Rifat Kassis is the director of Defence for Children International-Palestine Section. In 2010, I interviewed Kassis about about his organization’s work and the special situation of Palestinian children growing up under occupation. I interviewed him again this week on the Israeli soldiers’ confessions about the mistreatment of Palestinian children, published in a new booklet from the Israeli veterans’ organization Breaking The Silence. The disturbing violations of children’s rights by soldiers took place between 2005 and 2011.
Adri Nieuwhof: Have you read the Breaking the Silence report with testimonies about the abuse of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers? What was your first impression when you read it?
Rifat Kassis: As an organization working in the field, and as one that works to monitor and document Israeli violations of Palestinian children’s rights, the information revealed by the Breaking the Silence report is not news to me. But my first impression was — as I often reflect during my work with DCI-Palestine — that these practises do not just affect Palestinian children. Rather, they also affect the Israeli soldiers themselves, as well as Israeli society at large: at the end of the day, these soldiers will return home and deal with their own children or their own siblings as changed men and women. They will invariably be affected by their roles in the occupation, and they may display their consequences in a number of ways: they may be more violent in dealing with their children, for example, or they may find themselves behaving in two distinct and contrary ways, which may affect their overall psychological wellbeing.
AN: Are the practises described by Breaking the Silence in line with the data and observations of DCI-Palestine?
RK: Yes. At DCI-Palestine, we usually document and report the accounts of the children themselves, whether they were eyewitnesses or victims. The testimonies revealed by Breaking the Silence support the stories that children tell us.
Almost all children inform DCI-Palestine that the Israeli soldiers try to terrify and intimidate Palestinian children in order to prevent them from participating in any activity against Israel, or in order to intimidate them during arrest and transfer to prepare them for the interrogation stage. Others have informed us that soldiers kick or otherwise mistreat them out of boredom, wanting to “have some fun.” I’m also thinking of one young boy’s account: upon being transported to a military camp, this boy was headbutted and punched by the soldier who received him; handcuffed, blindfolded, and put out in the yard, at which point other soldiers came to punch and spit at him; and intimidated him with a gun during his interrogation. “Can we shoot him?” one soldier asked another. “Yes, shoot him,” the other replied. “He’s an animal.” Then a third said, “Don’t. We’ll execute him in Ofer [a military prison].” According to our documentation, almost all children arrested by the Israeli army are exposed to at least one form of ill-treatment.
Further, between 2004 and 2011, DCI-Palestine and other organisations documented the cases of 17 Palestinian children being used as human shields by Israeli forces.
To me, the Breaking the Silence report completes the reports we carry out by adding the stories of the perpetrators, which we usually can’t obtain. These accounts lend credibility to our reports, which represent the narrative of the victims.
AN: The report is based on testimonies of 30 soldiers. How do you assess the information they gave? Do you think the practises they report are common?
RK: I think that these practises are not simply the arbitrary acts of a few soldiers who don’t abide by the rules. They are part and parcel of the ideology of the state and the Israeli army. This argument is supported by the fact that the Israeli authorities rarely opened investigations on these allegations. And when cases do come to light, the state reaction is mild to the point of evasive, negligent. For example, when two Israeli soldiers were convicted for using a nine-year-old boy as a human shield during the offensive on Gaza — they forced him at gunpoint to search for explosives — the Israeli military court merely demoted their ranks and gave them three-month suspensions for “inappropriate conduct.” So, again, the abuse of Palestinian children’s rights is not only common, but also systemically carried out and institutionally protected. It is by no means incidental.
AN: How do you assess the impact of the abuse of children on families? What do you see in your day-to-day dealings with protecting the rights of Palestinian children?
RK: The impact of the abuse on children varies from child to child. It depends on the child’s age, on what exactly happened to him, and on the support that he received from his family. In general terms, though, almost all children experiencing these kinds of trauma are deeply affected. In the same way, families are affected, too. The absence of a child, the constant awareness that he is in prison and being subjected to ill-treatment there, puts an even heavier burden on families and how they try to cope with it. To summarize this burden, I will quote a mother of three children in or formerly in detention as interviewed in a report conducted by Save the Children Sweden and YMCA: “It’s epidemic; they come and take our children away in order to break us emotionally. And that affects a whole society, a whole people — I think none of us recovered from the trauma of our children being taken away from us.”
AN: Is there anything you would like to say to the soldiers who testified?
RK: It is very important to speak up about these abusive practices and to reveal the truth about the occupation. What’s even more important, of course, is that soldiers refrain from abusing and mistreating children in the first place.
Sharing this information is important for the wellbeing of the soldiers themselves — including those who witnessed destructive practises and were unable to put an end to them. These accounts could be an important part of our future “truth and reconciliation” era, where the perpetrators reveal such information as a first step toward reparation and rehabilitation on the long road to justice.
The Israeli society and the international community should be aware of what the Israeli soldiers do in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territory] and how the occupation destroys Palestinian lives — but it’s also crucial to remember, as Uri Avnery once said, how it corrupts the Israelis themselves. When it comes to occupation, no one emerges unharmed.
AN: What needs to be done to end the abuse?
RK: There must be accountability. The international community must work to stop Israel’s impunity. Israel must respect its obligations under international law. Both victims and perpetrators must speak about these abuses and make them known to the public — so that the public, then, can truly and effectively engage with putting pressure on Israel to abide by international law. BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] actions are one of the most direct and important measures the international community can take toward stopping these oppressive practices and bringing about a just peace in our region.