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Young Palestinian prisoners describe harsh treatment in Israeli jails

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JERUSALEM — On his 17th birthday, Noah Bseso got a surprise: He was taken from the cell he shared with eight other young Palestinians at Israel’s Damon Prison. Fingerprinted and photographed, he wondered if he was in for an unexpected transfer.

He had heard nothing of the agreement to exchange Palestinian prisoners for Israeli hostages held in Gaza. He didn’t know that his father was on his way to meet him, or that his mother was hurriedly hanging the birthday streamers they hadn’t thought they’d need.

Within hours, he was home, and free.

Bseso sat in his family’s living room Thursday, still reeling from finding himself one of the 240 Palestinians released from Israeli custody during the seven-day pause in the Gaza war. Like the more than 100 Israeli hostages and foreign citizens freed by Hamas before fighting resumed Friday, the Palestinian detainees knew less than almost anyone about the diplomatic maneuvering in which they had been pawns.

What they missed: Freed Israeli hostages return to tragedy and joys

They have emerged to learn the details of the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel. They’ve learned of the Israeli military campaign that has killed more than 15,500 people and wounded more than 41,000 in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Bseso, a skinny high school math whiz, was detained for three months. He spent some of his days in windowless solitary confinement.

“I wasn’t aware of anything,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t know whether it was daytime or nighttime.”

The Palestinians released were women and teens. Some, like Bseso, were charged with offenses such as throwing rocks, fireworks or molotov cocktails at Israeli troops during raids on Palestinian towns. Almost half were boys ages 14 to 17. Several emerged with stories of deprivation and, in some cases, physical abuse.

Several dozen of the prisoners were swept up in the surge of arrests in the West Bank that followed Oct. 7, though most had been held for longer. Israel has refused to release prisoners charged with murder or other major crimes.

Palestinians in the West Bank are tried in Israeli military courts, where conviction rates approach 100 percent, according to the United Nations. The majority of those freed last week had never been convicted of a crime; many had never had a day in court. Israel’s practice of administrative detention allows Palestinian detainees to be held for months or years without trial or charge.

Use of administrative detention, long criticized by rights groups, “dramatically increased” this year, according to Amnesty International, especially after Oct. 7.

On his second morning of freedom, Bseso sat in the living room beneath a “17” balloon, noticeably thinner in life than in the photos that hung on the wall. He fingered a set of prayer beads. His gaze seldom left his mother and sister as they moved about the adjacent kitchen. His last contact with home had been a phone call from prison on Oct. 6.

“I feel like I am trying to quench my eyes’ thirst to see my family,” he said.

He was arrested in August after an informant said he had participated in a July demonstration at the entrance to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiya when Israeli forces entered. Young men were accused of throwing rocks and burning tires. Bseso denied that he was present. He was convicted and scheduled to be sentenced to a term that could have lasted seven years.

Now he’s free and the charges have been withdrawn. He hopes to resume his final year of school and pursue a career in computer science.

For released Palestinian prisoners, a complicated homecoming

But normal still feels far away. When he arrived home late Tuesday, Israeli police were stationed outside his house to prevent public celebrations.

“My instructions are clear: There are to be no expressions of joy,” Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told police and prison chiefs last month before the prisoner exchange. “Expressions of joy are equivalent to backing terrorism, victory celebrations give backing to those human scum, for those Nazis.”

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Bseso’s mother, Mona, said that she prepared a favorite breakfast of hummus and kaak (Jerusalem pretzels) but that Bseso, remembering his former cellmates and their meager rations, teared up and ate little.

“I still wake up every morning for the count,” Bseso said, referring to the pre-dawn prisoner roll call.

Like others released last month, he described a dark turn in conditions after Oct. 7. Jailers took away the few comforts that prisoners were allowed in their crowded cells, including televisions, radios and personal belongings. Water was sometimes cut entirely. Food was sometimes nothing more than bread, and not much of that, he said.

Bseso said he was moved repeatedly to an isolation cell so small the head of the cot was inches from the toilet. For how many days, he doesn’t know. His only glimpse of another human being was the hands that passed food through an opening. His only distraction was a Quran.

“I recited the holy Quran three times through,” he said.

Israeli and Palestinian civil rights advocates have petitioned the Supreme Court to halt what they say are recent systemic abuses in the prison system. Activists say Israel arrested nearly 3,000 Palestinians in the past eight weeks. Those arrested have included 120 women and more than 200 minors.

Advocates allege that the surge has caused overcrowding, the rationing of food and water, and physical and psychological mistreatment, which they say amounts to collective punishment. The court has declined to intervene.

“The conditions for young Palestinians have never been great, and we’ve seen a real deterioration since Oct. 7,” said Tal Steiner, head of the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. “Holding young people in isolation can have very grave psychological effects.”

Israeli prison authorities told The Washington Post that they were unaware of the specific claims of mistreatment made by Bseso and several other recently freed prisoners. They denied systematically denying the rights of incarcerated Palestinians or that conditions have changed since Oct. 7.

“All prisoners are detained according to the provisions of the law,” the Israel Prison Service said in an emailed response to detailed questions. “We are not aware of the claims you described. Nonetheless, prisoners and detainees have the right to file a complaint that will be fully examined by official authorities.”

Malek Debeh, who was freed Tuesday after turning 17 in prison, said he was the oldest of his eight cellmates. He was convicted of rioting against Israeli forces who were conducting a raid in the Shuafat refugee camp in the summer. He denies the charge.

He was sentenced to 33 months. Incarceration was tolerable, he said, when he and his cellmates were allowed to pay a prisoner to cook Palestinian food for them. That ended after Oct. 7, when the food became mostly bread and undercooked rice, he said, and almost nothing on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath. He lost 28 pounds.

“I barely recognized him,” said his mother, Nihal Debeh, sitting with him Thursday.

She had been waiting 10 hours outside the release center in Jerusalem when he was escorted out in handcuffs and a pair of borrowed slippers.

Mother and son were not allowed to touch or talk in the back of the security car that drove them to a West Bank checkpoint. They were transferred to a patrol car that took them to the entrance of Shuafat, where his hands were finally freed.

A helicopter hovered over the dark walk to the broken concrete stairs leading to their cramped house. Only there did they embrace. She led him down to family and his favorite meal: Beef in yogurt sauce.

“I am lucky to be home,” Debeh said. “But I think they can arrest me again at any time.”

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