Teenage Palestinian violinist recounts horror of abuse in Israeli detention
"I was really scared, I didn't know what was going to happen to me," the 14-year-old told Middle East Eye. "All I could think about was my family and friends, and if they were sad and scared like I was," Azzeh said, recounting the moment Israeli soldiers ambushed him as he was walking near a military base in his hometown of Bethlehem in the southern occupied West Bank.
Azzeh was detained on 15 April while heading to his grandmother's house in the Beit Jibrin refugee camp on Bethlehem's main road. An Israeli military jeep pulled up beside him as he was walking, and four armed soldiers jumped out and grabbed him.
"One of the soldiers grabbed me around my neck, and was choking me so hard I felt faint, and started to lose consciousness," Azzeh recounted. "Then they took me into the military base and threw me on the ground. Once they released my neck I could breathe again, and realised where I was."
"After I woke up, they started to punch me, in my back, my stomach, my face, everywhere. They were yelling at me. I was really scared," he said. "Then they handcuffed me and took me to prison."
When Azzeh arrived at an interrogation and detention centre inside the Atarot settlement in northern Jerusalem, he said he saw many other Palestinian boys just like him, aged between 15 and 17.
"When I saw the other boys, my mind started running in many different places," he told MEE.
"I was just thinking about all the things I was going to miss. I thought about my family, and how they don't know where I am. I thought about my school, my friends, and my music classes. I felt like my dreams were ending."
Azzeh was released after 12 days of detention at 4am on Wednesday 27 April, on a 4,000 Israeli shekel bail ($1,200). During his imprisonment, which "felt like 12 years" to him, he was arraigned four times and interrogated by Israeli intelligence and military officials every day.
Israeli authorities accused Azzeh of throwing stones at the military base and burning tires - accusations that Azzeh has adamantly denied.
On the day the teenager was arrested, he was interrogated for hours while he was fasting. He said Israeli officers gave him food and water to break his fast more than two hours after sunset.
Before his interrogations began, the Israeli captain in charge of questioning the young boy allowed him to speak to his lawyer on the phone for only two minutes, Azzeh said.
"They put the lawyer on speakerphone, and he told me that I did not have to cooperate with them, and that I had a right to remain silent," Azzeh said. "When the lawyer said that, the captain hung up the phone."
Throughout the 12 days of interrogations, Azzeh was questioned without the presence of a lawyer or a parent.
"In any other democratic country, if a child is arrested, they would have had a lawyer present during any type of questioning," Athal's father Ahmed al-Azzeh told MEE.
"The captain let me talk to him for 30 seconds on the phone to just ask him how he was. After this, we knew nothing about what happened to him. He wasn't allowed to call us or communicate with us. We were only able to know what was happening through the lawyer," Ahmed said.
"On the first day they arrested me, they took me into an interrogation room and started yelling at me, demanding that I confess to throwing stones and burning tires," Athal said. "When I said I didn't do those things, the interrogator would get mad and start yelling at me more, and hitting me in my stomach, on my back, and on my neck."
According to the teenager, the interrogators showed him photos of masked young boys rolling tires and throwing stones at the military base in Bethlehem, where he was detained.
"They told me that they knew it was me, and that they had shown the same photos to my parents, and that my parents had admitted that it was me and that I had no choice but to confess," he said.
Ahmed confirmed that the officers had called his wife in for interrogation and showed her the same pictures her son referred to, and attempted to get her to implicate him.
'These officers used different torture tactics and threats against him, and told him they would arrest me and his mother if he didn't confess.'
- Ahmed al-Azzeh, father of detained child
"She of course refused, and didn't succumb to their attempts to frame our son," Ahmed told MEE.
Athal, who was confident his parents would never implicate him in a crime he didn't commit, continued to refuse the attempts to coerce his confession.
"I felt like they wanted me to give them an answer, and confess. And when I wouldn't give them what they wanted, they would get angry."
