Halhul, occupied West Bank – At the Jbara checkpoint near Tulkarem, the al-Wawi family and human rights groups’ representatives waited patiently. The 12-year-old finally emerged, after having spent 2.5 months in a prison, making her the youngest Palestinian female detainee. As her relatives embraced her, the girl, clad in a pink shirt, fought back tears and said nothing.
D* was arrested on February 9 near the illegal settlement of Karmei Tzur, just north of her hometown of Halhul. Now, out on early parole, D served more than half of her sentence of 4.5 months in an Israeli prison for attempted voluntary manslaughter and illegal possession of a knife.
The family had appealed her detention, citing international legal norms, and Israeli law, which prohibits the imprisonment of children younger than 14 for the country’s citizens.
D is the first child in her family, which includes six girls and three boys, to see the insides of a prison cell. Her father, 54-year-old Ismael al-Wawi, had been working in Israel for more than 25 years before Israeli authorities revoked his permit on the day she was arrested.
According to Israeli military court documents, D approached the settlement with a knife hidden under her school uniform. The documents cited footage that showed the girl lying on the ground after she was told to give up the knife.
This was not the child her family knew. A lively girl, D spent a lot of her time playing outside with her cousins – something that left their relatives wondering how she would cope in a prison cell.
“Even inside the courtroom, she was playing,” said Sabha al-Wawi, D’s mother. “She’d move her shackled feet or her hands around to play with the handcuffs. Even the judge told her to stop.”
Her mother recalled an incident that left her questioning the Israeli authorities’ version of events.
“One day, I overheard the girls talking about the spate of knife attacks. D and her eldest sister both said to each other, ‘If anyone tells you I’ve done something like this, please don’t believe them. I would never attack anyone,'” Sabha said.
The day D was arrested, her mother feared she was either injured or killed – the fate of many Palestinians who have either carried out attacks or were accused of being assailants in a spate of unrest that began in October 2015. Since then, 207 Palestinians and 33 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed.
On March 28, more than a month after the incident, D was finally allowed to see her mother, but they were banned from any physical contact. Before she was detained, D had been asking about the fate of the children of Palestinian journalist Mohammad al-Qeeq, who at the time was on a months-long hunger strike, if he were to die.
“She kept wondering – who will take care of his children?” Sabha recalled. “Who will take them out on excursions, who will buy them gifts on Eid, who will feed them?”
Even as the family welcomed D’s release, they were still reeling from the loss of Ismael’s job, their only source of income. D’s parents also have to pay a $2,000 court-ordered fine.
“I’m unemployed now and taking out loans to cultivate a plot of land that we have,” Ismael said. “It will be a while before the land yields any produce. So in the meantime, I have reached out to several institutions to help financially.”
There are 7,000 Palestinians currently in Israeli prisons, according to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Prisoners Affairs Commission. The figures include 70 women, 750 in administrative detention, 700 sick detainees, and 30 who have been imprisoned for more than 20 years.
The figures also include 440 Palestinian children, who are held in Israeli detention for “security” offences, according to Defence for Children International – Palestine (DCI), a Ramallah-based rights group. This is the highest tally since the Israel Prison Service started providing figures in 2008, the group said. More than 100 of these children are between 12 and 15, while 12 are girls and seven are in administrative detention.
A majority of children endure physical violence in the Israeli military detention system, according to a recent report by DCI called No Way to Treat a Child. The “widespread and systematic ill-treatment of Palestinian children” includes detaining them in the middle of the night, often without notifying the parents of the reasons for the arrest.
“International law is clear: Children should only be detained as a last resort, for the shortest appropriate period of time, and under absolutely no circumstances should they be subjected to torture or ill-treatment,” said Khaled Quzmar, the group’s general director. “Why then, year after year, do we see Palestinian children experiencing widespread, systematic, and institutionalised ill-treatment at the hands of Israeli forces?”
Israeli authorities said D confessed to planning a stabbing attack, but DCI found that “many children maintain their innocence, but plead guilty as it is the fastest way to get out of the system. Most receive plea deals of less than 12 months. Trials, on the other hand, can last a year, possibly longer. Bail is rarely granted and most children remain behind bars as they await trial”.
The group also said that interrogators often use “position abuse, threats and isolation to coerce confessions”, documenting 66 cases in which children were held in solitary confinement.
Sabha says the family believes D has “suffered a grave injustice”.
“She’s too young to hurt anybody. She’s not even physically capable of attacking anyone. She did not pose a threat,” Sabha said. “She is paying a heavy price for something that did not happen.”
*Al Jazeera has refrained from revealing the girl’s name due to her age.