Norma Hashim’s engagement with the issue of Palestinian prisoners has previously produced one book — The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag — which has been described by former hunger-striker Hana al-Shalabi as “A humane, beautiful, valuable but painful book.”
Hashim’s Dreaming of Freedom is worthy of a similar description. In this collection children recount their experiences of solitary confinement, beatings, torture and humiliation while in Israeli detention.
The use of firsthand accounts gives a platform for stories that would otherwise go unheard and shed light on systematic abuse in Israel’s prison system.
Dreaming of Freedom begins with the story of 14-year-old Yazan al-Shrbati, one of the most harrowing narratives in the book.
Yazan lives on Shuhada Street in Hebron, formerly the commercial heart of Hebron’s Old City but now severely restricted to Palestinians for the benefit of Israeli settlers. Yazan recounts his brutal assault by Israeli settlers while walking by himself in the street and his subsequent arrest by the Israeli military, despite the fact that he had done nothing to provoke the attack.
Like all the children in the book, Yazan says that his experience of imprisonment has changed him. As well as the physical violence Yazan endured during his arrest, when Israeli soldiers kicked him and hit him in the head, he was subjected to psychological pressure during his detention.
“I was taken to the interrogation room, not knowing why, as I was the victim of an assault,” the boy states. “The interrogator tried to make me say something. I refused, insisting on my innocence. I was still trying to work out how bad my wounds were after the beatings [by] the settlers and the police.”
Human rights laws and norms do not apply under occupation, as these children are painfully aware.
One child describes their home being stormed by Israeli soldiers, another recounts a summons to an interrogation center. Under occupation, no one can ever truly feel secure.
The story of Ayman Abbasi, a 16-year-old from occupied East Jerusalem, is especially poignant.
Ayman was imprisoned several times — the first when he was just in ninth grade — and was released from prison to serve an open-ended house arrest that lasted for 10 months. He was then sentenced to 18 more months in prison and was forced to turn himself over to the prison authorities.
Ayman did not live to the see the publication of Hashim’s book; in November last year, he was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers.
Hashim is careful to present her child subjects as honestly as possible rather than idealizing them. Nor does Hashim romanticize the consequences of rebellion against the occupation, for which Palestinians pay a high price.
Ammar Adeli, a child prisoner who took part in numerous acts of resistance against the occupation, drops out of school after repeated arrests. He cannot find a job due to the high unemployment in the West Bank and is isolated from his family.
The long-term impact that arrest and detention has on children — such as dropping out of school, psychological trauma and unemployment — are central themes of their post-prison experiences.
Yet none of the children profiled in Dreaming of Freedom express a desire to leave their homeland. Their shared experiences of arrest and imprisonment, however, reinforce the sense that they are trapped in a system not of their making that dictates the terms and conditions of their lives.
Most amazingly, the children still have hope. When he explains how he coped with imprisonment, Muslim Ouda explains, “despite the miserable conditions in the cells, I would still try to draw a bright picture of my future, using my innocent imagination, in which there is no occupation.”
Alia Al Ghussain is a British-Palestinian currently based in London.
Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian Child Prisoners Speak, edited by Norma Hashim and translated by Yousef M. Aljamal, Saba Islamic Media (2016)
First published in The Electronic Intifada