Heroism and Adulthood among Arrested Youth in East Jerusalem

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Makiko Nambu, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

In April 2016, one month had passed since Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails started a collective hunger strike (“dignity strike”; irāb al-karāma). Images of empty seats in the solidarity tents, where supporters gather to stage sit-ins, began to circulate on social media. Prisoners had been demanding, among other things, improved prison conditions and an end to the abusive policy of arrest without fair trials. Lamenting the lack of support and the exhaustion of the prisoners’ families, with no concrete progress in negotiations with the Israeli prison authorities, these images reflected the recent struggles among the activists in seeking wider audiences on the street calling for the support of prisoners. 

This paper examines the concept of heroism and adulthood held among Palestinian youth in East Jerusalem in relation to their experiences of arrest and detention in Israeli prison. The prisoners’ issue in Palestine has long been an inseparable part of its resistance against the Israeli occupation and the national liberation movement.[1] Under such context, the experiences of arrest and detention were considered a rite of passage among young and especially male Palestinians.[2]Yet while youth today continue to face repetitive night raid, arrests, as well as rapid encroachment and Judization of the city, the title of heroism has become rather ambiguous. 

The issues of heroism and adulthood were faced by all Palestinians, but Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem faced some distinct circumstances, especially following the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1993. The paper will first lay out how the idea of heroism is construed in relation to imprisonment, then it will look at it in today’s context. Based on the author’s ethnographic work in East Jerusalem from 2015 through 2017, the rest of the paper illustrates the conditions of youth arrest in recent years and some emerging themes that highlights the intersection between imprisonment and heroism. 

Heroism and Imprisonment 

The Israeli practice of arrest and detention of Palestinians is widely entrenched with the notion that incarceration and prisoners have a vital presence in the Palestinian iconography and the history of resistance to the occupation. Male Palestinian youth are central to this as they are the main political actors on the street and hence the target of arrest which is often associated with heroic deeds. Prisoners (asra) are called with the title of “hero” (baal) and their posters and graffiti fill the walls on the street along with those of martyrs. 

Previous studies have showed how public beatings and prison experiences during the first Intifada (1987-1993) served as rites of passage among young Palestinian males that demarcated their political maturity.[3] Inside prisons, detainees organized themselves to administer daily routines, coordinated hunger strikes across different political factions and prisons, and engaged in political discussion and education which were attended and passed on from senior political detainees to younger inmates.[4] The highly organized nature of prisoners’ internal activities is known as the “prisoner’s movement” and is the reason why some former detainees recall “prison as university.”[5] Released prisoners are also received back to their community with celebration, often with respect and elevated social status.[6]

Yet, while arrest and detention is still a lived experience today, the status afterwards of those imprisoned is becoming more ambiguous. The Palestinian political scene in the post-Oslo era and particularly after the end of the second Intifada (2000-2005) has been characterized by a diminished and divided national liberation movement, overshadowed by political rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, as well as tightening internal repression by the Palestinian Authority (PA) with ongoing Israeli violence.

These developments have resulted in “detachment with politics” and “a desire for an ordinary life” among the general public, including youth who are fed up with local politics and view arrests by the PA now as a common occurrence.[7]The recently released documentary film Ghost Hunting (iṣṭiyād ašbāḥ) is a reconstruction of the Israeli prison experience by former Palestinian inmates which exemplifies a recent shift in diversifying the images of prisoners as individuals who also go through the ordeal and trauma, cry and miss the absence of loved ones, expressions which are often overshadowed with heroism.[8] Some of my adult interviewees who spent time in Israeli prison have shared the sense of burden of being treated as a hero, while others have questioned whether going to prison today will result in meaningful political changes. How heroism is construed among the public and by detainees, as well as the role it plays in society and its shifts are thus highly interwoven with the current political dynamics and the historical Palestinian national discourse of resistance. 

Youth Arrest and Detention in East Jerusalem

Palestinian youth in this paper are the generation who have grown up mostly in the time of the post-Oslo institutional changes with no direct memory and experience of the national liberation movement in the pre-Oslo era. During this time, the isolation of Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem from the rest of West Bank Palestinians has deepened due to systemic restrictions on the movement across the territories and banning of Palestinian Authority (PA) related activities to operate in East Jerusalem.[9] Meanwhile, Israel’s attempt to consolidate the city’s unification has resulted in an acute exclusion of East Jerusalem communities, through neglect of social services, house demolition and revocation of residency rights, making their already conditional status in Jerusalem more vulnerable.[10] This atmosphere is also tangible through day-to-day contacts with Israeli police and soldiers conducting ID and body search on the streets under constant surveillances. For Jerusalemite Palestinians, simply keeping their existence in the city has thus became a crucial matter. 

