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Five Boys Went to Pick Wild Greens. They Returned at Night, After Hours Under Arrest

First, journalists heard from Israeli military sources that on Wednesday soldiers had detained children for allegedly stealing parrots from the West Bank settlement outpost of Havat Ma’on.

Later, when video of the arrest went viral, Maurice Hirsch, the former head of the military prosecution in the West Bank, who lives in the settlement of Efrat, hypothesized over Twitter: “The shame here, is that someone – possibly Btselem? – actually sent kids to commit a crime just so that they could entrap unsuspecting journalists to spread lies about Israel.”

But there were no parrots and no conspiracy by B’Tselem.

Jaber, 13; Zeid, 12; Omar, 10 and Yassin and Saqr, both 8, are cousins who live in the Palestinian village of Umm Lasafa, east of Yatta, in the southern West Bank.

On Wednesday morning the boys grabbed pails, told their parents of their plans and went out to forage for akkoub (Gundelia tourneforti), a wild vegetable used in Palestinian cuisine.

They should have been in their Zoom classrooms, but since most Palestinian families in the area have neither an internet connection nor a computer, the children blow off school.

The local produce shop pays the children 9 shekels ($2.70) per kilogram for the akkoub, which they use for toys or candy their parents cannot afford.

The boys’ fathers, three brothers from the Abu Hmeid family, had worked in Israel until a few months ago and are currently unemployed.

The boys had picked akkoub for a few days previously. This time, they said, they went southeast, toward the village of Al-Tuwani, in the hope of getting a jump on the competition.

Shortly before noon on Thursday, less than 24 hours after they were detained, the boys sat in the reception room of their extended family. The older boys, Zeid and Jaber, described to journalists and field researchers of human rights groups how the search for akkoub went wrong. The younger ones were silent. “When he came back home after the detention, he was too scared to speak,” Omar’s father said.

In their quest for the wild vegetable, the boys scrambled down into wadis and climbed up hills. They picked a little akkoub, but didn’t find much. After visiting relatives in the village of Umm Faqara, south of Al-Tuwani, they headed north, to the hill facing Al-Tuwani. Havat Ma’on was established more than 20 years ago on this hill. Jaber said he and his cousins didn’t know there was a settlement there, and didn’t know its name.

They also didn’t know that for 16 years (until the coronavirus pandemic began), Israeli soldiers escorted children from a nearby village to and from school each day, because the route passed directly below the outpost.

It’s easier for the army to assign soldiers to escort the children than it is for it to prevent Israelis from leaving the outpost in order to attack the children. Due to this constant threat, the Israel Defense Forces also prohibits Palestinian traffic on this road. Had the boys known about the violence connected to the outpost, they probably wouldn’t have dared to approach it.

But they did. Roy Sharon, the military correspondent of Israel’s Kan public television, posted on Twitter some footage from a security camera showing two blurry figures approaching what appears to be a sheep pen.

“It’s illegal to arrest 8-year-olds. Whoever made the decision made a big mistake,” he wrote, adding: “The boys were inside the built-up area of Havat Ma’on. The B’Tselem statement said [the children] ‘picked akkoub near the settlement.’ That wasn’t what happened.”

The boys deny that they were there. But even assuming they were in the security camera footage that Sharon posted, couldn’t both things be true?

They picked akkoub and also entered the area of Havat Ma’on’s livestock pens, perhaps out of the curiosity that is natural to children?

Either way, a video shot by Israeli activists shows the boys and their buckets south of a wood, bending down and picking plants, until two Israeli teens, their faces covered, emerge from the woods. Jaber says the teens said something in Hebrew. Two Israeli men then appeared, asked them something in Arabic and, Jaber says, invited them to enter the outpost. The boys refused, saw a pickup truck and an all-terrain vehicle approach, felt they were in danger, abandoned their pails and left.

The video shows three Israelis getting out of a blue pickup. One goes off the path, picks up the pails from the rocky terrain and puts them into the truck. When the children returned to the location, they discovered that their pails, with the akkoub inside, were gone. They saw army jeeps, realized that the settlers had sent the soldiers to apprehend them and they began to flee. They ran in the wadi and climbed a hill. Frightened and out of breath, they reached a house in the village of al-Rakiz.

Before the owner managed to get them inside to calm them down, the jeeps arrived carrying at least 15 servicemen, including a few officers. To the boys, it looked like double that number. In one of the vehicles they saw the settlers they had seen earlier.

The soldiers made the boys sit on the ground, outside the house, and called out the two eldest, Zeid and Jaber, for questioning.

The boys say they weren’t asked about any parrots.

Nasser Nawaj’ah, a B’Tselem field researcher who lives in the nearby village of Susya, received a WhatsApp message at 2:41 P.M. saying there was a problem, and rushed to them.

Over the protests of Nawaj’ah and other people at the scene, the soldiers dragged the children into their jeeps, starting with the youngest: Omar, 10, and 8-year-olds Yassin and Saqr. Each soldier grabbed one boy, holding an arm tightly or a hand gently.

Zeid ran toward his brother Omar to try to free him. A different soldier grabbed him and swung him into the air to keep them apart. The soldiers put four of the boys in one jeep, but put Zeid into a different one. The boys were not handcuffed or blindfolded. It was slightly after 3 P.M., and for at least another two hours their families didn’t know where they were.

Lawyers Gaby Lasky and Reham Nasra entered the picture and called the police and the army for information. Meanwhile, the boys were driven to Havat Ma’on, where they remained locked inside the jeeps for about an hour. From there they were taken to a police station opposite Kiryat Arba, but they stayed in the vehicles and were not questioned by police.

Their parents waited for them at the other entrance of the police station, in a Hebron neighborhood.

The boys returned home at about 8:45 P.M. With no akkoub.

Source: Amira Hass – HAARETZ

Header: Gundelia tourneforti

Notes:

Early in the year, Gundelia plants growing in the wild are cut at the base and the thorns are removed. Leaves, stems, roots, and particularly the undeveloped flowerheads can be eaten. The base of the young leaves which is still under the surface is used by Bedouin and Arabs to make akkub soup. In the West Bank, young flowerheads, stems and leaves are fried in olive oil, mixed with a stew of meat chops until well done, and served mixed with yogurt. Gundelia is said to taste like something between asparagus and artichoke. Another dish is to put a trimmed inflorescence in a meatball, fry these in olive oil and then simmer them in a sauce containing lemon juice. In rural communities in northern Iraq, Gundelia is still being used as a vegetable, but in Israel collecting for the market resulted in a decline in the plant population and collecting is restricted to personal use.

Traditionally, Gundelia is [also] used to treat a wide variety of ailments such as liver diseases, diabetes, chest pain, heart attacks, pain in the chest and the stomach, leukoderma, diarrhea and bronchitis. In addition hypoglycaemic, laxative, sedative, anti-inflammatory, anti-parasite, antiseptic and emetic effects have been claimed, as well as improvement of the gums and curing spleen enlargement. Proven effects include antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, antioxidant, antiplatelet and cholesterol suppression.