By Rev. John Thomas and Philip Farah
Diyaa was sixteen years old when Israeli soldiers forcibly entered his family’s home in the occupied West Bank at 3 a.m. and dragged him to a waiting army jeep while his parents watched, helpless. Diyaa was driven to a military prison where he was placed in solitary confinement in a windowless cell where he would spend the next fifteen days without visitors. Diyaa was charged with stone throwing, a not uncommon activity of Palestinian youth deeply frustrated by the daily restrictions and humiliations of the now fifty-year old and seemingly unending Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. During his time in solitary confinement, his jailer regularly beat him. Each day for up to two hours, with his hands and feet bound to a chair, Diyaa was interrogated, with no advocate or attorney present to help or advise him. Not surprisingly, Diyaa signed a confession.
Diyaa’s case of ill-treatment is not unusual. Since the year 2000, over 8,000 Palestinian children have been arrested and prosecuted in the Israeli military detention system. This ill-treatment of Palestinian children, sometimes amounting to torture, is well documented by Israeli, Palestinian, U.S. and other international organizations. In March 2013, for example, a landmark report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that ill-treatment of detained children appears to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” In April 2016, a study of 429 children by Defense for Children International–Palestine found that three out of four children had endured some form of physical violence during detention. In 97% of the cases children had no parent or lawyer present during their interrogations. Interrogators used position abuse (tying or binding children in painful positions), threats, blindfolds, and isolation to extract confessions and information. At least 66 of these children were held in solitary confinement, for an average of 13 days. Is this any way to treat a child?
Tellingly, Israel operates two separate legal systems in the occupied West Bank. Israeli settlers and their children living in the West Bank enjoy the rights and protections of Israeli civil law. In contrast, Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Israeli military law, which fails to ensure and, in fact, denies basic and fundamental rights.
On June 30, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, meeting in Baltimore, will be considering a resolution which highlights this issue and calls on the State of Israel to exercise an absolute prohibition against torture and ill-treatment of detained children. The resolution calls on Israel to ensure that all arrests and detentions of children are carried out in accordance with international juvenile justice standards, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That Convention, which Israel has signed, requires that every child deprived of liberty be treated “with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.” It requires that children be imprisoned “only as a measure of last resort,” and that detained children be granted “prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance” as well as “the right to maintain contact with his or her family through correspondence and visits.” In no case are children to be subject to “torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
Some may ask why a U.S. church should be considering a resolution on Israel’s behavior when the abuse of children occurs elsewhere in the world as well, including (unfortunately) in the United States. First, of course, the abuse of children anywhere should be of concern to Christians everywhere who remember Jesus’ welcome and blessing of children. Second, Palestinian Christians have called us to act, writing in their document Kairos Palestine, “the communion of love says to every believer in spirit and in truth: if my brother is in prison I am a prison.” Christian discipleship requires solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed. Finally, we in the U.S. are deeply complicit in the ill-treatment of Palestinian children, because of the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars we send to Israel each year which help sustain and expand the Israeli military occupation, now in its 50th year.
We know that peace is constructed with many building blocks. Ending unjust treatment of children and the rage and resentment it incurs is one of those important foundation stones.
Reverend John H. Thomas, former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ (1999-2009.)