The arrest of a child or a teenager is particularly injurious and traumatic in the case of Palestinians in the territories. It often takes place in the dead of night; and the boy is cut off from all that is familiar and safe: from his family, from his surroundings and from his language. He is alone, surrounded by hostile, armed soldiers, most of whom do not understand his language and use it only in order to swear at him and his female relatives, as Netta Ahituv recently reported (Haaretz, March 15).
A teenager is blindfolded and restrained with painful plastic zip-tie cuffs, and is often subjected to humiliation, threats, verbal and physical violence and hours of uncertainty. He feels physical and emotional pain, fear, shame, guilt and almost total helplessness.
Traumatic events accompanied by isolation, extreme fear, helplessness, loss of control and the risk of death can severely impair adaptive capabilities and the fundamental sense of security. The impact of traumatic events on children can be especially grave, because they are still developing and lack emotional and cognitive coping skills.
Israeli and international law provide special protection for minors, recognizing that detention and interrogation at this sensitive stage of personality and identity formation may harm their growth.
Adolescence is a particularly sensitive stage in development. During this period of life, the youth is preoccupied with issues of competence, self-worth, belonging and gender as he seeks his own identity, mainly through encounters with his peer group and others outside the family. But when an interpersonal encounter becomes inhuman, without empathy and reciprocity, the emotional impact can be devastating.
We’re talking about strip searches, and withholding food, sleep and bathroom privileges, the last of which sometimes results in loss of control of bodily functions.
This is physical violence against handcuffed youths by an adult who is impervious to their suffering, and sometimes even enjoys it. These are humiliations that crush one’s dignity, and this is multiplied by the fact that the youth is one against a group of soldiers or interrogators. Such degradation may become permanently rooted in memories that will haunt the children long after they’re released.
One 12-year-old boy described soldiers laughing when he cried in fear as he sat on the floor, bound and blindfolded, and sensed the approach of dogs. Alone against the cruelty, the boys are forced to put on a show of “maturity and masculinity” and to conceal their sensitive, vulnerable and sides.
Intensifying the harm to the youngsters is the disruption of the entire family dynamic during and after the arrest. The arrest process undermines several basic parental roles: The parents are unable to prevent the entry of a hostile army into the family’s private space, and in front of their other frightened children, the parents are forced to obey the soldiers, hand over their son and order him to go with them. Those moments shatter the image of the parent as a source of protection and security. The parent is mocked, humiliated and stripped of his authority, and may lose his place as a role model. The resulting fissure may deepen and leave the parent, in the eyes of his family and in his own eyes, unable to further influence the course of his children’s lives.
Family support and guidance are essential not only to the ability of young people to cope with crisis situations, but also to help them recover and heal. But these Palestinian boys are denied parental support in these instances, since most parents are not allowed to accompany them when they’re arrested or even to visit them in detention. And if that isn’t enough, after their release, the boys return to a home that no longer feels as safe as it used to be. Under the reality of military occupation, the entire family is burdened by the knowledge that the parents cannot prevent such events from recurring.
Thus, the ability of the parents to help their son process what he went through while in detention is impaired. The inability of the family and the home to facilitate healing increases the impact of the injury. The traumatic events cast doubt on basic human relations, and may lead to the collapse of the youth’s self-esteem and the ability to trust anyone. They may also lead to anger, self-alienation and insensitivity toward others. Many boys report severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that may include insomnia, nightmares, bed-wetting, flashbacks, hyperactivity, anxiety and difficulty concentrating. Many of them fail to return to school; they drop out of educational and social frameworks and adopt an unhealthy lifestyle.
The arrests leave significant scars on the community as well, and their impact accumulates and intensifies as more youths are arrested.
The community fabric is also undermined by the custom of the Israeli security forces to pressure the youths under interrogation to implicate others — neighbors, friends and relatives. As a result of these mutual incriminations, when the youths are released they return to a community where trust has been undermined.
Children who have been born into a routine of insecurity and constant friction with a hostile military and who don’t know any other reality are likely to learn that the world is a cruel and intimidating place, because they have no other perspective to soften their image of the world and enable hope to take root.
Michal Fruchtman is an educational psychologist, a family therapist and a member of PsychoActive – Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights as well as the activists' group Parents Against Child Detention.
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