Imprisoned Palestinian Children Must Be Treated Justly

"UK ready to take on Israel over fate of children clapped in irons," read the headline in a leading UK newspaper the morning after the latest report on the treatment of Palestinian children held in military detention was released in London in June. The Foreign Office-funded report -- Children in Military Custody -- was written by a delegation of UK lawyers that included a former Attorney General and a judge of the Court of Appeal, following their visit to Israel and the West Bank last September. The report, the findings of which have been described as "shocking" and "damning," describes how children as young as 12 years are prosecuted in military courts after being arrested by soldiers in terrifying night-time raids. The report refers to evidence collected by Israeli and Palestinian lawyers, as well as UN agencies, which describes an abusive system in which children are threatened and physically coerced into signing confessions, some of which are written in Hebrew, a language they do not understand. Following their conviction in a military court, most of the children are shipped off to prisons in Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits their transfer out of the West Bank. Further, the report found that the military's treatment of Palestinian children also violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child in a number of key respects. As shocking as these findings may be, reports of abuse within Israel's military detention system are not new. In April 2012, Defence for Children International (DCI) released a report following a review of over 300 sworn testimonies collected from children imprisoned over the past four years. The report -- Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted -- found that children were tied, often painfully so and for lengthy periods, in 95 percent of cases; blindfolded in 90 percent of cases; subjected to physical violence in 75 percent of cases; transferred on the floor of military vehicles in 32 percent of cases; and imprisoned inside Israel in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, in 63 percent of cases. The report concluded that there was a systematic pattern of ill-treatment of children within the system. Similarly in 2011, the Israeli organization B'Tselem released a report -- No Minor Matter -- which considered the cases of 800 Palestinian children prosecuted in Israeli military courts for throwing stones. As part of their research, B'Tselem attempted to determine the number of persons injured by stone throwing, but none of the government agencies contacted kept any data on the issue. B'Tselem concluded that "the rights of Palestinian minors are flagrantly violated at every stage of the proceedings conducted against them, from the initial arrest and removal from their homes, through interrogation and trial, to serving the prison sentence, and then release." The response from the Israeli authorities to these complaints is that throwing stones is dangerous, and sometimes lethal, implying that death is commonplace. Although any loss of life is a tragedy to be avoided, evidence collected by B'Tselem indicates that in the past 11 years, four people, including one Palestinian, have been killed by stones thrown at vehicles traveling in the West Bank. No one argues that offenses should not be punished, but we should all be able to agree that children accused of the same crime must be treated with equality under the law. Why then is a child accused of throwing stones in the West Bank prosecuted in a military court just because he is Palestinian, whereas an Israeli settler child accused of the same offense is processed in a civilian juvenile justice system, with all the added protections and safeguards this implies? Most would agree this is discrimination based on racial grounds, as I believe -- something that has no place in a modern democracy. Many now argue that the institutionalized discrimination experienced by 700 Palestinian children prosecuted in Israel's military courts each year is unsustainable and must end. A number of simple and practical measures have been recommended to reduce the level of abuse that is being reported, which include measures that already apply to Israeli children. These measures include ensuring that all children, regardless of race, are entitled to see a lawyer prior to questioning and to be informed of their legal rights. Further, just like Israeli children, Palestinian children should be accompanied by a parent when questioned, and finally, all interrogations should be audio-visually recorded. This final measure not only provides protection to the child against improper interrogation techniques, but also protects the interrogator against false allegations of wrongdoing. Since June 1967, approximately 730,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been held in military detention. To suggest that nearly three-quarters of a million people are "terrorists," as is often implied, is both simplistic and unhelpful. Labeling an entire population as "potential terrorists" fails to acknowledge the part illegal Israeli settlement construction plays in raising tensions in the region, while leaving many frustrated that Israeli violations of international law go unchallenged. In few other situations would the international community tolerate an entire civilian population being held under military rule for 45 years, or the systematic abuse and military detention of children as young as 12. Until a bona fide attempt is made to right this institutionalized injustice, can anyone realistically expect the situation on the ground to improve? Gerard Horton is the International Advocacy Officer and lawyer for Defence for Children International - Palestine Section.