Israel has sunk to new lows this year: arresting and imprisoning its youngest female detainee, 12-year-old Dima al-Wawi, and sentencing her to nearly five months in prison.
Dima was arrested in February after she allegedly approached the settlement of Karmei Tzur in the southern occupied West Bank with a knife. All of Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law.
She has said her intention was to stab a security guard, but the incident resulted in no injuries.
Israel released Dima on Sunday, after she served half her sentence, following a successful appeal of her detention by her family on the grounds that Israeli law prohibits incarcerating children under 14.
But Israel has also reached grim new highs this year, incarcerating a much greater number of Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 15, making Dima’s imprisonment disturbing not so much for its novelty but for how routine it is.
At the end of December 2015, 116 Palestinian children between 12 and 15 years old were held in Israeli military detention, an eleven-fold increase from the previous year.
In total, 440 children under 18 are currently held in military detention, which is the highest number since the Israeli army began sharing data in 2008, and almost two-and-half times the number imprisoned a year ago.
According to Defense for Children International–Palestine (DCIP), no other country in the world systematically prosecutes hundreds of children in military courts each year.
DCIP thoroughly documents the alarming trends in Israel’s incarceration of children in a new report, No Way to Treat a Child, which details the extent to which Israel has degraded the rights of children living under its military rule.
The researchers collected 429 sworn testimonies between January 2012 and December 2015.
The report reveals that in 97 percent of the cases, no parent or lawyer was present during interrogation and in 88 percent of the cases the children were not informed of the reason for their arrest.
Following harsh censure in 2013 for its treatment of Palestinian children in military courts by the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Israel made several attempts to publicly reform the image of how it treats Palestinian children.
Israel amended its military orders to prohibit night arrests of minors, blindfolding and restraining children with shackles and handcuffs.
But as DCIP documents, those practices are still widely used.
Moreover, in November 2015, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, amended the Youth Law to institute mandatory minimum sentences for children alleged to be involved in throwing stones, and increased maximum sentences for children who throw stones at a moving vehicle.
“Under the military legal framework,” the report states, “any soldier or police officer is authorized to arrest persons without a warrant, even children, where they have a suspicion that the individual has committed an act violating one of the ‘security offenses’ in Israeli military law.”
“Most children are arrested on suspicion, without arrest warrants. There is little to no independent oversight over arrests,” the report adds.
Meanwhile, according to DCIP, Israel maintains that it is not obliged to extend international human rights law, including protections outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank – arguments that have been rejected by the International Court of Justice and several UN human rights treaty bodies.
Dima’s case is emblematic of many of the abuses documented by DCIP. She was interrogated without her parents or a lawyer and attended her court sessions with her feet in shackles.
She was also sentenced after accepting a plea bargain, confessing to attempted voluntary manslaughter and illegal possession of a knife. More than 99 percent of DCIP’s cases ended with plea deals.
At her homecoming from prison on Sunday, Dima said that her one respite during her two-and-a-half-month ordeal was that she was allowed to play with other incarcerated girls.
But this is telling of a concerning trend: though still a minority, the number of young Palestinian girls in Israeli prison has reached new heights – there were 12 as of February.
“As the number of arrests of children has grown amid the escalation of violence in recent months, so has the number of cases in which international norms protecting children are violated,” Human Rights Watch states in its recent report on the abuse of detained Palestinian children.
The DCIP and Human Rights Watch reports demonstrate that within the Israeli military system, Palestinians’ status as children yields to their presumed criminal status, justifying the denial of a host of protections that should apply to minors according to international norms and sometimes even Israeli law.
The systematic abuse of children, from arresting them in the middle of the night, to keeping them from their parents, to inflicting physical abuse, is aimed at coercing confessions.
Seventeen-year-old Bashir, who was summoned for questioning, told DCIP, “[The Israeli interrogation officer] kicked me twice on my legs, punched me twice in the stomach and three times on the head, while shouting, ‘You better confess because I won’t stop beating you unless you confess.’”
DCIP records that 27.5 percent of children experienced some form of physical violence during interrogation.
“The main philosophy of interrogation is to exert as much pressure on the person under interrogation and keep his resistance as low as possible,” Ayed Abu Eqtaish, the accountability program director at DCIP states in Detaining Dreams, a new short documentary, above, produced by the organization.
DCIP writes, “Interrogation sessions serve as the primary means of securing evidence against children.”
The documentary interviews four teenagers who were arrested in the spring of 2014 and severely beaten during their arrests and subsequent interrogations.
Abed, who was 14 at the time of his arrest, recalls that he was chained to a wall with his feet barely touching the ground, as the soldiers delivered blows to his body: “It reached a point where all I felt was pain.”
System of control
DCIP emphasizes that “cosmetic” changes to Israeli military law cannot adequately address the mistreatment of children in the military court system because “the system serves control interests of the occupation,” rather than the interests of administering justice.
“The Israeli military’s resistance to implementing a summons process for Palestinian minors, or other practical changes to address violence and abuse, suggest an inherent conflict within the military court system between seeking justice and legitimizing control of the Palestinian population living under military occupation.”