Recent weeks have witnessed an upsurge in violence between Palestinians and Israelis living in Jerusalem and in the West Bank and Gaza. These rising tensions are linked to Israeli settler groups’ intrusions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a compound considered the third holiest site for Muslims and is also associated with the start of the Second Intifada. Mimicking previous patterns of history, these conflicts at the Al-Aqsa Mosque have led to a cycle of retaliation and increase in anti-Arab sentiment in Jerusalem. Statistics show, as previous periods of unrest, the number of deaths take a significantly stronger toll on Palestinians. The current escalating violence has so far resulted in
14 Palestinian children losing their lives in October. In addition, United Nation (UN) statistics show that in only six days between October 6 and October 12, at least 201 Palestinian children were injured. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank and Gaza has increasingly resorted to excessive force in order to instill fear and try to prevent a Palestinian uprising, or a third intifada, as some are anticipating. Widespread violence against Palestinians coupled with mass detentions have been a systematic approach by the IDF towards quelling any Palestinian revolt — Palestinian children are not exempt from these tactics.
Arresting Palestinian children and detaining them without due process in the military court is one of the major devices used by Israeli security forces to avert and/or punish uprisings. A clear lack of fair trial rights, which is fundamental to any legal system, is common for Palestinians. The Israeli Prison Service reports that 151 children between 14 and 17 years of age were in Israeli military detention for alleged security violations at the end of December . A monthly average of 188 children were in Israeli military custody. There are many logistical obstacles along the way for anyone, whether parents or lawyers, attempting to come to these children’s rescue. Thus, the numbers of child detainees have soared too high for the world to turn a blind eye. In addition, mistreatment of children in detention seems to be standard procedure.
The UN has obtained the statements of 122 Palestinian children detained by Israeli security forces in the West Bank. The statements reported that these children have been subjected to various forms of ill treatments, including beatings, being hit with sticks, blindfolded, kicked and subjected to verbal abuse and threats of sexual violence. Current data shows that in order to quell the recent unrest and protests, the IDF has increased the detention of Palestinian children. Not surprisingly, the exercise of arresting and detaining children has been a method of inculcating terror among the younger generation and, as a result, a direct message to parents. There seems to be a clear disregard for international norms and laws in the treatment of Palestinian children by the Israelis, which only further oppresses the Palestinian population. Despite the many legal and moral restrictions in place to protect minors, Palestinian children continue to be mistreated.
Palestinians living in the occupied territories have been facing the many adverse effects of war and oppression for years, the conditions only worsening with time. A clear indication of this is attributed to the Israeli detention of Palestinian children. There are a number of restrictions meant to mitigate poor treatment of children being detained on an international level, in addition to the Israeli youth laws, which are designed to protect the welfare of minors. The reality, however, shows that even the Israeli youth laws are applied in a discriminatory fashion.
These laws are meant to safeguard children during the entire process from arrest to sentencing. Various international groups, such as Human Rights Watch, United Nations Children’s Fund, Defense for Children International – Palestine, and other similar organizations have done assessments and found these laws to be ignored the majority of the time. The discrepancy between what the laws require and how they are actually implemented is clearly evident from the reports of harsh treatment when arrested, the length of time for the family to be notified, interrogation as an adult, false confessions, not being provided a lawyer, and being denied a fair trial.
In June 1967, military law was executed by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian territories. The law allows the Israeli area commander full legislative, executive and judicial authority. From this military law, Military Order 1651 follows, which establishes 12 years as the minimum age of criminal responsibility and sets the maximum penalties that can be imposed on children of various age categories. This has been used as the guise for many illegal actions against minors that have been presented as lawful to the general public. Given that these cases are tried in a military court, actions taken by Israeli forces are not probed further and maneuvering around laws designed to protect children becomes very easy. As a result, arrests are made without requiring evidence and the initial hearing of these cases is purposefully slowed, which allows more time for interrogation and longer periods of detention. Israel’s blatant disregard for the rights of Palestinian children had been a cause for alarm for many activist groups within and outside of Israel.
