No “policy to create fear”, only systemic “ill-treatment” in the West Bank

“Stone Cold Justice”, a Four Corners report aired in early February this year, exposed the devastating reality for Palestinian children, some as young as five, being arrested, interrogated, and abused in Israeli military detention centres. The program echoed the findings of a UNICEF report, “Children in Israeli Military Detention” released in March last year. That report described the Israeli military’s “ill-treatment” of Palestinian children as being “widespread, systematic and institutionalized”.

“Let me say this very clearly…A policy to create fear? There is no such thing. The only policy is to maintain law and order, that’s all. If there’s no violence, there’s no law enforcement.” – Yigal Palmor, Israel’s international spokesperson.

Now picture this for a moment:

You are a 12-year-old Palestinian child living in your city of birth. Your journey to school each morning requires agility, speed and the sleeve of your shirt in order to cover your mouth and eyes from the tear gas thrown at you by an occupying military force. This force is there to protect the 0.44% of the population who live in a nearby Israeli settlement. On your way home you wait outside the school for the same military personnel who had thrown tear gas at you that morning, to escort you home past the settlement in order to protect you from unprovoked attacks. That night, after doing your homework, you go to bed only to be woken at 2am by the sound of fully armed military personnel beating down the door of your house. You are blindfolded, restrained and then taken against your will to an interrogation centre where you are detained for an arbitrary amount of time, then tried in a military court.

The Four Corners report details stories such as this one that are commonplace in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Children are being detained, intimidated, interrogated, and abused. According to Palmor, it is all in the name of “gather[ing] information about possible violence”.

When detained, these Palestinian children are subject to long periods of interrogation, intimidation, and torture. “Ill-treatment” is how UNICEF, our peak international body for the representation of children, has chosen to characterise stories of children being left outside overnight locked in cages during snowstorms. The phrase is also apparently sufficient to describe the incident of an Israeli military officer ordering a dog to eat food placed on the genital region of a young Palestinian boy’s trousers. And the rationale for all of this systemic abuse? Either intelligence gathering or a forced confession to a crime such as stone throwing.

We must never forget that children have and continue to be victims of violence on both sides of this conflict. For young Palestinians in the West Bank however, the straw seems to be just that bit shorter. Not only are they being subject to night-time raids on their homes by full-armed military personnel, but they are then being detained, interrogated and tried for crimes in military courts where confessions are often obtained as a result of torture, deceit, or a combination of both. In no other country are children being systematically tried in military courts and there is good reason for this.

The Israeli juvenile military courts have demonstrated efficacy in two things. The first is their exceptional conviction rate of 99.74%. What this means is that of the approximately 700 Palestinian children processed through military courts each year, anywhere between 1 and 2 are not convicted.

The second proficiency of this military justice system is its reckless and blatant breach of a number of international laws designed to protect children’s rights, as well as international rules that set minimum standards for the administration of juvenile justice. The text of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified by Israel back in 1991, is very clear about the obligations owed by nations. Article 37(a) of the Convention provides that within each State “no child shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. It is an international embarrassment and unforgiveable crime that with over a decade’s worth of evidence showing clear, systematic breaches of international law designed to protect children, the international community continues to sit on its hands.

Following the release of the UNICEF report last year, US President Barack Obama urged Israel to exercise empathy and to “look at the world through [Palestinian] eyes.” He then went on to remark that, “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own, living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movement of not just those young people, but their parents and their grandparents every single day.” This is not about fairness. It is about fear, intimidation and abuse, and the cosiness of this statement is almost enough to lull anyone into a false sense that this will all be fixed soon.

The truth is, the international community has been voicing its condemnation to Israel about the detention and conviction of Palestinian children for over a decade. A UN committee report released in July last year highlighted Israel’s complete disregard to previous committee recommendations made in 2002 and 2010 regarding the detention and conviction of young Palestinians. Tragically, the Israeli government’s response to the most recent UN report, in particular its accusation that the report was tarred by political bias and an agenda for “political bashing”, suggests that no change lies around the corner.

Without a strong international agenda to remedy the child rights abuses of Palestinian children, it appears that what we can expect in coming years is for Israel to retain its position of having “no policy of fear” in occupied Palestinian territories, and for the international community to continue labelling the detention, intimidation, torture, and flawed convictions of young Palestinian children as nothing more than “ill-treatment”.