By Dr. Cesar Chelala
A UNICEF report issued last March, “Children in Israeli Military Detention,” was sharply critical of Israel’s treatment of detained Palestinian children and youths. According to that report, 700 Palestinian children aged 12-17, most of them boys, are arrested and harshly interrogated by the Israeli military, police and security agents every year in the occupied West Bank.
Now, a new UNICEF progress report states that although some progress has been achieved “violations are ongoing” seven months after the original report was released. The progress report states that there were 19 sample cases of abuse of youths between 12 and 17 in the occupied West Bank in the second quarter of 2013.
The information on mistreatment of Palestinian children and youths is the result of several years of information gathering by UN agencies related to grave violations committed against Palestinian children in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This information is regularly reported to the United Nations Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.
Last June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child confirmed the abuses against Palestinian children, including torture, solitary confinement and threats of death and sexual assault in prisons. “These crimes are perpetrated from the time of arrest, during transfer and interrogation, to obtain a confession but also on an arbitrary basis as testified by several Israeli soldiers,” stated the committee.
The reported abuses of Palestinian children confirm what the organisation Breaking the Silence, constituted by Israeli soldiers who served in the IDF and work to expose human rights violations, had stated in its report called “Children and Youth, Soldiers Testimonies 2005-2011.” In one of the testimonies, a soldier from the Nahal Brigade with the rank of first sergeant, stated: “On your first arrest mission you’re sure it’s a big deal, and it is actually bullshit. You enter the Abu Sneina (Hebron) neighbourhood and pick up three children. After that whole briefing, you’re there with your bulletproof vest and helmet and stuck with that ridiculous mission of separating women and children. It’s all taken so seriously and then what you end up is a bunch of kids, you blindfold and shackle them and drive them to the police station at Givat Ha’vot. That’s it, it goes on for months and you eventually stop thinking there are any terrorists out there, you stop believing there’s an enemy, it’s always some children and adolescents or some doctor we took out. You never know their names, you never talk with them, they always cry, shit in their pants.”
According to Article 37 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, State Parties shall ensure that “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,”…and “Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.” These provisions have been repeatedly violated by the Israeli authorities.
As UNICEF states, “In addition to Israel’s obligations under international law, the guiding principles relating to the prohibition against torture in Israel are to be found in a 1999 decision of the Supreme Court, which is also legally binding on the Israeli military courts. The Court concluded that a reasonable interrogation is necessarily one free of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and that this prohibition is absolute.”
Ill-treatment of Palestinian minors begins with the arrest itself, which is carried out usually in the middle of the night by heavily armed soldiers, and continues through prosecution and sentencing. Most minors are arrested for throwing stones; however, they suffer physical violence and threats, many are coerced into confessing for acts they didn’t commit and, in addition, many times they don’t have access to a lawyer or family during questioning. According to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 7,000 children aged 12 to 17 years, but some as young as nine, have been arrested, interrogated and detained since 2002.
Israeli government abuses against Palestinian children are not limited to the West Bank. In the past, UNICEF has also reported that one baby in three risks death because of medical shortages in Gaza. Israel’s government had also prohibited the distribution of special food to about 20,000 Gazan children under age five resulting in anaemia, stunted growth and general weakness as a result of malnutrition.
Israel’s government has stated its intention to continue working with UNICEF to address the issue of mistreatment of Palestinian children. However, treatment of children and adolescents under detention as it is carried out even now contravenes Israel’s democratic principles and contributes to the perpetuation of the Middle East conflict and to the search for a just and lasting peace in the region.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.