Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian boy during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Reuters/File)
Who thinks children should be tortured or prosecuted systematically in a military court? Who believes children should be shoved into crowded jail cells during the coronavirus pandemic and denied family visits? Me neither. Yet Israel, that supposed solitary beacon of democracy in the Middle East, does exactly that to Palestinian children, and more.
Much of this has been reported on by the UN and human rights groups for some time, but it is brought into sharp focus following a report from Save the Children (SCF), published last week, titled: “The impact of the Israeli military detention system on Palestinian children.” It is a searing indictment of the Israeli authorities, and a worthy addition to the voluminous but damning high-quality research into this issue.
SCF surveyed more than 470 Palestinian children across the West Bank. They were 12-21 years old at the time, and had all been arrested or detained as children, between the ages of 10 and 17 years.
“A majority reported they had endured a distressing or violent arrest or detention, in most cases at night; a coercive interrogation environment; physical and emotional abuse in detention; and a denial of essential services including an adequate education — all of which constitute a breach of their rights enshrined in international law,” SCF said.
The report somewhat surprisingly backs off when using the term coercive interrogation. It is torture, plain and simple. SCF is not the first to make this charge, but Palestinians wonder why American and European ministers, among others, say nothing?
The report states that the occupation has “impacted every aspect of their lives, from their safety and development to their psychosocial wellbeing and mental health.” Even going to school, past settlements and military checkpoints, can be traumatic. Over 10,000 Palestinian children have gone through Israeli detention in the last 20 years.
The impact is huge, with the children suffering from “anxiety, depression, behavioral changes, eating and sleeping disorders, and physical symptoms including chest pains, exhaustion, and numbness,” SCF said.
According to international law, detaining children should be an option of last resort. What is seen consistently with the Israeli occupation is that this is systematic, used not just as a means of controlling a subject population, but dominating and intimidating it.
One of the reasons the Israeli military does not require a huge presence in the West Bank to control 2.7 million people is the way in which the courts and detention process break the will and spirit of the occupied population, starting from childhood.
Arrests of children are frequent. Around half of Palestinian children detained are arrested at night. Often a child will wake up to find fully armed Israeli soldiers in their bedroom. That is frightening enough, but then typically they are taken from their homes with no adult and stuffed in the back of a military jeep. They get taken to a settlement usually, to await interrogation.
Detention has become normalized for Palestinian children. It is a painful rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.
Most children report that they were not allowed any sleep prior to interrogation, with 89 percent reporting being blindfolded or hooded during detention. Nearly all the children get strip-searched.
One boy, Issa, was shot at a checkpoint. He was interrogated before being taken to hospital. A gun was placed on the table in front of him when he was questioned. No child reported having a lawyer present during interrogation. Typically, the children sign confessions in Hebrew, which they cannot understand.
The majority of children are arrested for stone throwing. This typically happens close to Israeli settlements or checkpoints, which are hard to distance oneself from in today’s West Bank. These are friction points. According to Military Court Watch, the Palestinian children who were detained in 2019 lived on average within 900 meters of a West Bank settlement.
If an Israeli settler child throws a stone, it is dealt with through the Israeli civilian legal process, with all the proper safeguards one should expect. Two peoples, two different legal systems exist in one territory.
In many cases, the local Israeli commander picks up Palestinian children almost at random every time there is a stone-throwing incident. They need to do this to maintain the climate of deterrence, or there will be riots every day. Not once in numerous visits to Israeli military courts have I seen evidence being presented to demonstrate that a particular child was the one guilty of throwing a stone.
Israel is the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes children through military courts. It would seem that these are mightily successful. Ofer military court, one of two in the West Bank, boasts a 99.74 percent conviction rate based on its own figures.
Perhaps the failure to get to 100 percent is some banal statistical anomaly, but surely the Syrian and North Korean regimes would be proud. Every Palestinian child knows that if they plead guilty, they will be given less jail time, and that to fight the charge is pointless.
On my first visit to one of these courts, I was convinced my eyes were playing tricks. A 14-year-old was led into the court, at the heart of an Israeli military base, in leg-irons. A senior British politician I was accompanying described it as a processing center. Justice and rule of law were glaringly absent.
The period of detention is shattering for the children. About 60 percent are imprisoned in Israel, a violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Conditions are poor in overcrowded cells, but children are also placed in solitary confinement. According to Amina, who was 15 when detained: “You do not feel like a human being in that place. We were treated like animals.”
Palestinian prisoners, including children, are still held in overcrowded jail cells during the pandemic. Children report that they were not even told about the pandemic when in Israeli jails. To add to this, visitation rights were suspended. They can in theory phone their families every two weeks, though in reality this has meant around a month. In July, the first child detainee was diagnosed with the virus, followed by a 14-year-old in September.
Detention has become normalized for Palestinian children. It is a painful rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. What has also become normalized is the international reaction. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from being resolved, but surely the minimum one should expect is clear, principled opposition to the abuse of children.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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