NABI SALEH, West Bank (AP) — For all Palestinian parents, Marwan Tamimi said, there comes a moment they realize they're powerless to protect their children.
For the 48-year-old father of three, it came in June, when Israeli forces fired a large rubber bullet that struck the head of his eldest son, Wisam, as he watched a raid unfold from his grandmother's rooftop with his family. A week later, Marwan said, soldiers came for the 17-year-old, dragging him out of bed with a fractured skull as his mother cried.
Wisam was later charged with a range of offenses he denied — throwing stones, possessing weapons, placing an explosive device and causing bodily harm. He was sent to Israel's Ofer Prison. Last Saturday, after six months behind bars, he returned home with 38 other Palestinians in exchange for Israeli hostages released from Hamas captivity in Gaza — part of a temporary cease-fire in the war that started after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel.
His parents said they hadn't seen or heard from him in two months, since the war started. Wisam said he spent that time in an overcrowded cell and was denied adequate food and medication, was interrogated about his friends, and was beaten repeatedly.
“I yelled, ‘No, he’s my boy, you can’t take him, he’s injured,’” Marwan Tamimi said. “That’s when I realized they will take him. And if I stop them, they will put his life in danger.”
Wisam's homecoming last week, along with the Wednesday release of his well-known activist cousin, Ahed Tamimi, touched every home in the village of Nabi Saleh, where prison is a grim rite of passage for Palestinian boys.
People clapped. Tears fell. Wisam hugged friends and family, one by one. But the euphoria spoke to pain as much as to joy in the occupied West Bank, where the United Nations estimates 750,000 Palestinians have been arrested since Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Mideast war.
The competing claims of Palestinians and Israelis have left their scars on Nabi Saleh, home to charismatic activists, journalists and lawyers known for their refusal to submit to occupation. Once an idyllic village on a hilly stretch of farmland growing grapes and green olives, it serves today as a powerful example of how Israeli prison over decades of war has crushed families, constrained lives and stamped out popular resistance.
Israel's security service didn't respond to questions about Wisam’s case. But the military defended large-scale arrests of Palestinians, including minors, as necessary to prevent militant attacks. In a statement to The Associated Press, the army said it aims to “preserve the rights and dignity" of Palestinian suspects during court proceedings and detention and that convicting a minor “requires a burden of proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt."
Palestinian activists and human rights watchdogs say Israel's mass detentions seek to sow fear among the youngest, breaking communities that continue to defy Israeli military rule, now in its 57th year.
“We've seen that this system suppresses and intimidates the majority of children,” said Salwa Duaibis, co-founder of Military Court Watch, a Palestinian legal advocacy group. “It crushes their spirit so that even when they're 40, they'll be running away when they see soldiers."
Most of Nabi Saleh's 550 residents are related by blood or marriage, and nearly all share the surname Tamimi. Most boys — like their fathers and grandfathers — have landed in prison at some point, as the close-knit village became known for its grassroots protest movement.
“We live in a village of resistance,” Wisam said. "Every house has its own story."
Wisam was raised on the history of his activist grandfather’s deportation to Jordan in 1970 and his triumphant return to Nabi Saleh as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Wisam's father, Marwan, served time at the height of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2002. His journalist uncle, Bilal, was locked up four times starting in the late 1980s, during the first intifada.
His neighbor, 45-year-old pastry chef Haitham Tamimi, said he was once held up and questioned in the street by a soldier who "found it suspicious I was from Nabi Saleh and hadn't been imprisoned." Haitham's explanation: He'd lived mostly in Jordan.
Before Israel and Hamas resumed their war Friday, the militant group had pushed for the release of high-profile prisoners in exchange for the remaining Gaza hostages.
But the vast majority of Palestinians passing through Israel’s ever-revolving prison door, experts say, are teenage boys and young men who mostly go unnamed, plucked from bed in the middle of the night for throwing stones and firebombs or associating with militants in towns and refugee camps near Israeli settlements. Most of the international community considers Israeli settlements illegal and obstacles to peace.
Under the weeklong cease-fire agreement, Israel released 240 Palestinian minors and women. Most of 14- to 17-year-olds freed had been detained for investigation and not convicted of a crime, reported the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, an advocacy group, based on data from the Israeli Prison Service. Over that same week, Israel arrested 260 other Palestinians, the group said.
Every year, the Israeli military court sentences hundreds of minors to prison, mostly for throwing stones, according to Military Court Watch. Most are 16 or 17.
Israel argues that stone-throwing can be dangerous and even deadly.
“The victim who gets hit in the head by stones doesn't care how old the person throwing it is,” said Maurice Hirsch, Israel's top military prosecutor from 2013 to 2016. “There are very young terrorists who commit very violent offenses.”
The conviction rate for security offenses in the West Bank is more than 99%. Defense lawyers often encourage young clients to plead guilty to avoid lengthy trials and detentions. Some are never formally charged or tried, held under a practice known as “administrative detention” that allows Israeli authorities to arrest Palestinians based on secret evidence and renew detention indefinitely.
The pace of arrests — already quickening over the past two years — soared after Hamas' Oct. 7 rampage that killed 1,200 people and resulted in the abduction of more than 240.
Israel has arrested 3,450 Palestinians across the West Bank since the war erupted, according to the Israeli military, in a sweeping campaign aimed to deter militant attacks. An all-time high of 2,873 Palestinians are now held in administrative detention, according to Israeli rights group HaMoked.
“The crackdown in a way contradicts our intention not to open another front in the West Bank,” said Ami Ayalon, former director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. “On one hand, we understand the more people killed and arrested, the more hatred rises. But on the other hand, we don't want to pay the price in terrorist attacks.”
Lawyers say the crackdown affects Palestinians of every stripe, branding people as security threats for even mild social media posts.
