DHEISHEH REFUGEE CAMP, Occupied West Bank, Apr 10 (IPS) - Mohammed Mahsiri, a resident of Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, sits in a crowded cafe, a red kuffiyeh wrapped around his neck and an iconic portrait of Che Guevara emblazoned on his black t-shirt.
About a year and a half ago, he tells IPS, he and his friend were walking down the street when Israeli military jeeps surrounded them, shouted at them in Hebrew to stop, and forced them inside a jeep.
“I was taken to a detention centre and interrogated,” Mohammed says. “The interrogation would begin at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and would finish after eleven pm. I was beaten all the time, especially if the soldiers did not get the answers they wanted.
“I was sent to be beaten by other soldiers and forced to stand in the rain with only thin clothes on. They would try to convince me that I did something that I did not do in order to get the confession they wanted. After being tortured at the detention centre for one month, I was in prison for 13 months.”
Shocking photographs of torture at U.S. military bases and detention centres in Iraq and Afghanistan outraged people across the globe, but Palestinians say they have endured similar treatment inside Israeli interrogation centres since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
But Mohammed Mahsiri’s story is different. He endured considerable physical and psychological torture by Israeli interrogators and prison guards when he was just short of 17 years old.
What is being witnessed and documented within the detention centres and prison camps is widespread, systematic violation of international laws experienced by Palestinian children under 18 years old, including torture, interrogation, physical beatings, deplorable living conditions and no access to fair trial, according to reports by human rights groups and legal observers.
Under Israeli military orders in force inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza, any Palestinian over the age of 16 is considered an adult, while inside Israel the age of an adult is 18 — even though Israel is a signatory to the International Convention of the Rights of the Child, which defines all children as under 18 years old.
Moreover, Palestinian children over 14 years old are tried as adults in an Israeli military court, and are often put into prisons with adults. These are also direct violations of international law.
According to the latest figures offered by an independent group, there are 398 Palestinian children currently inside Israeli detention centres and prisons. Ayed Abuqtaish, research cocoordinator with Defence for Children International’s Ramallah offices, told IPS that the youngest child being held in prison is just 14 years old.
“Usually, the Israeli troops invade the child’s house in the middle of the night, in order to frighten the child and his family,” Abuqtaish told IPS. “Many Israeli soldiers and vehicles surround the house, and other soldiers invade or force their way into the house.
“They intimidate the child to prepare him for interrogation. When the child arrives at the interrogation centre, they employ different methods of torture.”
There are widespread reports of physical beatings, Abuqtaish says, “but currently, they concentrate mainly on psychological torture like sleep deprivation, or depriving him of food or water, or putting him in solitary confinement, or threatening him with the demolition of his home or the arrest of other family members. Children have also reported that the Israeli interrogators have threatened to sexually abuse them.”
Israel has consistently defended its policies of interrogation inside detention centres and prisons, saying that it is a necessary tool against the war on terror. In 1987, according to Israel’s Landau Commission of Inquiry into interrogation policies, the state determined that “a moderate degree of pressure, including physical pressure, in order to obtain crucial information, is unavoidable under certain circumstances.”
“Israel is a state party to the International Convention Against Torture,” Abuqtaish said. “In its reports to the committee, Israel always says that their use of ‘moderate physical pressure’ is consistent with the obligation of the treaty, but, needless to say, ‘moderate physical pressure’ is obviously torture in itself.”
Palestinian children in the Israeli prison system are not given any legal advocacy and are denied most of their rights, involved lawyers say.
Arne Malmgren, a Swedish lawyer, has worked as a legal observer inside Israeli military courts during trials of Palestinian children. “The Israeli court system does not look like any other court system in the world,” Malmgren told IPS. “Israeli military staff, the judge, the prosecutor, the interpreter — they are all in military uniform. There are plenty of soldiers with weapons inside the courtroom.
“The small children come into the courtroom in handcuffs and full chains; there can be up to seven children at the same time in the courtroom. One lawyer described it as a cattle market. The trial is more like a plea bargain — before the proceedings, the prosecutor and the lawyer have already agreed on the child’s sentence, and then they just ask the judge if he agrees, and he almost always does.
“There are no witnesses, nothing. And the worst thing is what happened before the child arrives at the courtroom — when they interrogate these young boys and girls to get them to sign confessions to things they may or may not have done.”
As negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli officials move forward this week in a possible prisoner exchange deal that may include the release of all imprisoned Palestinian women and children in a swap for an Israeli occupation soldier captured by Palestinian groups in Gaza last June, many Palestinians, including Mohammed Mahsiri, are hoping to see relatives, friends and loved ones come home.
“When I was released from prison, it was the best day of my life,” Mahsiri tells IPS. “We were beaten every day. The food was very bad. It was the hardest thing we had to face. No child should ever have to experience that.”
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