When Palestinians are the target, the absence of just laws becomes very apparent. The statistics overwhelmingly point to the conclusion that almost all cases heard by Israeli military courts, 99.74% resulted in convictions. Similarly, the military appeals courts overwhelmingly sided with Israeli army prosecutors. On the flip side, Israel Human Rights group B’Tselem reports that from 2005 to 2010, of the 835 Palestinian minors that were arrested and tried in military courts on the charge of throwing stones, only one was acquitted. Attorneys for the children face obstacles from the very beginning. Attorneys have stated that military orders are not readily available; transcripts of detainee interrogations are either incomplete or can’t be accessed; and secret evidence is used—making the building of a defense nearly impossible. These tactics, which are undeniably prejudiced against the defense, aid the unjust prosecution of these children. The purpose of these arrests, interrogations, and court proceedings is to instill fear in them. This objective has the ability to mass cripple the spirit and prevent the upcoming generation from pursuing their rights. With the international community not addressing these issues as vigorously as they should, there’s a potential for a whole generation of Palestinians to become disillusioned.
Both before and after the trial, many of these children are subjected to solitary confinement and physical abuse. This type of harsh treatment is expected to have adverse effects for a lifetime. The detrimental impact of solitary confinement on the psychological well-being of a child has prompted the Committee on the Rights of the Child to advise strict prohibition of such treatment. This is also corroborated by the Special Rapporteur on Torture in a report to the UN General Assembly in October 2011. Solitary confinement, as a whole, is being reexamined for its potential irreversible damages. Prohibiting individuals from a basic human need – social and psychological contact with others – may interfere with an individual’s mental health. Pre-trial detainees face even more negative impact from solitary confinement due to the uncertainty of the length of detention and its potential use to extract information or confessions. In fact, a Human Rights Watch report stated pre-trial detainees in solitary confinement have an increased rate of suicide and self-mutilation within the first [two] weeks. Considering some of these children could be in confinement for as long as a month, the gravity of this issue cannot and should not be ignored.
The Israeli justice system, whether the civil law or the military court system, lacks clear regulation of how cases are supposed to be handled; therefore, creating an atmosphere of perpetual mystery for arrested Palestinian children. Residing in such an uncertain environment for Palestinians isn’t anything new—what is new and escalating, however, is the lack of distinction in who is being punished. Approximately 500-700 Palestinian children are arrested and prosecuted in the military courts each year. This is a systematic operation, which has been allowed to thrive despite an emphasis fighting for human rights on a global scale. UNICEF has done a report every year, pointing to these facts and has repeatedly stated the lack of significant improvement in this particular area of human rights violations committed by Israeli forces.
Regardless of these disheartening facts, there are organizations located within Palestine, which have dedicated their time and efforts in order to raise awareness and grasp the attention of the international community. Defense for Children International-Palestine is one of the organizations that closely monitor these cases in the Israeli military courts. Through this organization many statistics have been gathered, and coalitions have been built with other organizations outside of Israel. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and Defense for Children International-Palestine launched the campaign “No Way to Treat a Child” in order to gain influence in the U.S. and to bring Congress’ attention to this important issue. Since the campaign launch earlier this year, many other organizations have pledged their support including Jewish Voice for Peace, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends of Sabeel North America, Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, Arab Jewish Partnership, American Muslims for Palestine, Middle East Task Force of Chicago Presbytery, Working Group on Middle East, A Ministry of Metro Chicago Synod, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Last June 2015, a congressional briefing was held in Washington, D.C. in honor of International Children’s Day beginning with an opening statement from Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN). The briefing was part of a series of events, including an interfaith vigil and screening of the documentary Detaining Dreams: Palestinian Children in Israeli Military Prisons. Since that time, members of the campaign have held presentations at locations across the country, held a Twitter campaign, created a newsletter, and presented at the annual conference of the US Campaign to End the Occupation in Atlanta.
For additional information on this issue, check the No Way to Treat a Child campaign website and attend the next screening for the documentary Detaining Dreams: Palestinian Children in Israeli Military Prisons at Columbia Film School in Chicago on November 4th.