Amer Bajawi, 14, has been sitting in an Israeli military prison for nearly two months waiting for his trial.
At 10:00 pm on 23 May, Amer was hiding in an olive tree with his friend on the edge of Yabad, his home village in the occupied West Bank, when they were spotted and shouted down by Israeli soldiers. The two teens were immediately cuffed and blindfolded on suspicion of throwing stones at cars driven by Israeli settlers returning home to a nearby Jewish-only settlement, according to an affidavit taken on 1 June by Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-Palestine).
During the first six hours of detention and interrogation, Amer was denied use of a toilet. With his wrists cuffed, he was made to sit on the floor of a military jeep while being shuffled to three different detention centers.
Finally, he was placed in the juvenile section of Megiddo prison, located inside present-day Israel.
Amer will remain at Megiddo until his hearing on 28 July. He has already confessed to throwing stones.
If convicted — a strong possibility — he faces up to 10 years behind bars.
The military court system handling Amer’s case has undergone reforms in recent years. But the reforms have been so piecemeal that they are unlikely to bring him any respite.
They were introduced after the United Nations fund for children UNICEF released a report in 2013 asserting that Israel is the only country that tries juveniles in military courts that “by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights.”
The report also concludes that abuse of children in the military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.”
The condemnation from the world’s guardian of children’s rights prompted the Israeli government to pledge cooperation with UNICEF to implement reforms immediately.
Less than a month after the UNICEF report was published, the length of time a child could be detained without appearing before a judge was reduced from four days to between 24 and 48 hours, depending on the age of the youth. Within two years, 10 new military orders and rules had been introduced to supposedly safeguard the rights of child prisoners.
The reforms came amid concerns expressed by the Israeli military about the harm the UNICEF report might inflict on the public image of its occupation of the West Bank.
Following a freedom of information request, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel obtained a “debriefing paper” for soldiers in late 2014. The paper notes that reports on the military’s treatment of minors in the West Bank “may inflict real harm on the legitimacy of Israel and its actions in the area.”
But Gerard Horton, a lawyer with Military Court Watch, a group that monitors the occupation regime’s treatment of children, told The Electronic Intifada that “Genuine [in intent] or not, the reforms appear to have been largely ineffectual at stemming the abuse.”
In February this year, UNICEF reviewed the reforms’ implementation and found that the level of improvement was small. And in April, Military Court Watch released its own assessment of the reforms, concluding that the progress made was even less significant.
DCI-Palestine, meanwhile, has observed no improvement in the treatment of children.
A new report by Human Rights Watch documents how soldiers routinely violate Israel’s own laws meant to protect children. The report also notes that Israel’s laws remain insufficient to fully safeguard the rights of children in custody.
Never informed of rights
Among the supposed reforms were a cessation of night arrests, only exceptional use of blindfolds and a notification provided to parents with information about rights and procedures.
Furthermore, interrogations are supposed to be recorded. But “security” offenses, such as throwing stones, are exempt from that requirement.
According to DCI-Palestine, Amer Bajawi was never informed of his rights, was denied access to a lawyer and his parents did not find out where their son was until the next day.
Human rights observers have long pointed out that the Israeli military regime that has governed Palestinians in the West Bank since 1967 inflicts some of its most egregious abuses on children.
Palestinian children are routinely subjected to night arrests, interrogation without the presence of a parent or legal counsel, strip searches and physical abuse.
In June, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, released his annual report on children and armed conflict. It states that on average, 188 Palestinian children between the ages of 14 and 17 are held each month in Israeli military detention — a number which constitutes one of the highest of any of the countries profiled.
The report also recorded that children were “subjected to ill-treatment, such as beatings, being hit with sticks, being blindfolded.”
Earlier this year, the Israeli Civil Administration — the army body that runs the West Bank occupation — issued an order that ostensibly provides for the application of the civilian penal code to Palestinians.
Jewish Israelis living in settlements in the West Bank have always been ruled by Israeli civil law.
“When it comes to Palestinians, they have fewer rights and they can be interrogated at night; this process is different from the Israeli settlers’ civil system,” Bashar Jamal from DCI-Palestine told The Electronic Intifada.
While the code was meant to go into effect on 1 June, Palestinians — who, in theory, would be most affected by it — still know very little about it. The code has yet to be translated into Arabic and it remains unclear what precise changes it will bring.
The treatment of Amer Bajawi illustrates why Palestinians are right to be wary of Israeli reforms.
Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Twitter: @CharESilver