When Palestinian children leave their homes, their parents struggle with this unique and profound concern that extends beyond the typical parental worries. It's a fear that goes beyond the ordinary concerns of growing up. Their anxiety isn't just about the typical challenges of adolescence; it's a deep-seated dread that their children might never return home.

I've known Palestinian human rights activist Badee Dwaik for several years now, and throughout our friendship, I have seen how Palestinian parents prepare themselves mentally, knowing that any goodbye could be the last. It's like living on the edge, always imagining the worst scenarios and trying to find strength to face them.

Palestinian families try to find solace in their faith and in the support of the community. But the fear never really leaves – every time their children leave the house, it's like a piece of their hearts goes with them, and they hold their breath until they return.

Mahmoud Dwaik(at the right) pictured alongside his family in Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

However, in these Occupied Palestinian Territories, each Palestinian parent draws strength from the shared experiences of other families who face similar struggles. There's a collective strength in their community that helps them endure, even in the face of the unknown.

Though his demeanour exuded calmness and outward composure while speaking to me, I knew there was an internal storm, a silent agony consuming Badee, a Palestinian father living in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, whose son left home on November 4 but did not return. The silent suffering painted across his eyes mirrored the torment of a Palestinian father wrestling with the haunting question: ‘Is Mahmoud alive?’

He paused, his eyes welled up with tears, but he took a deep breath to continue. “Before I left home to get some supplies from my friend’s house, the last thing I saw was my son sitting beneath the olive trees surrounding our home, engaging in playful banter with his mother. But he left home at around 5 pm. We started to worry when he didn't return home as expected. Almost at 11 pm, my wife and I repeatedly called his phone, but it continued to ring with no answer.”

He said he did not tell anyone in the family. “Only my wife, children and I knew about it,” he said. This continued till next morning. Mahmoud’s parents persistently kept trying his son’s number but by 8 am, Mahmoud’s phone was turned off. At 2 pm. Badee contacted the Jerusalem Complaints Center, an organisation that offers services to locate prisoners. They assured him that they would provide a response within 24 hours.

The occupied West Bank, with its checkpoints and restrictions, felt like an insurmountable barrier between a Palestinian family and their son. Israeli authorities sporadically control movement via multiple new checkpoints, escalating everyday prices due to disrupted supplies and confining Palestinians to their homes.

Long-standing military orders have barricaded families within their homes in the occupied West Bank. Amidst the global focus on the atrocities of the Gaza genocide, the challenges faced by these families are equally severe, their pain equally piercing. Israel's ‘siege’ on the occupied West Bank has turned these Palestinian families into 'hostages' in their own homes, subjecting the entire region to a complete lockdown.

“In a week-long confinement since October 7, we're allowed only a few hours to leave our homes. Entry or exit is uncertain due to a lack of general notice. On most days, just half an hour is granted – leaving us to wonder, what can one do within half an hour? Compounding the situation, I've received threatening messages. In 2016, I documented the deliberate killing of a young Palestinian man by an Israeli soldier, and the threat of death still persists.”

Meanwhile, Mahmoud's mother, with tear-streaked cheeks and eyes that betrayed a depth of sorrow words could never capture, bore the weight of a mother's love, agonisingly aware of the fragility of hope in the face of the unknown.

“I felt a heaviness, a knot in my stomach, as I imagined all the possibilities, especially if it involves Israeli settlers.”

Mahmoud’s father couldn't shake the fear as he had just watched his son recovering from an appendectomy, and the thought of something bad happening to him was unbearable. After more than 28 hours, the desperate father finally asked his eldest son, Adeeb (18), to go to the police station and file a missing report.

Subsequently, he opted to circulate an article featuring his photograph, with the intent of garnering information in case he is spotted by a friend or an acquaintance who can provide updates. The family reached out to friends and neighbours, clutching at straws of information. But every passing moment felt like an eternity, and the unknown loomed over them like a storm cloud.

The next day, the family in the occupied West Bank finally received information that the Israeli forces in Hebron had abducted four Palestinian children, including their son. “I gave Mahmoud's details, including his ID number, to a lawyer friend residing in Nazareth. She later informed me that my son was at the Kiryat Arba police station in Hebron, where a separate lawyer, who was appointed by the Israeli authorities, was providing legal advice to Mahmoud over the phone call,” Badee said.

