At 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, dozens of soldiers burst into Ziad Sabateen’s home outside of Bethlehem to arrest his son Muhammad.
Ziad Sabateen has not seen his son since his arrest, he told The Times of Israel over the phone on Friday morning. While Muhammad has been in custody, two of the 15-year-old’s teeth were allegedly broken, Sabateen added.
“They say that he threw a rock,” the father explained. But no information has been provided to explain who made the allegation or what evidence it is based on. Sabateen denied all of the allegations against his son, who was allegedly forced into giving a confession. It was not immediately clear who broke Muhammad’s teeth, though the interrogators were initially accused of the assault.
Late-night arrests of Palestinian youth are by no means a rare occurrence in the West Bank, but Sabateen’s case has prompted an outpouring of support from not only Palestinians and fellow Arabs, but from Israeli settlers as well.
Ziad Sabateen is a founding member of the Palestinian-Israeli peace organization “Roots/Judur/Shorashim.” The group, whose name comes from the Hebrew and Arabic words for “roots,” was created almost two years ago by Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, who lives in the Alon Shvut settlement in the Etzion bloc, and Ali Abu Awwad, who once served time in an Israeli prison for throwing rocks and firebombs before turning to nonviolence. The group works with Israelis, Palestinians and foreigners to promote dialogue and understanding.
In addition to Roots/Judur/Shorashim, Sabateen is involved in other interfaith programs, including an initiative called “Path of Hope and Peace” based out of Tzur Hadassah near Jerusalem that he founded with Jewish activist Lonny Baskin and two others.
“He’s open to doing whatever needs to be done in order to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis,” Schlesinger said over the phone.
Sabateen even studied under Rabbi Menachem Froman, who served as the chief rabbi of the Tekoa settlement, until Froman’s death in 2013, Schlesinger said. In the below video from 2012, Muhammad and Ziad Sabateen eat dinner in Froman’s home.
Froman’s wife, Hadassah, has even begun reaching out to her connections in the IDF, Shin Bet security service and government in order to help Sabateen get word on the condition of his son, Schlesinger said.
“Ziad certainly has said that he has trained his son in nonviolence, and his son has definitely participated in [peaceful] activities at Tzur Hadassah,” Rabbi Schlesinger noted.
‘A very gentle person’
Sabateen completely dismissed the notion that his son had taken part in violent protests or thrown stones.
“He doesn’t believe in the violent path. He is a very gentle person,” Sabateen said of his son, his voice catching.
“I know my son like I know myself,” he added.
Twice Sabateen had to halt the conversation as he was overcome by emotion thinking of his son’s ordeal.
Their village, located just off a highway connecting Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh to some West Bank Jewish settlements, is a frequent site of stone throwing activities, an army spokesperson said.
Sabateen said he even pulled Muhammad out of his regular high school in order to make sure that other students did not have a negative impact on him.
“I told [my son], ‘You’re life is more important to me than that you learn in that school and make friends who will put you down a bad path,'” Sabateen said.
Muhammad, a skinny and gangly teenager, has worked alongside Jewish Israelis in joint agricultural projects, Sabateen added.
Though Muhammad was brought before a judge earlier this week, Sabateen was kept from seeing him or meeting with the prosecutors to tell them his son is innocent, he said.
The Roots/Judur/Shorashim and Path of Hope and Peace groups have attempted to get updates on Muhammad’s condition multiple times a day since the arrest early Wednesday morning.
“We believe that his name was given by someone else who had previously been arrested or detained, possibly to hurt Ziad for all of his peace work. He was then put under interrogation for many hours. He was beaten, threatened and intimidated into a confession,” Lonny Baskin, who spearheads the Path of Hope and Peace organization that Sabateen is a part of, wrote in a Facebook post about the arrest.
‘He was beaten, threatened and intimidated into a confession’
Schlesinger, though he said he did not believe Muhammad was guilty of wrongdoing, admitted that there is no way yet to be entirely sure. What is more important at this stage, he explained, is to correct the injustice of the brutal treatment Muhammad has been subjected to.
“We don’t know if Ziad’s son did anything wrong. It’s not that we’re coming to the rescue because we are certain that he is innocent,” Schlesinger said. “But from what I have heard of how he’s been treated in interrogations, it’s pretty terrible,” he said.
‘What do you see? Animals?’
In addition to arresting Muhammad, the soldiers who entered the family home in Husan, outside of Bethlehem, terrified his 6-year-old brother, who was sleeping in the bed next to him, by shouting at him, the father said.
“They screamed at him, ‘Get up! Get up!'” Sabateen recounted.
“He’s just a 6-year-old boy,” he added, exasperated.
Sabateen, who constantly works alongside Israelis and Jews, tried to speak with the soldiers’ commander in order to calm things down during the arrest.
“I told him, you’re an officer, you’re a respectable person. Your rank carries with it a code of honor. Please act in a good way. Please. I beg you. You come into a house with nine children. What do you see? Animals?” Sabateen recalled telling the officer.
The company commander who oversaw the arrest, however, claimed it was not out of the ordinary, an army spokesman said.
“The guy didn’t resist arrest or anything so we didn’t feel the need to.. you know,” the spokesman added.
The IDF troops who arrested Muhammad turned him over to a nearby police station, where Sabateen alleged he was struck by interrogators.
The police did not respond to The Times of Israel’s inquiries as to why or how Muhammad was allegedly injured during his interrogation.
“Now they say that he has a court date next Monday, and we will see what happens,” Sabateen said.
A flood of support
These trials can cost thousands of dollars, and as a result, since Muhammad’s arrest, friends and colleagues have sought donations to help in the legal defense. Baskin set up a PayPal account to direct the funds.
Ziad’s Facebook page has since filled with pictures of Muhammad and messages of support. The posts have come from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as Texas, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Paris.
“I am right wing and made aliyah to serve in the military yet I am ashamed of the lack of respect us Israelis have to a man as kind as Ziad and his family,” one person wrote on Sabateen’s page.
The main thrust of their effort now is to make sure that Muhammad receives medical care and to try to make some connection with him to find out how he is doing, Sabateen said.
“I just want to speak with my son. To hear that he is OK, that everything is all right,” he said.
Sabateen, who has clearly been shaken by what has happened to his son, said this experience will not force him to deviate from his path of peace and nonviolence.
“I know that we have a right-wing government that does not believe in our path of peace,” he said. “But every hit that I get only makes my resolution stronger.”