Skip to main content

An Israeli soldier arrests a 12 year-old Palestinian youth at the Nablus checkpoint.
Photo Credit: serverinelaville/Flickr

It’s the middle of the night when heavily-armed police burst into a house, terrify the people who live there and make an arrest. This scene is repeated tens of thousands of times each year across the United States, most often in communities of color.

Over the 30 years of the ‘war on drugs,’ police have come to be seen as an occupying force in many predominantly Black neighborhoods and SWAT teams have made them their prime target, while white Americans sell and use drugs at the same rate as African Americans without facing the same penalties. Now nearly everyone in communities of color knows someone who is or has been in prison.

As Michelle Alexander has documented in her book, The New Jim Crow, the ‘war on drugs’ has not just swelled the numbers of incarcerated African Americans and Latinos. It has reinforced a racial caste hierarchy, as ex-felons face an uncertain future due to discrimination in housing, jobs, education, and lost citizen rights.

“The American penal system,” she writes, “has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.”

We saw a parallel situation when we traveled to Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank last November as part of an Interfaith Peace-Builders delegation and entered another world where mass incarceration is used as a system of social control – and subjugation.

There, too, heavily armed men routinely raid homes in the dead of night, tearing them apart and making brutal arrests. There, the raids are conducted by Israeli soldiers, and the targets for arrest are often Palestinian children as young as 11 or 12 years old.

UNICEF, Defense for Children International (DCI), Save the Children International and other human rights and legal organizations report that Palestinian children seized by the soldiers are frequently blindfolded, hooded, and have their arms bound with plastic cord as they are taken from their homes.

In military detention facilities they are often beaten and confined for 14 days in solitary confinement while under interrogation, without being able to contact their parents or a lawyer. Even when in court, they are not allowed to speak to their parents. The children are often forced to sign a confession written in Hebrew, a language they do not understand.

Their crime? They may be suspected of throwing stones – an offense that can bring a 12 year old six months in jail. Stone-throwing can get a 15 year old a life sentence. In 2013, there were instances of 5, 6 and 7 year olds being detained by Israeli soldiers, according to chilling case studies compiled by Defense for Children International.

During Israel’s 46-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, an astonishing 40 percent of Palestinian males have been arrested on what Israel terms ‘security grounds.’ Many have been held for several years in what is called ‘administrative detention’ – indefinite imprisonment without charges or trial. It is a rare family in Palestine that does not have at least one member, and often many more, in prison.

On the very first day of our trip we got a vivid sense of how vital the prisoner issue is to Palestinians. On the evening prior to our visit, thousands of people had turned out to greet 26 newly released prisoners, several of whom had spent more than 20 years in Israeli jails for anti-occupation security offenses. They were among the more than 100 prisoners that Israel agreed to release as part of the ‘peace talks’ currently being brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

One of the prisoners was being welcomed back to Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, which we were visiting that day. As we arrived at the camp, a few boys who looked to be about 6 or 7 years old were expressing their resistance to the military occupation by tossing stones in the direction of Israeli soldiers who were outside the camp, perhaps a hundred yards away or so.

Suddenly the soldiers charged towards the boys – firing tear gas canisters at them and at us. Gasping, we groped our way into the nearest building, the cultural center we were visiting.

After we recovered, a young man named Mohammed described spending two years in jail for drawing graffiti on the wall when he was 17 years old. Twenty-seven of his classmates were in the same jail.

He told us that one resident from Aida camp has been in administrative detention without ever being charged with a crime for the last nine years. A Palestinian who is found without an ID card at one of the hundreds of Israeli check points that fragment the West Bank – which is about a fifth the size of Massachusetts – is likely to spend ten days in jail. Prison is used to punish, to intimidate and to recruit informers, as well as to break the spirit of Palestinians.

American taxpayers urgently need to re-think their priorities. Does it make sense to pay more for prisons than for higher education here in the United States? And why are we giving $8 million every day to Israel, funds which enable it to sustain its military occupation of Palestinian territory in violation of UN resolutions and international law?

We must, as Michelle Alexander urges, build a movement here at home to end the ‘war on drugs’ and dismantle the system of mass incarceration. And we should simultaneously take to heart words spoken by Nelson Mandela on December 4, 1997 when he was serving as president of post-apartheid South Africa:

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Nancy Murray, who is on the editorial committee of the journal Race & Class, and Sara Driscoll, a co-founder of City Life/Vida Urbana, have long been active on a range of social justice issues in the Boston area, including the struggle for Palestinian rights.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.