Israeli security forces arrest a young Palestinian boy during clashes following a protest against the closing for three days in a row of the gate to the village of Nabi Saleh, west of Ramallah, because of ongoing demonstrations against illegal Jewish settlements, April 14, 2014. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)
June 6, 2014
In ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, Israel vowed to respect the dignity of all children, Palestinian and Israeli alike.
But according to two human rights observers who spoke at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies on March 27, there is ample evidence that Israel has drifted far from the principles of this document and regularly violates several of its key provisions.
Palestinian children are regularly subjected to violence and torture by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), noted Brad Parker, international advocacy officer and staff attorney at Defense for Children International Palestine (DCI Palestine).
Nor is this violence limited to military campaigns such as the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza, he emphasized. "Kids are subjected to violence regularly throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza," he stated.
Parker described children living in refugee camps and areas near the separation wall, settlements and IDF military camps as particularly vulnerable. "Those are communities that are targeted and affected," he explained, "and where we spend most of our time documenting cases."
Palestinian children face "systemic discrimination," Parker continued, since, unlike their Jewish neighbors living in illegal West Bank settlements, they are subject to Israeli military law. "It’s really the basic definition of discrimination," he said.
The military laws governing Palestinians are not meant to keep peace and order, but rather to suppress the people, Parker argued. "They’re not necessarily meant to punish people for conduct they have done," he noted. "It’s really more of a system to control a population."
Parker cited several "occupation-related offenses" which apply only to Palestinians: being a member of a banned organization, throwing stones at the separation wall and throwing an object at a moving vehicle. Maximum sentences for these offenses range from 10 to 20 years, he said.
Children are frequently charged with these crimes, he pointed out. "Under military law, anyone 12 years and older is subject to being prosecuted in a military court." These children, sometimes as young as 5, are often arrested in the middle of the night, without a warrant or probable cause.
Parker described the harrowing journey a typical Palestinian child charged with throwing stones faces after being awoken from sleep at 2 a.m. by armed IDF soldiers.
Taken out of their homes, the children are blindfolded and have their hands tied behind their backs. They are then placed in a military jeep and transported to a military camp. While in the jeep, many children report being hit with helmets, beer bottles or other objects, Parker noted.
When they arrive at the military camp, the children—still bound and blindfolded—are forced to sit on the ground, exposed to the elements, and wait until the sun rises to be interrogated. During this period they are denied food, water, and access to medical assistance, Parker said. If they ask for their handcuffs to be loosened, he added, Israeli authorities often respond by making the handcuffs painfully tighter.
Meanwhile, the parents of those arrested have no idea where their children are or why they’ve been arrested, as the Israelis withhold this information.
The scared, sleepless and hungry children are then subjected to a brutal interrogation, Parker said. Those who do not cooperate risk being placed in solitary confinement. Throughout this process the children have no access to their parents or to legal council. "They’re alone," Parker said. "They don’t really have much of a chance."
Many children, desiring nothing more than to be reunited with their families, sign forced "confessions" written in Hebrew. These confessions are then used—along with testimony from the arresting IDF officer and witness statements submitted by other tortured children—as the basis for their conviction when they appear before a military judge, Parker said.
Parker characterized the treatment of Palestinian children by the Israeli military courts as a blatant violation of international law.
Among the articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that Israel violates is Article 37, which states that the "arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child…shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest period of time." In addition, "No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
According to Parker, however, "75 percent of kids encounter some form of physical violence during their arrest, transfer and interrogation."
Israel also disregards Article 40 of the convention, which affirms a child’s right "to have the free assistance of an interpreter if the child cannot understand or speak the language used." Furthermore, Article 9 requires governments to "ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will."
Responding to growing international criticism, in February Lt. Col. Maurice Hirsch, Israel’s chief military prosecutor for the West Bank, told The Jerusalem Post that a pilot program will be launched in which written summons will be issued to Palestinians wanted for questioning instead of arresting them in the middle of night. "We approach this with an open mind; we are going to try to make it work," Hirsch told the Post.
At the same time, Hirsch gave no indication that Israel will stop targeting Palestinian children. "We have no intention of reducing the intensity of the fight against Palestinian terrorism, stone throwing and offenses committed by minors," he said.
In addition to the persistant problem of torture, Palestinian children also suffer from subpar access to education.
Sulieman Mleahat, education program manager at American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), described the developmental challenges posed by the occupation.
Most Palestinian children (60 to 72 percent) do not have access to critical early childhood programs, he explained. Schools are overcrowded and do not have such essential services as proper hygiene facilities. Furthermore, most teachers, particularly those in Gaza, have not received adequate training for their job. Indeed, Mleahat pointed out, only 3 percent of instructors in Gaza hold a teaching diploma.
These realities mean that young Palestinian children face developmental disadvantages at a key moment in their lives, Mleahat explained, since at two-and-a-half years of age, the child’s brain is at its peak. Furthermore, a recent study has found that for every dollar invested in early childhood care, there is a $17 return to society—a powerful argument for doing more to improve education in Palestine.
Mleahat concluded by lamenting that many of the impediments to childhood development in Palestine are preventable and exist only because of the Israeli occupation. "Many of these issues are avoidable," he pointed out. "They really shouldn’t be happening."
For more information see the March 2013 Washington Report, p. 16, and December 2013 Washington Report, p. 68. ❑