Israel’s youngest prisoner says life in jail ‘was exactly like my dad told me’

Ahmad Salaima is welcomed by his family upon his arrival at his home in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem
Ahmad Salaima is welcomed by his family upon his arrival at his home in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem - AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

A Palestinian boy, 14, jailed for stone-throwing is looking forward to returning to school after he was freed in the hostage swap deal.

Ahmad Salaymeh, the youngest Palestinian released in the exchange, spent five months in Damon prison in the northern Haifa district.

Before that he was on trial or under house-arrest for a year on charges including throwing rocks at Israeli settlers.

On the day of his release, Ahmad’s mother was photographed throwing her arms around his neck, apparently overcome with joy.

“I’m looking forward to normal things, like going back to school,” Ahmad told The Telegraph at his family home on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.

During the ceasefire, Israel freed 240 Palestinian women and children in return for 110 Israeli hostages. The boy’s incarceration was not his family’s first encounter with the prison system.

Ahmad Salaima is welcomed by his mother outside their home in east Jerusalem
Ahmad Salaymeh is welcomed by his mother outside their home in East Jerusalem - AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

His father, Nawaf, served five years in the same jail after he was arrested during the first Palestinian Intifada in the early 1990s. Then, more than 100 Israeli civilians were killed in a prolonged uprising in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Nawaf was imprisoned for rioting, hate and burning cars.

Ahmad, while reluctant to discuss his experiences in Damon, said his father had prepared him for the experience.

“There was nothing there to surprise me,” he told The Telegraph. “It was exactly just how dad told me it would be.”

Reflecting on his son’s imprisonment, Nawaf said that he understood the boy’s fury at the Israeli government, but was keen for him to pursue a different path in life.

“This is our nation – how can I tell him to stop fighting for our country?”

“[But] I try to tell him that he can work against the system in other ways than throwing stones: study to be a lawyer, a rights activist.”

Ahmad “walked out of the same prison, the very same prison gate I did,” he sighed.

Israeli security forces banned any celebrations of the freeing of Palestinian prisoners in East Jerusalem, where they still maintain control.

But there were parties in the West Bank, with crowds chanting pro-Hamas slogans, blaring pop music and setting off fireworks.

None of the freed Palestinians were convicted of murder, but a small number had carried out serious attacks. One woman was left disfigured in a failed bombing, another stabbed a teacher.

But around 80 per cent of the list of 300 Palestinian women and children submitted for potential release by the Israeli government were not convicts at all, according to an analysis by a rights group and local media outlets.

Many were being held in so-called administrative detention, a practice which allows Israel to jail non-Israeli citizens in the West Bank on classified evidence without pressing charges.

Human rights organisations have called for the practice to be scrapped, saying that it leaves detainees no opportunity to mount a defence.

Ahmad and other former inmates described how prison conditions changed overnight after Hamas’s cross-border attack on Israel on Oct 7, in which 1,200 Israelis were killed.

Guards removed TV sets and radios from the cells the next morning. They also shut down the canteen.

Inmates knew something had happened but were unclear on the details, said Mohammad Salaymeh, Ahmad’s second cousin, who was jailed with him on the same day in July.

“I had no idea about the Hamas attack, about the war in Gaza until I was out,” 16-year-old Mohammad told the Telegraph. While there were rumours of war “we had no idea which war – here, in the West Bank or in Gaza.”

On Tuesday morning, Mohammad was released for what he was told was an interrogation.

“I had to sign a paper that said I should not engage in any celebrations, should not wave flags or invite large groups of people over,” he said.

“I asked ‘why?’ And then they said: ‘Because you’re going home’.”

During the release, Ahmad and Mohammad were put in civilian cars alongside their fathers and Israeli soldiers.

Mohammad was asked to turn and look away from the window: It was only when he got home he realised his father had been one seat away for the journey.

‘Thanks to Gaza and the blood of the people’

Nawaf, Ahmad’s father, said he was not in the mood to party even when his son came home.

“Their release of those people was possible only thanks to Gaza and the blood of the people, sadly,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be the right thing to celebrate.”

Many of the inmates on the exchange list were arrested in Israel’s security sweep in the West Bank and East Jerusalem after the Oct 7 attack, when 3,260 Palestinians including 200 children were detained, according to the Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer.

While prosecutors continue to pursue cases against Palestinian teenagers throwing rocks at settlers, settler violence against Palestinians has also spiked following the start of the Gaza war.

In East Jerusalem, the neighbourhood of Ras Al Amoud has long been a flashpoint. In the early 2000s an American businessman bought a plot of land there to build a settlement.

Despite an international outcry, the Ma’ale Zeitim settlement remains – a cluster of blocks of flats perched on a hill behind a tall concrete wall.

On a recent afternoon, Orthodox Jewish women hurried through streets outside the settlement guarded by Israeli officers with automatic rifles.

At least five boys from Ras Al Amoud, two of them from the extended Salaymeh family, have been detained and charged with throwing stones at the settlers in the past year.

It is not easy to keep the teenagers off the streets and away from confrontations with the newcomers, residents of Ras Al Amoud said.

Sitting with friends a short walk from Ahmad’s house, Mohammad, told the Telegraph his father is desperate to keep him out of jail.

“Dad told me not to go outside and said he’d be taking me to school now himself so that I don’t get arrested again,” he said.

Nawaf, Mohammad’s uncle and a father of six himself, said he held little hope for an end to the cycle of violence.

His 13-year-old son Ayham, whose voice has not yet broken, is at home under house arrest under the same charges as his elder brother.

“Who knows, maybe he will have to become our youngest prisoner, too,” Mr Salaymeh said.