Behind Israeli Bars: Palestinian Child Prisoners

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

During Israel’s first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session on December 4 in Geneva’s UN Palais de Nations, a number of issues were brought to the fore by representatives of the UN member states sitting in the room. The UPR, a new Human Rights Council mechanism whereby a country’s own national report on human rights is subjected to scrutiny by its fellow countries, is supposedly aimed at creating a means of addressing human rights violations occurring throughout the world. Among the concerns voiced by state parties towards Israel’s national report was concern over its treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons. While Israel’s panel of experts attempted to put to rest this issue by claiming that a total of six Palestinian minors from the occupied Palestinian territories were in Israeli prisons or detention centers and that all of these minors were 17 years of age, there are a number of Palestinian and international organizations that beg to differ.

The Palestinian prisoner issue has long been at the forefront of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, and has often been used as one of the more flexible bargaining chips that Israel is willing to utilize under the umbrella of “good will gestures”. There are over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli prisons and detention centers both in the Palestinian territories and inside Israel. While this issue continues to remain a grave concern for Palestinians, the incarceration of children is no doubt an even graver concern and a clear breach of several international laws and charters protecting the rights of the child.

According to the Geneva-based Defense for Children International (DCI), as of December 3, 2008, there were 297 Palestinian children being held in Israeli custody. A child, by international standards, is any person under the age of 18, which is also the case under Palestinian law. While this is the case in Israel proper as well, Israeli military authorities governing the West Bank set the bar at 16, with several sub-distinctions that should be taken into consideration.

According to Israeli Military Order 132, a Palestinian child is defined as anyone under the age of 12. A teenager is between the ages 12-14, an adolescent 14-16, while an adult is any Palestinian aged 16 or above. Furthermore, according to Section 78 of Military Order 378, a Palestinian child can be detained by an ordinary, low ranking Israeli soldier or police officer for 96 hours. Afterwards, a child can be held for interrogation for eight days prior to being taken to Court through a formal detention order made by a higher ranking military official. A judge of the military court has the power to extend this period of detention for interrogation up to 90 days. A judge of the military court of appeals has the power to extend this 90 day period further, to a period of up to three months. (DCI)

This is over and above the fact that Palestinian children are tried in the same military courts as adults and not in juvenile courts like Israeli children. Military orders are ordinarily much harsher than Israeli law against Israeli children.

It goes without saying that the detention of children in military detention centers shared by adults is a flagrant breach of international and humanitarian law. Likewise, under the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Times of War, it is prohibited for individuals to be transported from the occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power. This is more the norm than the exception with child prisoners held in prisons inside Israel such as Hasharon (Telmond) and Meggido, both inside Israel. The interrogation of prisoners, including children, is often carried out in Israeli military detention centers inside the West Bank such as Bet El or Ofer.

Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Israel is a signatory, states that, “No one shall be subject to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. However, several Palestinian children have been picked up by Israeli military forces in the West Bank off the streets, from their homes or at one of the 600 checkpoints throughout the Palestinian territories. There have been numerous case studies documenting the mistreatment of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli soldiers. One jarring case is that of Mohammed, a 14-year old Palestinian boy who was arrested by Israeli soldiers last April, apparently on charges of throwing stones at an Israeli military watchtower. After being taken to the Ofer military camp for interrogation, he eventually appeared before the Ofer military court in shackles and was sentenced to four and a half months in prison.

This is hardly a new practice for Israel’s occupation forces in the West Bank, with the arrest of children an often-used policy during the first Intifada in the late 1980s. The list of incidents, of course, is endless. However, the dispute should not be about how many Palestinian children are incarcerated in Israeli jails but why there are any children there at all. UN member states expressed similar sentiments during Israel’s UPR session. In addition to several Arab countries, states such as the United Kingdom, France and Slovenia all showed concern for the plight of Palestinian minors in Israeli jails, with France specifying the particular Israeli practice of what is known as administrative detention. This type of detention allows Israeli authorities to sentence a Palestinian to up to six months, renewable for any number of times, without offering any hard evidence to the court. Their justification is that sometimes the evidence must remain “secret” for security purposes, which makes the arrest justifiable. The fact that not only adults but children have been subjected to this unjust type of arrest is clearly a human rights concern which Israel must address.

Israel is a signatory to a number of international charters including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention against Torture. While these charters are all non-binding, they are meant to set a high bar which would hopefully serve as a moral compass for states in the preservation of human rights in their own countries.

The inherent rights of a child to protection and safety are something no child, regardless of race, creed or nationality, should be deprived of. Palestinian children living in the Palestinian territories are at a disadvantage from day one given that they must live under a military occupation, which in itself is a violation of basic human rights. Palestinian children as young as 12 years old are subject to arrest and detention, circumstances hardly bearable for an adult. Detention centers and prisons are overcrowded, Palestinians are denied access to legal council for days and even weeks on end, and family visits are sporadic or cancelled all together in accordance with Israel’s security considerations. There have been documented cases of children being interrogated and tortured by Israeli intelligence officers and forced to sign written confessions. They are often deprived of education when they are behind bars, but most importantly, they are tried in a military court rather than a juvenile court along with their adult counterparts.

These are all grave human rights violations that not only the international community but also Israel should be concerned with. While it harms the Palestinians in the most direct fashion, such disregard for human rights towards a people under their rule also adds the risk of moral corrosion for Israeli society as well.

As a Palestinian witness to the daily human rights violations in the Palestinian territories, it pains me to see a potentially constructive process such as the UPR sidelined by Israel in terms of its practices in the occupied territories. As an occupying power, Israel has an obligation under international law to respect the human rights of the people under its occupation, particularly, in this case, those of Palestinian children.

It is my hope that not only will Israel be encouraged to properly address its human rights violations in the Palestinian territories before international forums such as the Human Rights Council, but that the Palestinians will soon have the same opportunity to do so as an independent state. Any country that wishes to heal itself internally must start by rectifying the wrongs it knows it is responsible for.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org)

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