East Jerusalem communities have been facing a volatile phase in recent years, particularly following the outset of a series of knife attacks carried out by Palestinian youth against Israeli soldiers and settlers in October 2015 which came to be known as “Jerusalem Intifada”. These incidents were characterized not by a coordinated movement, but rather by a chain of individual acts and as expressions of ventilating daily suppression. Many of the youth and their families I have encountered during the field research were thus those arrested or detained during this turbulent period. 

In Shufat refugee camp located northeast of the city, a permanent military checkpoint is installed to monitor the entry and exit of the residents in the camp. The street nearby this military checkpoint have become the site for youth gathering late in the night. Defending the military and soldiers from entering the camp by throwing stones have become their daily night routine. The recurrence of arrest as a result of clashing with the soldiers have solidified their social role of defending the camp. A mother of a 16-year-old youth from the camp, who at the moment of the interview had been in prison, described how her son is known among his peers as “the stubborn cub of the camp” due to his presence on the street. Already experiencing multiple arrests, his friends had commemorated him in his righteous absence by creating a video clip with other prisoners and martyrs from the camp. 

Maturity, heroism, and life after prison 

This coming-of-age in the context of political socialization and the experience of arrest and detention is also reflected in their narratives. One recurring site is “Room No. 4” (ḡurfet arb‘a), the interrogation room in the Mascobiye detention center in West Jerusalem. This is the place where youth are first taken for questioning upon being arrested. The phrase “I was in room no. 4” served as a marker and inscription of their prison experience as well as their autobiographical episode. This was in contrast with their description of the time they spend inside the actual prison which was often recounted as “‘ādī” (“nothing special”). For some, prison was an extension of their streets where they reunite with peers. It is regularly pointed out that, in recent years, not few number of Jerusalem youths who are placed under house arrest prefer to spend the rest of their term serving inside the prison than staying at home alone.[11] For an additional note, one of the youths I encountered corrected me and rephrased the words “qism ʼaṭfāl” (children’s section) to “qism ʼašbāl” (literary means little lion) when referring to the section inside the prison in which they were held. 

The impact of arrest and detention extends beyond the period of one’s incarceration. A common scenery in East Jerusalem villages is a banner of arrested youth, usually with the youth’s photograph and a signature of a political party, announcing the date of his release from prison. Upon returning to the village, his peers march the streets, chanting and carrying the released youth on their shoulders. For the next few weeks, the family will receive neighbors who pay visits to welcome back the youth. Yet this uplifting will not continue for long as the youth gradually returns to the reality outside the prison. One released youth voiced that he is not allowed to go to school (although the school does not prohibit students from attending the classes) or that he prefers to do productive jobs anywhere including supermarkets in West Jerusalem. In another case, a mother of a detained youth was subtly advised by the teacher at a private school to change schools upon release. 

On “non-questioning”

It is also worth mentioning the tendency of mothers of the detainee youth not to question what had actually happened at the time of their son’s arrest. Contrary to the presumption that parents would seek the “truth”, the common response was non-questioning. In the words of a clinical psychologist who offered an explanation, it did not really matter to the mothers what the cause of the arrest was since there were so many cases where kids are taken by the police for no reason other than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.[12] Concerns are also raised by legal professionals in recent years of the growing tendency among defendants to reach a plea bargain by confessing their charges in the hopes of bringing the youths out of detention as soon as possible.[13] The reasons of their arrest thus become irrelevant under this context. 

The tendency of non-questioning is also related to the idea of confession and recruitment. During the interrogation, youth are frequently asked to speak not only about themselves but to share the names of their friends from the village. Confessing about others and being confessed to by others leaves enormous doubt on the concept of trust. Remaining silent is tied to morality and is one reason why the interrogation phase was considered to be the “real trial” for the detainees.[14]At the entrance to the village of al-Issawiyye, graffiti on the wall, perhaps written by a youth from the village, read “dear friends…when I die, write on my grave that he did not confess.” 


