Detained children of the OPT

This post is from one of our contributors who is currently in the West Bank, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. He is there with a peace and justice organisation aiming to make people aware of the situation and encourage/train them in creative and non-violent resistance to injustice. The following information is affirmed by the testimony of Palestinian refugees, the UN and Defence for Children International (an impartial and independent international organisation).

The following information was collected by the author on 6th and 7th July from three main sources: the UN in Jerusalem; the testimonies of Palestinians in a refugee camp in the West Bank; and from a Defence for Children International (DCI) lawyer, who confirmed the accuracy of these children’s testimonies. Some of the stories are not documented in precise form, but the lawyer confirmed that the examples given by the Palestinians are exactly in line with what he has seen in the past 6 years since he has been there. Also, some of the stories and very similar ones are documented in DCI’s recent publication ‘Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted: Children held in military detention’ (2012). Similar information can also be found and documented by Israeli organisations Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.

“The test of a democracy is how you treat people incarcerated, people in jails, and especially children.” — Mark Regev, Spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, The Guardian, 22 January 2012

Today was my second day in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and one of the saddest and most heart-breaking of my life. After meeting with the UN and visiting one of the only hospitals for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza yesterday (hopefully the subject of future blogs), we visited a Palestinian refugee camp today, near Bethlehem. Some may be wondering why there is a need for a refugee camp at all since we are still in the Palestinian territories. The answer is that since 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have not been able to live in their homes due to the Nakba (‘catastrophe’, in Arabic) of the war between Arab nations and Israel in 1948. The origin and conduct of this war are not the subjects of this blog, apart from to say that many Palestinians were driven from their homes by Israeli forces (and militia groups) and forced to live in refugee camps . These are still present today, as the inhabitants have not been given the right to return. At the time, the UN said that the camp would only need to be there for 7 days until the refugees could return. They are still there 64 years later.

The camp we visited started off simply as tents in 1948, but has now been there so long that full buildings have been erected. This means that for those under 64 in the camp, the only life they have known is that of being a refugee. There are around 12,000 inhabitants in about 1 square kilometre. There are fences around the camp and only two exits, controlled by the Israeli authorities, who periodically (and unpredictably) close one or both of the exits, effectively imprisoning those inside. This often means that Palestinian children cannot get to school (if they attend school outside of the camp), and that urgent medical attention is often severely delayed or postponed until they are reopened. There are stories of mothers losing babies because of needing to get to a hospital to give birth, but not being able to because exits were closed. It is a relatively simple journey to Bethlehem (where many work and receive further education – around 20 minutes) from one of the exits; but if this is closed, the journey can take 1.5 hours longer from the other exit  – and again, it is impossible to know when the first exit will be closed). When the Israeli separation barrier is extended over the coming weeks as planned (which is illegal under international law), even the journey from the first exit will take up to and additional two hours to circumvent the barrier. Two high schools for girls and two high schools for boys exist within the camp (up to the age of 15), both run by the UN (who provide the majority of humanitarian services in the camp), with average class sizes around 35-40.

We spent the morning volunteering, clearing up rubbish from one of the schools, which clearly doesn’t happen that often due to the limited services available. The young man accompanying us (20 years old) told us he regularly gets stopped in the street by Israeli soldiers (with guns) as often as five times a day to be asked for his ID, even though they know him well. None of the inhabitants of the camp have any agricultural land as it was taken from them in 1948, and the camp itself is adjacent to an Israeli settlement – again, illegal under international law. That settlement commands 90% of the water supply, all major roads and is protected by the Israeli military.

We were then given a talk by Defence for Children International with testimonies from adults and children who have spent time in Israeli military detention. Testimonies ranged from the age of 17 to people in their 40s-50s. Children as young as 12, however, are taken into Israeli military detention, as discussed below.

