Palestinian peacenik’s son released from prison, changed but dedicated to non-violence

Teenager convicted of rock throwing, claims interrogator beat him into confession, denied him right to an attorney

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

From left to right, Ziad Sabateen, Lonny Baskin, Mustafa Sabateen, Muhammad Sabateen and Phil Saunders pose for a photograph on the night of Muhammad's release after a three-month prison sentence. (Courtesy/Ziad Sabateen)
From left to right, Ziad Sabateen, Lonny Baskin, Mustafa Sabateen, Muhammad Sabateen and Phil Saunders pose for a photograph on the night of Muhammad's release after a three-month prison sentence. (Courtesy/Ziad Sabateen)

While in prison, Muhammad Sabateen turned 16 years old and became an uncle. He had been convicted of stone throwing and sentenced to three months in an Israeli prison, which he completed on January 27.

Muhammad believes his troubles began because of a rivalry over a girl, he told The Times of Israel in his family’s home in the Palestinian village of Husan, outside of Bethlehem.

As Muhammad’s Hebrew was limited, his father Ziad translated most of the conversation. Ziad Sabateen is a Palestinian peace activist, who works closely with Israelis — including those living in settlements — to promote dialogue and cooperation between Jewish Israelis and Arabs, as well as non-violently protest against Israel’s control of the West Bank.

For many years, Ziad Sabateen was the student of Rabbi Menachem Froman, the late chief rabbi of the Tekoa settlement, and he still maintains close ties with Froman’s widow, Hadassah.

Hadassah Froman, whose pregnant daughter-in-law was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist in January, was one of the central figures working with other Jewish Israelis to raise money for Muhammad’s legal fees and also spoke on his behalf during the trial.

The judge didn’t believe that Israelis, especially settlers, would come to the trial, Lonny Baskin, a peace activist and friend of the family, told The Times of Israel.

“Hadassah spoke for all of us. The judge told everyone to be quiet. He kicked people out of the courtroom so that he could hear every single word she had to say. She spoke about knowing Ziad for many years, that Ziad was a student of Rabbi Menahem Froman — may his memory be blessed — that he was like a member of the family,” Baskin recounted.

“The judge was very impressed,” he said.

Muhammad Ziad Sabateen, right, as a young child plays with his father Ziad Sabateen, center, and Jewish peace activist Shaul Judelman from the 'Shorashim -- Judur -- Roots' organization. (Courtesy)
Muhammad Ziad Sabateen, right, as a young child plays with his father Ziad Sabateen, center, and Jewish peace activist Shaul Judelman from the ‘Shorashim — Judur — Roots’ organization. (Courtesy)

Ziad and Muhammad said they remain committed to dialogue and peace activism, despite Muhammad’s arrest and imprisonment by the Israeli government.

In light of the incident, Ziad Sabateen and some Jewish activists plan to present to Israel’s Military Court an alternative to prison for convicted Palestinian teenagers, a program that would teach non-violence and leadership, instead of “hatred against the Israeli side,” Ziad said.

Muhammad denies that he ever threw rocks or Molotov cocktails at cars. Upon his release from prison, his father grilled him on the subject, Baskin said.

When asked again if he’d thrown stones, Muhammad’s response was an immediate, “La’,” which even with my rudimentary knowledge of Arabic, I knew meant “No.”

But Muhammad’s supporters have said that his innocence or guilt was not their primary concern.

“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,” Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, another friend of the family, said at the time of Muhammad’s arrest.

However, Schlesinger and Baskin argued, no one should be abused during an interrogation, as they believe Muhammad had been.

All about a girl

According to Muhammad, another teenager from Husan had a crush on the same girl as he did, and when that teen was arrested for rock throwing, he gave Muhammad’s name to investigators.

Muhammad’s rival later recanted his testimony, but in a bizarre twist of logic, the court threw out the reversal because the teenager was found to be untrustworthy, but still allowed his original testimony that accused Muhammad in the first place, said Lonny Baskin.

Muhammad Sabateen smiles for a photograph after his release from prison. (Courtesy/Ziad Sabateen)
Muhammad Sabateen smiles for a photograph after his release from prison. (Courtesy/Ziad Sabateen)

During his interrogation, Muhammad confessed to throwing rocks at cars on Route 375, which passes by Husan and is a common location for stone and firebomb attacks. Once he was released from the interrogation, however, he almost immediately went back on his statement, claiming he had been forced into an admission through verbal and physical assaults.

His interrogation, trial and incarceration have clearly affected Muhammad, Ziad said. At 16, he is more mature and serious than he ought to be.

Muhammad is not a shell of his former self; he still laughs and dances. Like any teenager, his attention was regularly diverted from the conversation to his cell phone.

While discussing his trial and incarceration, Muhammad spoke quietly, but openly. He maintained eye contact and even smiled occasionally. However, when asked about the night of his arrest and interrogation, his eyes glazed over. He stared at the floor or off into the distance as he relayed what had happened.

Allegations of abuse

At 2:30 a.m. on November 11, a group of IDF soldiers came into the family’s home and arrested Muhammad. In some arrests, the IDF has photographs of the suspect throwing a rock or otherwise taking part in a riot, but in Muhammad’s case the IDF officer had only an ID photo, Ziad said.

Muhammad, then 15 years old, was blindfolded and had his hands bound in zipties before being loaded into an army vehicle along with other suspects and taken to a military base in next-door Beitar Illit. A few hours later he was taken to a base in the Etzion bloc, where he was left outside to sit for hours, until interrogators came to pick him up, he said.

