Terrorism as Self-Help: Accounts of Palestinian Youth Incarcerated in Israeli Prisons for Security Violations

Published date01 August 2017
Date01 August 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2017, Vol. 33(3) 313 –340
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986217699101
Terrorism as Self-Help:
Accounts of Palestinian Youth
Incarcerated in Israeli Prisons
for Security Violations
Anat Berko1, Edna Erez2, and Oren M. Gur3
Adopting and expanding Black’s conception of terrorism as self-help, this study
examines how Palestinian youth become involved in security violations. Based on an
analysis of in-depth interviews conducted with 10 Palestinian youth incarcerated in
Israeli prisons, their experiences are described, including the aftermath of arrest and
imprisonment. Their accounts are complemented by interviews with six wardens and
correctional officers overseeing the prison’s youth wings, a review of military court
transcripts from proceedings leading up to the youth’s incarceration, and observations
of participants’ daily prison routines. The data detail pathways and recruitment
processes, motivations, rewarding aspects of participation, and the costs incurred as
a result by participants and their families. Security violations are analyzed as self-help
responses to collective grievances and personal problems. The theoretical and policy
implications of the findings are discussed.
Palestinian youth, security violations, terrorism, self-help, Israeli military court, youth
wings of Israeli prisons
In conflict zones around the world, children are commonly victims of terrorism, but
also perpetrators. Persons under the age of 18—legally “minors,” hereafter referred to
as “children,” “youth,” and “adolescents”1—have participated in insurgencies, wars,
1The International Instiute for Counter-Terrorism, The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel
2University of Illinois at Chicago, IL, USA
3Pennsylvania State University, Abington, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Edna Erez, Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice, University of Illinois at Chicago, MC141, Social
Sciences Building Room 4010A, 1007 West Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607, USA.
Email: eerez@uic.edu
699101CCJXXX10.1177/1043986217699101Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeBerko et al.
314 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 33(3)
and terrorist operations across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They have served as
camouflaged guerrillas or uniformed soldiers (Peters, 2005), and more recently as ter-
rorists, including suicide bombers (Berko & Erez, 2005; Human Rights Watch [HRW],
2004; Venhaus, 2010). United Nations (UN) conventions prohibiting the use of minors
in armed conflicts notwithstanding (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High
Commissioner [UNHROHC], 1990), many government forces, paramilitary organiza-
tions, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations recruit and employ children in military
functions and operations—even those younger than 15 (Singer, 2005a, 2005b).
The rise of the child terrorist (Bloom & Horgan, 2015; Gray & Matchin III, 2008)
has raised questions about radicalization and recruitment of children, and their role in
terrorism. Whereas the use of children as soldiers2 has been examined extensively
(Rosen, 2005, 2007; Wessells, 2006), there is little research on children in terrorism
(Ben-Yehuda & Levin-Banchik, 2011; Roberts, 2015; Weinberg, Pedahzur, & Hirsch-
Hoefler, 2004), or security violations by Palestinian youth in particular.3 Palestinian
terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah have regularly recruited
and employed children (HRW, 2004; Times of Israel Staff, 2015).
Applying and expanding Black’s theoretical framework of terrorism as a form of
“unilateral self-help” (Black, 2004b, p. 9), this article examines how Palestinian ado-
lescents become involved in security violations, risk factors in their journeys from
recruitment to hostilities, subsequent arrest and incarceration, and reflections on the
experience. It suggests that children’s participation in terrorism can be attributed to a
confluence of factors that produce violent radicalization more generally4: personal and
collective grievances or needs, networks and interpersonal ties, political or religious
ideologies, and enabling environments or support structures (Hafez & Mullins, 2015).
However, compared with their adult counterparts, for youth, the salience of each factor
is further magnified by the lack of alternative means for exerting social control; the
subversive act may then “serve as a cry for help from people who are less capable of
attracting legal attention without it” (Black, 1983, p. 41). As this study suggests, the
pursuit of security violations as self-help is motivated by collective grievances as well
as personal problems.
The article proceeds as follows: It first reviews extant research, government reports,
and media communications addressing the motives, vulnerabilities, and environments
that lead Palestinian youth to terrorism, techniques terrorist organizations use to recruit
youth, and the benefits of involving children for such purposes. Following a discus-
sion of the theoretical framework, research setting, and methodology, the findings are
presented in an account-based analysis. The conclusion outlines policy implications
regarding youth involvement in militant activities.
Palestinian Children in Terrorism: A Review
The Palestinian–Israeli conflict over a disputed territory represents a “‘chronic’ griev-
ance” (Black, 2004b, citing Senechal de la Roche [1996], 13), underlying terrorism in
Israel. The local contexts and the lived realities of Palestinian youth create vulnerabili-
ties and motivations for involvement in collective action (Black, 2004b; Boxer et al.,

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