The first testimonies came from two teenage boys who had created a film (shown at film festivals around the world) of the reality of life under the occupation and as refugees. It showed how Israeli forces often encourage young children to ‘collaborate’ with them to inform on their friends who throw rocks at the military. Both boys were arrested in the middle of the night (2am) when Israeli forces stormed the houses, forcing their family to come outside. Without telling the parents where they were taken to, the boys were taken to a detention centre overnight, handcuffed and blindfolded. In the morning they were interrogated for 6-7 hours (they were 14 and 15 at the time) through being shouted at, having their heads shoved in toilets, and having to kneel on the ground. This continued until they admitted they had made the video. They were moved to two different prisons, given eight-month sentences, and ordered to pay a significant fine.

Another man was arrested in 2010 and spent two years in military detention. He said he was not proud to talk of what he had suffered because he was speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people who are forced to suffer every day. He talked about not only physical harm on behalf of the soldiers, but emotional and psychological harm. For example, being placed in a very small space with no light and only a small tube providing air for hours at a time. “People are stripped of their dignity” he said, ‘The main thing for us in prison is to maintain our dignity. My dignity is more precious to me than food’ [explaining the recent surge in Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails – the current record is 95 days on just water and salt, breaking the former record by an anti-apartheid protester in South Africa]. Another man said that sentences are rarely based on evidence. He spent seven years in prison with 52 charges against him. Some of them were accurate (but in most countries around the world would never result in prison sentences), but the vast majority were simply not true. He was originally given 30 years, but then reduced to 7 as an act showing the ‘fairness’ and ‘impartiality’ of Israeli military detention. As well as gaining collaborators in the camp, the forces also seek collaborators in the prisons themselves, targeting those whom they see as ‘weak-willed’, often younger men, who are given shorter sentences and their family given small benefits in the camp if they tell on fellow Palestinian prisoners.

We then heard from Gerard Horton, an international human rights lawyer who works for Defence for Children International on his work advocating and representing children in the West Bank over the past six years. He explained that since 1967 (when the occupation began) military law has been in force in the West Bank. There are two military courts where children (12-18, until recently it was 12-16), one near Ramallah and one in the north near Jenin. Since 1967, around 730,000 Palestinian people (mostly men and boys) have been through the military detention system, amounting to around one-in-four Palestinian men. DCI has three lawyers who go with Palestinian children when they are detained and in a recent publication they feature 311 testimonies of children under 18 (and as young as 12) and their experiences in the system.

The children are often taken at ‘friction points’, which usually means where Palestinians are living close to settlements. In Horton’s words, the strategy of the Israeli authorities is to “take the [mainly] young men in an abusive system to control and suppress”. The testimonies given show a clear pattern emerging: the authorities often do not know exactly who maybe threw a stone (or something else), but they still need control. If they let one or two things go, they fear they will lose the West Bank. So they use intelligence from those they have arrested before and from informers to make arrests, even when the evidence is not that strong. Arrests often happen in the middle of the night, sometimes with doors being blown off and sound bombs being thrown into houses to get the whole family outside. IDs are checked and the child is taken away, almost always without the parents knowing where they are going. Plastic hand-ties are used (the sort that you can tighten but cannot loosen), which often leads to blood flow stopping and serious pain for the children. Recently, an Israeli human rights organisation lodged a complaint relating to 574 uses of the hand-ties and took the army to court. Army lawyers agreed that this was excessive and the court recommended a new procedure of three hand-ties being used with at least a finger’s width room for the children. Since April 2010 DCI has seen several hundred cases of this not being implemented and only 4 where it has been done properly. This follows a general pattern of Israeli courts making recommendations which are almost never implemented.

After being arrested in this fashion, the child is held in a military vehicle for anywhere between 20 minutes to several hours (blindfolds are used in most cases). Often children are forced to lie on the floor of the vehicle, with the roads being notoriously bumpy. Frequently, the vehicle arrives late at night and because detention centres do not open until 8-9am in the morning, children will be taken into settlements and left in the open air (even in the freezing cold or rain) until morning, not allowed to eat or use the toilet. Occasionally the operating commander will reprimand soldiers for mistreating children, but the DCI figure for this is about 2% of cases.