There were two stages of the interrogation: First, some men, who did not identify themselves, questioned Muhammad intensely for hours, until they brought out a confession. Ziad said he believes these men were from the Shin Bet security service, something the agency denied.

“The teenager was not interrogated by us,” the Shin Bet said.

After he confessed, self-identified police officers questioned him in a filmed interrogation, which was “short and polite,” Muhammad said through his father.

‘You have to confess. You can’t get out of here unless you confess.’

During the first round, the head interrogator — who went by the name Moshe — along with other unidentified officers forcefully questioned Muhammad for hours.

Initially they accused Muhammad of throwing Molotov cocktails, but when he denied that allegation, they changed their mind, saying he had thrown rocks, Muhammad said.

“You have to talk. You have to confess. You can’t get out of here unless you confess,” the investigators told Muhammad, according to Ziad.

Moshe — in Ziad’s accented Hebrew, Mooshy — yelled and threatened to arrest other members of Muhammad’s family, his sister or his mother, if he didn’t talk. Moshe, and the other officers, hit Muhammad in the head and testicles, wrapping their hand in a towel in order to prevent bruises, Ziad said.

Moshe allegedly slammed the 15-year-old’s head into a fence so hard he broke two teeth, Muhammad said.

The police did not respond to The Times of Israel’s requests for comment.

‘This is Musa’

At one point, Moshe called Ziad on the telephone and told him, in Arabic, that he was with Muhammad and that Muhammad had asked for a lawyer.

‘Listen, your son is with us for questioning’

Ziad was confused by the call from an unidentified Israeli man speaking in Arabic, but told Moshe — who presented himself by the Arabic version of the name, Musa — that he would send a lawyer, but Moshe hung up the phone and ignored Ziad’s request.

Ziad recorded the call on his smartphone and presented it as evidence to the judge as proof that Muhammad’s rights to an attorney were infringed upon.

“Ziad, how are you? This is Musa,” the caller said.

“Hello, brother,” Ziad responded, using an Arabic word, which can mean either a literal brother or a friend.

“Listen, your son is with us for questioning,” Musa said.

“Musa who? Who are you?” Ziad asked.

“Listen, your son is with us for questioning in Etzion,” Musa said.

“Yes, brother,” Ziad said.

“He asked me to tell you to send him a lawyer,” the caller said.

“Now? Right now? I can do that,” Ziad said.

“Okay habibi… It’s like his father is here with him… Don’t be afraid,” Musa said, using an Arabic word for buddy.

“Can I speak to–” Ziad began to ask.

“Bye,” Musa interrupted.

“Can I spea–” Ziad tried to ask again, but “Musa” had already disconnected the call.

After his back-to-back interrogations, Muhammad was brought to jail to await trial.

Initially, Muhammad was charged with four counts of rock throwing. He was to be given a five-month jail sentence and a fine of NIS 3,000 ($770).

Muhammad’s attorney presented the prosecutor and the judge with the recording of Ziad’s conversation with “Musa.”

In light of the phone call and the outcry of support by Hadassah Froman and other Jewish activists, the prosecutor reduced Muhammad’s charges to just one count of rock throwing, Baskin said.

The extremists and the good people

Muhammad was presented with a plea deal, in which his sentence was reduced to three months in prison, including time served, but with a NIS 6,000 ($1,540) fine. The deal was also conditional on a meeting with a state social worker, who would speak with both Muhammad and Ziad.

Muhammad’s attorney accepted the deal. The military’s chief prosecutor, however, did not approve of the plea bargain. The prosecutor appealed the decision in order to bring back the initial five-month sentence, but the appellate judge threw out the case, saying the additional fine was sufficient to offset the shorter prison sentence, Baskin said.

Muhammad’s time in prison was relatively easy, and the staff treated him with dignity and respect, he said.

“We would play sports, pray, talk about getting out,” Muhammad said.

But that time could have been better spent teaching Palestinian prisoners about virtues of non-violence, leadership and “the way of peace,” Ziad remarked.

Muhammad said he harbors no ill-will towards Israelis as a group, though he did admit to feeling an intense dislike towards the men he claims beat him.

“There are Jews who are good, and there are Jews who are extremists. If someone does good deeds, he is a good person,” Muhammad said.

“It’s the same with Arabs. There are extremists, and there are good people,” his father Ziad added.

“And the bad people,” Muhammad went on, “you just have to stay away from them.”

‘The way of peace’

Now that Muhammad is out of prison, he claims to have more “street cred” with the other teenagers and children of Husan, which he said he will use to discourage other Husan youth from throwing rocks, and instead direct them towards “non-violence and peace,” his father translated.

The group of Israelis and Jews who came to his trial also gave Muhammad an air of mystery during his prison-stay, which he has retained upon his release. “The other kids would ask, ‘Who is your father?’ and ‘How does he know [those Israelis]?'” he said.

Most of the money to pay for Muhammad’s fine was donated by friends of the family and supporters from around the world.

The majority of Palestinians, however, do not have the connections that the Sabateen family has. As such, Ziad Sabateen, Baskin and others intend to set up a “humanitarian fund” to help other Palestinians pay for their legal fees and court costs, Baskin said.

Ziad, however, mostly just seemed glad to have his son back home in Husan. When he spoke about Muhammad’s return and the birth of his first grandchild, his voice would catch and his laughter seemed on the brink of turning into tears of joy.

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