JERUSALEM — Heavily armed Israeli police dragged the Dana brothers from their home before dawn, tossed them in armored jeeps and hauled them in for interrogation, the Palestinian boys and their father told The Associated Press.
While Israel has long relied on night raids like this to nab Palestinian militants who seek to kill Israelis, the Dana brothers didn't fit the bill. Their alleged crime: throwing stones. Their ages: 14 and 16.
In a report released Monday, the Israeli rights group B'Tselem says the youths' arrest is part of an Israeli campaign targeting Palestinian minors – one just 5 years old – for stone throwing in east Jerusalem. It says police often arrest minors from their homes in the middle of the night and interrogate them, sometimes with no parent present, in ways that violate Israeli law.
Israeli police say the arrests are not only legal but necessary to stamp out stone throwing, which often targets police or Jewish settlers. It's especially common in parts of east Jerusalem, where tensions run high between Palestinian residents and Israeli police, settlers and their security guards.
"As soon as the law is broken and as soon as people are attacked, we will respond very quickly by making arrests," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
The fate of east Jerusalem is the most sensitive issue in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Israel captured the area in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it, a move the international community has not recognized. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
B'Tselem's report examines the cases of 81 Palestinian minors arrested between November 2009 and October 2010 in the flashpoint neighborhood of Silwan, a working-class area just outside of Jerusalem's Old City.
Settler organizations that seek to expand Israeli control have targeted the area, placing about 350 settlers in heavily guarded enclaves among 16,500 Palestinians.
The report says police arrested many minors in their homes in Silwan at night, seizing some from their beds. Undercover officers nabbed others on the street. At least 30 of the 81 detained were younger than 15, the report said. Four were younger than 12 and the youngest was five.
They were detained from a few hours to a few days and interrogated, sometimes without parents present, the report said. Some said police roughed them up. The report also says some were released after paying fines as high as $1,300. Others were placed under house arrest for up to two months, allowed only to go to school accompanied by a parent.
B'Tselem said arresting and interrogating minors at night or without a parent present violates Israeli laws that protect minors.
Rosenfeld said police arrested "several hundred" people in east Jerusalem over the last year for stone throwing, though he didn't know how many minors. He said he was unaware of any interrogations without parents present, and emphasized that all are filmed as court evidence.
Police expected community leaders to teach their youth not to throw stones, which have injured many officers, including one who lost an eye, Rosenfeld said.
The turning point in Silwan was Sept. 22, when a settler security guard shot and killed an Arab resident. Arab youths burned garbage and tires and threw stones at police, who fired back with tear gas. The report says police arrested at least 32 minors in the next five weeks.
On Nov. 10, the entered the home of Mohammed Abdel-Haq to arrest his son Wadea, 9, he said. They also arrested a downstairs neighbor, Omar Abu Saoud, 7.
"They were all suited up for battle, like they were going to bring in (Osama) bin Laden," Abdel-Haq told the AP.
The boys' fathers rode with them to a police station, where an officer said he had photos of the boys throwing stones. Abdel-Haq said if it was true, he'd punish his son himself.
But at the station, he was told he could only see the photos in court and that his son would be detained for 48 hours in the meantime, he said.
Last month, 60 Israeli professionals who work with children sent an open letter to the government warning that arrests could psychologically damage minors.
"The potential effect that a tough and often violent police conduct may have on their future development and on their lives as adults may be hard and painful for them, their relatives, and the entire society," it read.
Parents worry, too.
Faraj Dana told the AP that police arrested his sons Ahmed, 14, and Jamal, 16, from their home in the middle of the night on Oct. 20. They were held four and eight days, respectively, and interrogated alone, he said. Both were released to 20 days of house arrest after his father paid a $415 bond.
Dana said his sons were innocent but that he supported stone throwing.
"If the setters come and get comfortable, they'll tell all their relatives to come," he said. "But if they are uncomfortable, perhaps it will keep them from coming."
Still, he worries about his youngest son.
"His laughter used to fill up the street," he said. "Now he's very quiet, as if he woke up and saw that there are things in life he never thought about before."
Ahmed often recalls his arrest.
"At night sometimes, I wonder if they are going to come pound on the door again," he said. "It keeps me awake."