village once at the center of a spirited protest movement that began in 2009 and made global headlines. Each week, residents rallied over the loss of their ancestral lands and freshwater spring to the fast-growing Israeli settlement across the road.

Israel says troops responded only after protesters started throwing stones and trying to enter a military zone.

Troops sent protesters fleeing with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, blasts of noxious liquid and live fire. They carried out nighttime raids, arresting mostly young men, and killed six Palestinian villagers during protests, all young men, residents said.


Marwan Tamimi begged his sons to stay away from what Palestinians call the “muqawama,” or resistance.

“All of us here, we care so much about our children. We tell them, ‘Look, don’t go and throw stones, you don’t need to prove yourself,’” he said.

Wisam lost 12 kilograms (26 pounds) in prison, where he said he shared meals of undercooked chicken and stale bread with 11 others, an account supported by prisoner rights groups. They were packed into a cell that held half that number pre-war, he said.

The Israeli Prison Service denied authorities crowded cells or reduced meals. But national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has promoted harsh disciplinary treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Parliament temporarily approved prisons filling beyond legal capacity.

For Wisam, solitary confinement was the real torment. Authorities blasted air conditioning and his only human contact came as punches during interrogations, he said.

The Prison Service said Palestinians are detained according to law.

A week after his release, Wisam winces at the sight of his home's grated door. He takes driving classes in hopes of avoiding arrest even for traffic offenses.

“This is what I was trying to prevent,” said Marwan Tamimi, who moved his family to Ramallah at the height of the Nabi Saleh protests in 2014. The family returned in 2021, after the military’s response brought the rallies to an end. An uneasy calm prevailed.

But beneath the surface, pressure builds. More minors pass through Israel's jailhouse door.

“I expected to die in there,” Wisam said. “I don’t want to go there ever again."

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