Palestinian seeks early release in case that shook Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (AP) — It was a crime that convulsed Jerusalem.

On a fall day seven years ago, 13-year-old Palestinian Ahmad Manasra and his 15-year-old cousin tore through the streets of a Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem, armed with knives. His cousin, Hassan, critically wounded a 13-year-old Israeli boy who was leaving a candy store and stabbed another Israeli man. He was shot dead by police. Ahmad was run over by a car, beaten and jeered by Israeli passers-by.

Now, Ahmad, a 20-year-old in isolation and tormented by psychosis, has asked for an early release from prison after completing two-thirds of his sentence. Several courts have rejected his request, arguing that even if prisoners would ordinarily be eligible for release after so long in prison, Ahmad — a “terror” convict — was not, regardless of his age or mental condition.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear his appeal in the coming days.

His case has been a lightning rod for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, incensing Israeli Jews who viewed Ahmad as a terrorist seeking to kill Jews his own age and enraging Palestinians who saw him as the victim of a vicious mob and unfair trial, punished for a crime his dead cousin committed. A graphic video of Ahmad lying in the street, bleeding from the head while Israelis taunted him, garnered millions of views.

Ahmad's lawyer argued at the time that he had sought to frighten Jews in retribution for Israeli policies toward Gaza, not kill them.

Over the past six years since Ahmad was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison, doctors say he developed schizophrenia in solitary confinement and tried to harm himself and others. As of Thursday, Ahmad has spent 354 days in isolation. On Tuesday, he told his lawyer he drank bleach. Just hours later, Israeli attorney general asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the appeal for Ahmad’s early release, citing a 2018 counterterrorism amendment.

Ahmad’s lawyers say it’s the first time a parole committee retroactively applied the law that forbids early release for security cases. Rights groups have decried the law as creating two separate legal norms applying to Israeli and Palestinian convicts.

“People who commit rape are eligible for early release but Ahmad who was arrested at age 13 and with a prison sentence that's endangering his life is not,” said Budour Hassan, an Amnesty International researcher.

Typically in Israel, children under the age of 16 are sent to juvenile detention centers, where they get education and counseling in better conditions than normal prisons. Then judicial officials decide whether to transfer them. Ahmad was sent to a public prison after two years.

For Ahmad’s family and supporters, his transformation from a child who cared for birds and loved soccer into a mentally ill high-security prisoner with a growing tendency toward despair is a dark warning about the violence of the Mideast conflict and its impact on the younger generation.

“When he was 13 and he needed his mom the most, he was thrown in prison,” his mother, Maysoon Manasra, said from their home in Beit Hanina, in east Jerusalem. It's just across the highway from the settlement Pisgat Ze’ev, where surveillance footage had showed the knife-wielding boys chasing a man through the street. “The prison only offered pain."

A rights group, Defense for Children International-Palestine, estimates that 700 Palestinians under 18 are arrested every year in the occupied West Bank, and hundreds more in east Jerusalem. Between 2016-2021, the group documented 155 cases of prolonged solitary confinement in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

The teenagers are typically held in a 1-by-1.5-meter (3-by-5-foot) cell flooded with endless light, the group said. Their only human contact is with interrogators. They return to their families deeply scarred, said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, the group’s accountability program director.

“We learn from their parents that they become a different person,” he said.

According to Ahmad's family and lawyers, he is locked in a small cell for 23 hours a day. He struggles with paranoia and delusions that keep him from sleeping. Authorities first moved him to isolation in November 2021, following a scuffle with another inmate. He becomes so terrified by his hallucinations that he is taken to the psychiatric wing of Ramla Prison in central Israel every few months. Doctors give him injections to stabilize him before sending him back to solitary, his family says.

The Israeli Prison Service said Ahmad “is kept in a supervision cell and not solitary” due to “his mental state.” It did not respond to questions about the difference between solitary and a supervision cell.

“His health condition stabilized and (there is) no reason for continued hospitalization,” it said.

His father, Saleh Manasra, described the conditions as agonizing.

“He speaks to no one but the worms on the cell floor,” he said. “He imagines someone is going to kill him. He imagines someone is chasing him.”

Manasra said prison authorities often deny his requests to visit Ahmad. Through the plexiglass every few months, Manasra can tell his son “is getting worse and worse," he said. Ahmad's only plea is that he rejoin the other inmates.

Ahmad’s mental anguish started soon after his arrest. Video leaked from his interrogation at age 13 shows him crying and pounding his head in frustration as Israeli interrogators shout questions at him about the attack.

At the time of Ahmad’s arrest, children under the age of 14 could not be held criminally responsible under Israeli law. The trial dragged out. Ahmad was convicted after his 14th birthday. Two years later, lawmakers cited Ahmad’s case as they passed a law allowing 12-year-olds to be imprisoned on terror charges.

“They're treated like adult security prisoners,” said Naji Abbas, case manager at the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

After repeated requests, Israeli prison authorities allowed a doctor from the nonprofit to diagnose Ahmad, then 18. Considering he and his family have no previous psychiatric history, Jerusalem-based psychiatrist Noa Bar Haim attributed Ahmad’s schizophrenia to the psychological toll of prison.

“His continued incarceration will inevitably cause his illness to deteriorate and create a permanent disability,” she warned, recommending immediate release and intensive psychiatric care.

Instead, he was taken into isolation. Over the last two years, his lawyer Khaled Zabarqa said Ahmad has tried to saw his wrists with whatever sharp edge he could find in his cell.

Despite the extraordinary attention his case has drawn and the outrage it has spawned, his parents insist that growing up, Ahmad didn’t understand the conflict that determined his life.

“They call him a terrorist. I don’t think he even knew what he was doing or what that would mean,” Maysoon said.