Upon reaching out, the advising lawyer informed Badee that the Israeli forces arrested four children, including Mahmoud, from a vehicle containing a box of tools such as a screwdriver, pliers, screws, a knife blade, and other repair equipment. The soldiers seized everything and beat them mercilessly before transporting them to the Kiryat Arba police station.

Subsequently, when Badee contacted the Jerusalem Complaints Center, they informed him that Mahmoud was held in Ofer detention centre near Ramallah.

Badee informed me that the detention rules change from time to time. He reached out to the Palestinian Prisoner Club Association to arrange a visit for their lawyers to see him, as done previously. However, the supervisor of the prison facilities informed me that numerous military orders have changed now, prohibiting lawyers from visiting prisoners during detention. “The detention period extended from four to eight days, and the court date won't be known until a day before. One of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Club lawyers, Jaklin Frarjeh, later informed me that Mahmoud's court appearance is scheduled for the ninth day from the date of his arrest.”

Every morning, Mahmoud’s mother would with a hollow ache, yearn for the sound of his footsteps that used to echo through the worn-out walls.

After enduring nearly 10 days of relentless trauma and harassment, the Ofer military court asked the Dwaik family to pay a bail amount of 1,000 Shekels (US$268.90) for his release. “Because of the ongoing war, our salaries haven't been deposited yet. Despite this, I gathered the required amount and handed it over to the lawyer, who promptly paid the bail at the Israeli police station to expedite the process.”

On November 16, he was released under the condition that he would have to visit the court in the future whenever summoned by the Israeli authorities.

The occupied West Bank has seen so much pain, and yet, in those hours of waiting, it felt like Badee’s personal heartache eclipsed the broader struggles. The family prayed for his safety, bargaining with a higher power to bring him back to them unharmed.

It was a test of endurance, both emotionally and physically for the Palestinian family. When he finally returned, it was a mix of relief and sadness for the countless other mothers who continue to wait for their children. The occupied West Bank, with its complexities, had given them back their son, but the scars of that day lingered.

“Share your story, Mahmoud,” the Palestinian father pleaded, his voice trembling with a mix of sorrow and determination.

I was moved by the unshakeable strength displayed by the young Palestinian lad. His voice was steady as he recounted the horrors of being abducted by the IDF soldiers that day. He went on, “For eight straight hours, starting from 7 pm to 5 am, we went through relentless torture — subjected to brutal assaults, beaten with rifle butts, sticks, and kicks by over 40 IDF soldiers who took turns in the assault.”

“Each day seemed like enduring a century of abuse.”

At first, the four of them were taken to the police station of Kiryat Arba settlement where Mahmoud was interrogated for an hour. From there they were transferred to the Haggai military facility, which sits on top of a mountain in Hebron.

“We were blindfolded, our hands cuffed, and our legs tightly bound. We remained in that condition for approximately an hour and a half,” Mahmoud said.

The next morning, they were taken back to the same police station and kept there for an hour. The authorities then transported them to the Ofer Prison, a facility housing both convicts and detainees and has a huge army camp and a military court, using specialised ‘bosta’ vehicles. Mahmoud told me that the usual time taken from the police station to the Ofer military detention centre is two hours “but they subjected us to a 12-hour drive for the sole purpose of torment”.

“We were forced to sit on iron seats, purportedly to toughen our bones for whatever awaited us next.”

Mahmoud had around 240 shekels (USD 64.49), which the IDF soldiers stole. “They took my phone too and put me with other Palestinian prisoners.”

“We were confined to extremely small rooms. They gave us no food or water.”

“We were stripped naked, brutalised and abandoned,” he pauses, taking a moment to collect his thoughts, as if reliving the experience in his mind. “Israeli soldiers filmed while torturing us, coercing us into saying anti-Hamas statements on camera,” he recounted.

The prison was overcrowded. The room that accommodates six prisoners now contains 12 prisoners, half of whom slept on the floor. “We were given leftover army food. Only one plate of food was given to 10 prisoners.”

