Israel treats every Palestinian child as "potential terrorist": government-backed UK study

28 June 2012

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The number of Palestinian children in Israeli detention has increased 40 percent since last September.

(Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

A new report funded and supported by the UK government that accuses Israel of violating international law with its treatment of Palestinian child detainees was launched in London by a high-profile group of human rights lawyers on Tuesday.

The report says Israel is in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on at least six counts and of the Fourth Geneva Convention on at least two counts. It lays bare the system of legal apartheid Israel maintains in Palestine.

But there is pessimism in some quarters that the report’s recommendations will be implemented. The document has been criticized as “toothless” by a prominent Palestinian human rights activist.

“Children in Military Custody” was funded and backed by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and written by an ad hoc group including a former attorney general, a former court of appeal judge and several prominent attorneys known as QCs. The delegation visited Palestine in September and met with Palestinian, Israeli and international nongovernmental organizations, British diplomats and a wide range of Israeli government and military officials.

The report details the military law Israel applies to all Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including children, and how it differs from the civilian law applied to Israeli settlers who live in the same territory. It states there it was “uncontested [by Israel] that there are major differentials between the law governing the treatment of Palestinian children and the law governing treatment of Israeli children.”

Unequal treatment of children

At the heart of the report are three core recommendations to the Israeli government: start applying international law to the West Bank (which Israel refuses to do), the best interests of the child should come first and, crucially, that Israel “should deal with Palestinian children on an equal footing with Israeli children.”

Israel currently applies two separate and unequal systems of laws in the West Bank. Palestinians are subject to a harsh military regime in which Israeli army officers and police, arrest, interrogate, judge and sentence, while Israeli settlers colonizing the West Bank are subject to Israeli civilian law.

These systematic inequalities include: the minimum age for Palestinian children to receive a custodial sentence is 12, but for Israelis it is 14; Palestinian children have no right to have a parent present during interrogation, while Israeli children generally do.

The most stark inequalities are evident in the time it takes for the two systems to work. Palestinian children could have to wait up to eight days before being brought before a judge, while Israeli children have a right to see one within 24 hours; Palestinian children can be detained without charge for 188 days, while for Israelis the limit is 40.

In a press release about the report, Council for Arab-British Understanding director Chris Doyle describes witnessing in Palestine “nothing less than a kangaroo court that does nothing to improve Israel’s security while criminalizing an entire generation of Palestinian children.”

Children kept in solitary confinement

Drawing on their meetings with nongovernmental organizations such as Defence for Children International-Palestine Section, the authors detail the shocking treatment of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli soldiers.

Arrested in nighttime raids, Palestinian children are often physically and verbally abused, brought before adult military courts, shackled, given little choice than taking a plea bargain, and can be sentenced to as many as 20 years for “crimes” as trivial as stone throwing. Some are even kept in solitary confinement, according to DCI.

When Palestinian children file complaints about their abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers, they are almost always ignored. Israeli occupation authorities were able to give to the delegation “only one example of a complaint being upheld.” The authors report that there are “a significant number of allegations of physical and emotional abuse of child detainees by the military which neither the complaints system nor the justice system is addressing satisfactorily.”

The report compiles some shocking statistics. As many as 94 percent of Palestinian children arrested in the West Bank are denied bail, according to nongovernmental organizations. Some 97-98 percent of such cases end with a plea bargain, meaning they go to jail without even reaching the trial stage (as flawed as military courts are).

A key conclusion reached by the report’s authors is that Israel is in breach of articles of UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) that prohibit: national or ethnic discrimination; ignoring a child’s best interests; the premature resort to detention, imprisonment and trial alongside adult prisoners; preventing prompt access to lawyers and the use of shackles.

While the report notes “the International Court of Justice’s 2004 Advisory Opinion [on Israel’s wall in the West Bank] which concludes categorically that the UNCRC is applicable in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Israeli officials the delegation met with refused to recognize this.

“Every Palestinian child a ‘potential terrorist’ ”

“In our meetings with the various Israeli Government agencies, we found the universal stance by contrast was that the Convention has no application beyond Israel’s own [pre-1967] borders,” the authors write, noting their disagreement.

They emphasize: “[t]he population of the West Bank is within the physical power and control of Israel, and Israel has effective control of the territory. Our visit dispelled any doubts we might have had about this.”

In its conclusions, the report notes that this refusal to fulfill its international law obligations with respect to Palestinian children probably “stems from a belief, which was advanced to us by [an Israeli] military prosecutor, that every Palestinian child is a ‘potential terrorist.’”

Questions about report’s future

Renowned Palestinian writer, activist and academic Ghada Karmi was at the report’s launch on Tuesday. She asked the panel if it would be doing a follow-up visit, or monitoring implementation of the report’s recommendations.

