After several false starts, let’s hope that Israel makes a real concession towards paving the ‘road map to peace’ in this week’s prisoner releases by freeing the 350 Palestinian child detainees who are currently confined in Israeli military detention centres and prisons.
Many of these children will have suffered the terrifying experience of torture and abuse inside Israeli military camps and jails as well as the denial of basic rights such as parental contact and a fair trial. Those who have been sentenced have been tried according to military orders and procedures that should play no part in juvenile justice, while others have been detained without charges under Israel’s draconian system of administrative detention, which requires neither published evidence nor specific charges.
Previous prisoner releases have not included child detainees, concentrating instead on prisoners who have only minimum terms left to serve, and bundling them together to be touted as a significant concession before the international audience.
Meanwhile, Israel has continued its arrest campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, detaining 160 ‘suspects’ on June 24 alone in Hebron and Nablus. This figure included at least 7 children who are being held in Atzion detention centre, where most have been beaten and tortured, although strangely not questioned, which suggests that they are being held more as political pawns, than real threats to Israeli wellbeing.
Other supposed concessions have been equally hollow, not the least of which is the fictional withdrawal of Israeli troops from Bethlehem town centre last week. As all Palestinians know, there were no troops stationed in Bethlehem city centre because of the high risk of attack. Instead, Israeli troops were based, and continue to be based, at the city exits where they can disrupt the movements of students, workers and goods, at liberty, stifling the Palestinian economy and any illusion of normal life. Moreover, at a moments notice they can re-enter the city centre, as they were seen doing on Saturday 5 July, three days after the ‘withdrawal,’ leaving the local population little better off than before.
The forthcoming prisoner releases are a real test of good will for the Israeli side, particularly given the fragility of the current ceasefire agreement by the Palestinian militant groups. For the sake of the Peace Process and those 350 children and their families, let the child detainees be the first on the role-call for release.
But without lasting concessions, including the dismantling of structures that allow Israeli troops to sweep through Palestinian cities in the middle of the night and detain hundreds of boys and men, the Road Map will go no further than the discredited Oslo process. For this reason, Israel needs to think twice before staging mock withdrawals from other Palestinian cities which leave the citizens with little more freedom than they have at present.
Checkpoints and movement restrictions are the real everyday signs of occupation, but what is a Road Map in the absence of navigable roads?
Catherine Hunter, Research Coordinator, Defence for Children International - Palestine Section. These views are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DCI. Defence for Children International - Palestine Section defends over 60% of Palestinian children before the Israeli courts and runs the campaign to free Palestinian Child Political Prisoners, see www.dci-pal.org for more details.