When he requested medicine, a soldier responded, “I’ll give you medicine, but only after you die.”

Even though the Israeli soldiers used to have a headcount three times (once at night, once in the early morning, and once during the day), Mahmoud mentioned that the Israeli soldiers broke into their prison cells at any time just to “punish” them. “Everytime they came, they abused us, beat us mercilessly, tortured us, kept us under inhuman conditions and left.” It happened repeatedly, day in and day out.

After two days, Mahmoud was produced in the Ofer military court. After attending two successive trials the Israeli authorities decided to extend his detention until November 14 saying “we need to investigate more”.

“In another session, they questioned me over the photo they found on my phone – of a military checkpoint.” This continued for more than a week since Mahmoud was abducted. His parents were not allowed to meet with him at all.

Palestinian Prisoners’ Club lawyer Jaklin Frarjeh informed his parents that he must attend the court on the ninth day. But since everything was very chaotic due to the mass arrest of Palestinian prisoners.

Meanwhile, when Mahmoud’s father contacted the advising lawyer once again, he said, “There are no real charges against Mahmoud and I am shocked that they are still holding him in prison.”

After the payment of the bail amount, they released Mahmoud in the middle of the night. “They left me without clothes, my money and my phone. I stood in the middle of the road, shivering from both the cold and the trauma, wearing only my underwear and boxers,” he said.

Mahmoud met with a group of released prisoners at a military checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem (the military enclave checkpoint). “When I arrived, Palestinians living there welcomed me, offering clothes to wear and cigarettes to smoke, items not available in the prison as part of the punitive measures against prisoners.”

Mahmoud explained that he used someone else's phone to call his mother, and his father also spoke to him. His father then contacted his cousin, Ashraf, in Ramallah, who brought him to his house and provided him with money to return home. Mahmoud said, “They asked me about my father, asked his name more than 20 times.”

To this, Badee Dwaik said, “I have been arrested many times. I am ready. I know they will come for me, any day now. This is our life under occupation.”

The family is aware that since October 7, around 2,800 Palestinians have been detained in the occupied West Bank as of now. The numbers continue to rise with each passing day. Mass arrests have been carried out by Israel in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Prisoners are reported to be increasingly subjected to physical assaults and degrading treatment within Israeli detention facilities. All of this comes at a time when far-right Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir shared a video from a visit to a jail, stating that Palestinian resistance fighters were held under strict conditions, with the Israeli national anthem playing on loudspeakers continuously.

He expressed hope for a Bill supporting the death penalty for militants to progress beyond a preliminary vote in Parliament. "This is their way of retaliating against us. It's all driven by revenge," Badee stated. I still don’t know what happened to the other three children, Mahmoud paused after he said this.

There was this quiet that fell over the room, a stillness that settled like dust in the air. Even in the face of all that unfolded, he wore a smile throughout the entire conversation.

There was this look in his eyes, not defeated, but defiant, whispering “They can't take away who we are”. What amazes me, and breaks my heart in the same breath, is their strength. It's like their invisible armour. They've mastered the art of resilience.

A heaviness settled in my chest, an ache that radiated through every beat of my heart as I absorbed his words. It was as if each syllable carried the weight of a thousand sorrows, and with every passing moment, my heart seemed to break a little more.

They've faced things no child should have to go through. The constant tension, the searches, the checkpoints, it's like they're growing up in a battlefield.

Don't underestimate a Palestinian child. They see the struggles, the sacrifices, and instead of succumbing to despair, they draw strength from it. It's like an unspoken pact among them that says, “We won't let them break us”.

At that moment, I was reminded of this Palestinian mother in Gaza earlier who spoke to me on resilience in Palestinian children. She had said, “We teach them about our roots, our identity, and that gives them a sense of purpose. It's almost like they carry the weight of our collective story on their shoulders, and that empowers them.”

Badee smiles through tears, “I want the world to see the strength in their smiles. No matter how many times the Israeli occupation tries to break our children, they can't break our spirit. We will continue to resist, hope, and fight. Our children are the living proof of that.”

The very act of surviving and thriving is their way of saying, “You can't erase us. You can't break us.”

Mahmoud Dwaik