The answer was less than conclusive, with co-author Greg Davies saying they would have to “wait and see” what the Israeli government’s response would be. He later spoke to The Electronic Intifada over the phone about the report’s future: “the format in which that follow-up work takes place, I don’t know at this stage, it’s too early to tell … I’m committed to seeing as far as it’s possible these recommendations coming into effect. If that requires further work I’m prepared to organize that.”

Karmi later told The Electronic Intifada that the report is “toothless in the end” because there is no way to compel Israel to comply.

“Palestinians are fed up of being studied,” she said. What they really want to know is “how will I get help to end” the abuses of the military occupation. Karmi did however conclude the report was a good thing and the delegation was a “very interesting mission” because it was backed by the foreign office, who could not be accused of anti-Israel bias in the same way that Israel has managed to taint UN missions with “the usual slanders.”

UK government approached report’s authors

Lawyer Greg Davies was responsible for putting the ad hoc delegation together. He told The Electronic Intifada that while he was doing so, he was approached by the British Consulate in Jerusalem, who offered government funding. Davies replied in the affirmative, but on condition that the group be independent.

In response to such criticisms as Karmi’s, Davies said: “there have been a number of [such] reports submitted… those reports have largely gone unanswered [by Israel] … it was that lack of response that prompted this.”

“There isn’t an enforceability as such without the political will, and that’s where our remit stops,” he said, pointing to an Early Day Motion on the report tabled in parliament Wednesday. EDM 280 welcomes the report and “asks the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House [of Commons] setting out his proposals for persuading Israel to comply in practice with international law relating to the treatment of children.” Davies said of the EDM “we welcome that and are hugely encouraged by that.”

Advancing the debate

The Palestine section of Defence for Children International, through its reports and its meetings with the delegation, is one of the most quoted sources in the report. DCI-PS spokesperson Gerard Horton admitted to The Electronic Intifada that the report’s recommendations “won’t end the abuse,” but argued that some of them “will make it very difficult for the military court system to function effectively” if they were implemented.

He wrote in an email that the report’s list of forty recommendations include those DCI-PS have been demanding for years (parents present during interrogation; prompt access to a lawyer; audio-visual recording of interrogations; and an end to forcible transfer of children to prisons inside Israel in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention).

Horton also highlighted the high profile of the report’s authors and backers: “the importance of this report is who wrote it … before real change can occur the debate has to become mainstream. People in the center and center-right have to start taking an interest and expressing a concern. To my mind this report goes some way to advancing that by helping to shift the debate to the center.”

“Justice is not a negotiable commodity”

Among the report’s forty specific recommendations are: an end to night arrests, an end to blindfolding and shackling, observing the prohibition on “violent, threatening or coercive” conduct, the presence of a parent during interrogation and “[c]hildren should not be required to sign confessions” in Hebrew, since they do not understand it.

The report notes that since the delegation’s visit, a new military order has upped to 18 the age at which Palestinian children can be tried as adults. Previously, it had been 16 (then another inequality with Israeli children who are treated as children until 18).

But there are concerns this change has been rendered void in practice. While welcoming the change, the report expresses concern “that the change does not appear to apply to sentencing provisions.”

Seemingly deliberate loopholes in the law means that “adult sentencing provisions still apply to 16 [and] 17 year olds” and that children 14-17 years old can be sentenced as adults when the maximum penalty for the offense is five years or more. The maximum penalty for throwing stones (the most common offense) ranges from 10 to 20 years,

Asked by The Electronic Intifada at the Tuesday launch why there were no specific recommendations in the report to end this inequality, Judy Khan QC said it was covered by core recommendation three, which calls for an end to the current inequalities between Israeli and Palestinian child detainees.

In their meetings with the delegation, the Israeli Ministry of Justice “described [such changes] as conditional on there being no significant unrest or ‘third intifada.’” The report objects: “[a] major cause of future unrest may well be the resentment of continuing injustice … justice is not a negotiable commodity but a fundamental human right.”

Sharp rise in child detainees

Sir Stephen Sedley, a former Lord Justice — senior appeal judge — underlined at Tuesday’s launch that there has been a 40 percent rise in child detainees since their visit in September, so the problem has only got worse since they returned to the UK.

While the report seems to have received some media coverage in the UK, it yet remains to be seen what practical impact it will have. More fundamentally, it does not call for an end to the occupation, considering political solutions beyond the authors’ mandate. It does note however that: “We have no reason to differ from the view of Her Majesty’s Government and the international community that these [Israeli] settlements [in the West Bank] are illegal. For the purposes of this report however we treat them, like the occupation, as a fact.”

But the question remains: a fact for how much longer?

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.