“It was an orchestra, as though a composer led all the courts across the country to understand they had a duty to arrest young men,” said Lea Tsemel, a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer. “We saw police stopping youngsters and checking phones to see if they could find anything constituting incitement.”
Israeli forces have ramped up deadly raids in the northern West Bank, such as in the flashpoint Jenin refugee camp, using airstrikes to target militants with unprecedented force.
The intensifying violence and constraints on Palestinian freedom of movement have generated fear in Nabi Saleh. New Israeli checkpoints have turned a 15-minute drive to the Palestinian city of Ramallah into a nauseating two-hour maze.
In recent months, Israeli troops repeatedly stormed the village. An explosive tear gas canister set Marwan Tamimi's SUV on fire in mid-October. A rubber projectile, much larger than a bullet, slammed into Wisam's head, causing brain bleeding and sending him to intensive care for a week. Four bullets sliced through Haitham Tamimi's car door, piercing his shoulder and killing his 2-year-old son, Mohammed, in June — an incident the army admitted was a mistake.
It's the latest chapter in the tumultuous history of a village once at the center of a spirited protest movement that began in 2009, inspired other villages and made global headlines. Each week, residents rallied over the loss of their ancestral lands and freshwater spring to the fast-growing Israeli settlement across the road.
The Friday marches, just after the midday call to prayer, became family affairs. Villagers waved national flags, clapped and crooned Palestinian songs while trying to reach their spring that had become a picnic spot for settlers. Inevitably, boys pelted Israeli jeeps with stones.
“We were showing the world what was really happening here, and it felt so good, so important,” said Janna Jihad, now 17, who became an internet fixture filming herself reporting on protests at just 7 years old.
Israel says troops responded only after protesters started throwing stones and trying to enter a military zone around the village. “The Tamimi family trained and organized these children to ambush soldiers,” said Hirsch, the former military prosecutor.
Troops sent protesters fleeing with tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, blasts of noxious liquid and live fire. They carried out nighttime raids, arresting most young men, and killed six Palestinian villagers during protests, all young men, residents said.
Marwan Tamimi begged his sons to stay away from what Palestinians call the “muqawama,” or resistance.
Sensitive and studious, his youngest, Kenan, said he’d rather run on a soccer field than away from bullets. Now 14, he's resisted peer pressure to join protests.
“I don’t like going out,” he said, huddled over a princess coloring book with his 6-year-old sister last week.
Wisam had friends who confronted Israeli soldiers, like his cousin Ahed, whose arrest for slapping Israeli soldiers five years ago transformed her into a symbol of Palestinian resistance.
“All of us here, we care so much about our children. We tell them, ‘Look, don’t go and throw stones, you don’t need to prove yourself,’” Marwan Tamimi said.
But parents' pleas often go unheeded.
"There was nothing I could do to stop the boys,” said 56-year-old Imtithal Tamimi, mother of nine. Her son Mohammed, was disfigured at 14 when Israeli forces fired a rubber bullet that lodged in his head.
“Mohammed had no job, he wasn’t in school," she said. “He was trying to let off steam.”
All the men in her household got sucked into Israel’s prison system, she said, and she noticed a change in each when they emerged. Mohammed, now 21, couldn't shake his state of rage. Tamim, her eldest, locked himself in his bedroom for three months after serving a year. Her 64-year-old husband, Fadel passed in and out of prison for decades and struggles with a central nervous system disorder.
Mohammed, arrested for the third time the same night as Wisam, remains in jail. Imtihal hasn’t heard anything of his condition or whereabouts since the war started, when Israeli authorities banned prisoners from using phones or receiving visitors.
Wisam, his eyes sunken and face gray and gaunt, lost 12 kilograms (26 pounds) in prison, where he said he shared two daily meals of undercooked chicken and stale bread with 11 others, an account supported by prisoner rights groups. They were packed like teeth into a cell that held half that number before the war, he said, and on the rare occasions they were let out, guards ordered them to walk with wrists bound tight under their knees.
In response to questions, the Israeli Prison Service denied authorities were crowding cells or reducing meals. But national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has publicly promoted harsh disciplinary treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Parliament passed a temporary measure allowing prisons to fill beyond legal capacity.
For Wisam, 45 days in solitary confinement was the real torment. Every night, authorities blasted air conditioning in his tiny cell. He shivered in the darkness, homesick, imagining his mother warming him with her hug and cooking mansaf — milky mountains of rice with mutton. His only human contact came in the punches raining down on his head during daily interrogations, he said.
The Prison Service said Palestinians are detained according to law and had the right to file complaints over conditions. Palestinians say their complaints are not taken seriously and rarely yield results.
A week after his release, Wisam still winces when he catches sight of a grated door, even in his house. He fills shelves beside his bed with chocolate bars and chips, for his “canteen.” He spends his days quietly weaving lighter cases from plastic and string, a prison habit, and taking driving classes in hopes of preventing arrest even for traffic offenses.
When 22-year-old cousin Ahed emerged from prison last week, she also looked exhausted, her typically self-assured voice halting and frail in TV interviews.
“This is what I was trying to prevent,” said Marwan Tamimi, who moved his family to Ramallah at the height of the Nabi Saleh protests in 2014 so his boys could attend school and play without encountering soldiers.
The family returned home in 2021, after the military’s harsh response brought the rallies to an end. There were too many killed, wounded and imprisoned — and too few achievements, residents said.
An uneasy calm prevailed over Nabi Saleh and other villages that had become symbols of civil disobedience. Without progress toward a political solution, protest leaders insist the relative quiet shouldn't be mistaken for acceptance.
Beneath the surface, pressure builds. More minors pass through Israel's jailhouse door.
“I expected to die in there,” Wisam said. “I don’t want to go there ever again."
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