"These officers used different torture tactics and threats against him, and told him they would arrest me and his mother if he didn't confess," Ahmed told MEE. "They used all the tactics in their book against a 14-year-old child in an effort to coerce him into a false confession."
"I'm very proud of my son that he remained strong despite their intimidation, and refused to give in," Ahmed said, recognising that it was no small feat for his son to not crack under the pressure of professional interrogators.
Middle East Eye asked the Israeli army to comment on the allegations levelled at them by the Azzeh family, but received no response by the time of publication.
'Gross attempt to justify child imprisonment'
During his imprisonment, Athal's case, unbeknownst to him, was propelled onto the international stage by the Palestinian-Dutch supermodel Bella Hadid, who shared an Instagram post calling for his freedom.
The post Hadid shared was initially published by Israeli activist Yahav Erez, and featured a photo of Athal playing the violin. The post demanded the boy's immediate release, and stated that he was "being held hostage by Apartheid Israel."
Hadid's post drew the ire of Israeli officials, particularly Israel's newest and first-ever "special envoy for combating antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel", the Israeli actress Noa Tishby.
In a now-deleted Instagram video, Tishby accused Hadid of "lying and demonizing Israel," and "flaming antisemitism." In the video, which is still viewable on Tishby's Twitter page, she shares seemingly classified security information on Athal's case, including the photos that were shown to the teenager and his mother during their respective interrogation sessions.
Tishby attempted to deny the claim that he was "kidnapped and being held hostage", by saying that he was "arraigned twice" and had a release date set for 24 April, which proved to be untrue, as he was only released three days later.
"Athal was arrested for throwing rocks and burning tires, which is something he would have been arrested for in the United States or any other law-abiding country in the world," Tishby said.
She went on to say "he should focus more on his violin rather than violence against Jews."
Athal's father Ahmed, commenting on Tishby's video, said he was "infuriated, outraged, and flabbergasted" when he saw it.
He called it a "blatant lie and disgusting attempt to justify the arrest and imprisonment of a child."
"What the Israeli foreign affairs ministry [representative] did was ridiculous. They tried to justify their arrest of a 14-year-old child, by saying he was throwing stones. To arrest any child is a crime, and using the pretext that they were throwing stones at an occupying army is a terrible excuse," he said.
"Israel's arrest of Palestinian children all over the West Bank is criminal. This is occupied territory, there is no justification for their imprisonment of our children."
As Athal settled back into his home and the loving arms of his parents on Thursday, he said he was feeling mixed emotions.
"I feel so happy now to be back home. I want to go back to my normal life, to play my violin, to study, and hang out with my friends and family," he said. "But I still feel sad about what happened, and my mind is now confused between the jail and the free world."
"When they told me I could go home I was so happy, but I was also thinking about the other boys that were in the jail with me. I feel so bad for them, because some of them might face many months or years in jail," Athal lamented.
Approximately 500 to 700 Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, are detained and prosecuted each year in the Israeli military courts, according to Defence for Children International - Palestine (DCIP).
The NGO says many suffer long-term psychological distress caused by their detentions, with symptoms including bed-wetting, trouble sleeping, and self-restricting movement.
There are currently around 160 minors in Israeli jails, according to data collected by Addameer, an NGO advocating the rights of Palestinian political prisoners.
Athal's father said he hopes his son won't be too emotionally or psychologically impacted by his arrest in the long term, but he knows that the family has a difficult road ahead.
"Athal was released on bail, but he is still on trial in this fake justice system," he said, referring to Israel's military courts, which hold a 99 percent conviction rate.
"These military courts are a farce. They are designed to oppress our children. It is impossible to get a fair trial when the court itself is part of the occupation system," he said.
"To the Israeli captains who interrogated Athal and all the Palestinian children: you also have kids inside your homes. Imagine that one day they were in Athal's situation. What would you do?" Ahmed asked.
"You think you are protecting or saving your country, but arresting and torturing our children, making more checkpoints, and making our lives miserable, is not how you will free your country," he continued.
"You oppress us every day, and in the end, you ask why the Palestinian kids throw stones?"