In December 2015, two community activists from East Jerusalem began a sit-in protest in the compound of the Red Cross headquarters office to resist the temporary expulsion order from the city.[15] The tents they installed became a site of social gathering for a brief moment until they were taken to prison a few weeks later. The main slogan of their protest campaign was “I am not leaving” (miš tāli‘). 

For some youth, the need to act is felt strongly given the urgency of encroachment and exclusion faced by the East Jerusalem community. Because keeping and confirming their existence in the city is critical, however, the community also stands in between taking a direct stance on resistance and the non-political option to secure their residential status. It is now commonly understood that more Jerusalemites are applying for Israeli citizenship and learning Hebrew for their survival.[16] While imprisonment and heroism served as confirmation of resistance in the pre-Oslo era, such ambiguity in resistance and heroism may be what represents East Jerusalem today. 

[1] Maya Rosenfeld, Confronting the Occupation: Work, Education and Political Activism of Palestinian Families in a Refugee Camp (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[2] Esmail Nashif, Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community (Abington: Routledge, 2008); Julie Peteet, “Male Gender and Rituals of Resistance in the Palestinian ‘Intifada’: A Cultural Politics of Violence,” American Ethnologist 21, no. 1 (1994): 31-49.

[3] Peteet, “Male Gender and Rituals,” 33. 

[4] Rosenfeld, Confronting Occupation.

[5] Rebecca Granato, “Writing Palestinian Politics in Israel’s Prisons before Oslo,” Middle East Report, no. 275 (2015): 20. The “biographical significance” (Allen, 1991, p.97) of arrest and interrogation and the process by which prison experience ultimately become “a badge of honor” (Hale, 2013, pp.139-140) are also noted in ethnographic studies conducted elsewhere. For instance see Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland (the University of Chicago Press, 1991) and Sondra Hale, “The Memory Work of Anthropologists: Notes toward a Gendered Politics of Memory in Conflict Zones – Sudan and Eritrea” in Shrine Hafez and Susan Slyomovics, Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa: Into the New Millennium (Indiana University Press, 2013). 

[6] Rosenfeld, Confronting Occupation.

[7] Lotte Buch Segal, No Place for Grief: Martyrs, Prisoners, and Mourning in Contemporary Palestine (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) and Noemi Casati, “Political Participation in a Palestinian University: Nablus Undergraduates’ Political Subjectivities through Boredom, Fear and Consumption,” Ethnography 17, no. 4 (2016): 518-538.

[8] Ghost Hunting (2017), directed by Raed Andoni. 

[9] Michael Dumper, Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History, and the Future of the Holy City (Columbia University Press: 2014) p. 330. 

[10] Palestinian residents of Jerusalem live in the city as “permanent residents”, the same status given to foreign nationals in Israel and is not a full citizenship. At the same time, their social and legal status are different from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in the sense that they are part of the direct administration of the Israeli municipality rather than the PA. See Denielle C. Jefferis, “The ‘Center of Life’ Policy: Institutionalizing Statelessness in East Jerusalem,” Jerusalem Quarterly 50, (2012): 94-103 and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear(Cambridge University Press, 2015) for a more comprehensive study of situations facing East Jerusalem. 

[11] Richard Falk, “Forward” in Norma Hashim (Ed.) translated by Yousef M. Aljamal, Dreaming of Freedom: Palestinian child Prisoners Speak (Saba Islamic Media: 2016), pp.17-18. 

[12] A personal interview conducted on December 6, 2016. 

[13] Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Shahrazad Odeh, “Arrested Childhood in Spaces of Indifference: The Criminalized Children of Occupied East Jerusalem.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 30 no. 3 (2018): 413.

[14] Lisa Hajjar, Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press: 2005), p.109.

[15] Nir Hasson, “Two Palestinian Social Activists Arrested after Barricading Themselves in Red Cross Building” Haaretz. Published January 6, 2016, retrieved June 2, 2019. 

[16] Nir Hasson, “All the Ways East Jerusalem Palestinians Get Rejected in Bid to Become Israelis” Haaretz, Published January 15, 2019, retrieved June 2, 2019. Similarly, Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Odeh also point out that Palestinian families in East Jerusalem are pushed to show their assimilation with Israeli citizens and rejection to acts of resistance in order to be perceived as “normative family” and not as nationalists in the court. See Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Shahrazad Odeh, “Arrested Childhood in Spaces of Indifference: The Criminalized Children of Occupied East Jerusalem.” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 30 no. 3 (2018): 415.