[By way of contrast, if an Israeli settler child is caught throwing stones, many are simply not tried. If they are, their parents are allowed to accompany them to the local police station in the middle of the day (as opposed to the night). The vast majority are released on bail and only 6.5% have even the chance of going to jail.]

When the interrogation starts, the interrogator (usually in a room by himself with the child) will start by shouting at the child trying to get them to confess and also asking them why they did what they did. Forms of torture are used as mentioned above. In many recorded cases the interrogator will tell the child that unless they confess there is a man waiting outside the room who will rape the child. There have been three recorded cases of police using taser guns against children. If the child’s father has a work permit to work in Jerusalem (for example), they will threaten to take it away unless they confess. Most of the children are so scared by this they will simply confess to stop the ordeal, but also to receive a lighter sentence. They are often handed confession forms in Hebrew, which the majority cannot read – something which, according to Horton, any court in the world would see as being against their human rights. Never in his six years has he seen a judge (some of whom live in the settlements themselves) voice concern over children signing a form in a foreign language they do not understand. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, 645 complaints have been lodged about the techniques of the interrogators; not a single one has been investigated.

Many of the children are then transferred into Israel, in direct violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states an occupying power must keep prisoners within the occupied territory. Indeed, according to international law, anyone (judge, soldiers etc.) complicit in this is committing a criminal act.

After 8 days the child is brought before the judge, the first time they are allowed to see their family since being taken from them.

When in court, voluntary confessions are requested. The only evidence is their confession and no cross-examination is conducted. If they plead guilty, they will usually receive between 10 days-10 months in prison. If they do not plead guilty, they will almost never be released on bail and are kept in military detention, waiting on average 4-6 months for the next hearing. As a result, the majority of the children simply plead guilty to make the ordeal go faster. According to DCI the 4th Geneva Convention is violated in 85% of adult cases, and 55% in cases involving children.

Whilst in military detention, children are often forced into solitary confinement for up to 65 days (if they do not confess), in a windowless cell, with a light on for 24 hours, completely disorientating the child. The UN has specifically called for an end to this form of torture. They are repeatedly subjected to this until they confess.

There was a case documented two years ago where two 16 year old boys were arrested in the middle of a refugee camp. They were taken to solitary confinement for six days and 22 days in the detention centre in total and then released without charge.

Sometimes, children and families are told they are going to be released after a 6-9 month (or longer) sentence. The other prisoners say goodbye and have a celebration for the child, and the family prepare food for them to celebrate as they are coming home. Then when they are walking through the prison, they are given another sentence for a further 6 months and not allowed to leave. In one documented case, a child reached so near to home that he could smell the food his family had prepared for him to come home before the soldiers arrested him again and took him back to prison.

There are many more instances in the DCI report of blatant violations of basic human rights. I was told by our tour guide that in reality far worse things happen to the boys (e.g. parents raped and themselves raped, naked photos etc.), but they will not say so because it will be an embarrassment to their family. Some of the collaborator children are ostracised by their communities and there have even been cases of suicide because of the stress of being a collaborator. The children rarely, if ever, know what they are getting into. In Horton’s six years in the West Bank, he says things have become much worse. The Israeli authorities are ‘annexing’ the land without the people, because if they annexed the people they would owe them more responsibilities as citizens.

Listening to the Palestinian children and adults was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. The anguish, anger and pain experienced is clear to see, and the utter helplessness in the situation is also clear. “We ask you to stand by us” one of them said to us and after hearing this I don’t think I had a choice.

For those who might question the integrity of the children’s testimonies, it should be noted that this information is confirmed by many former Israeli soldiers through the ‘Breaking the Silence’ programme, getting former soldiers to speak up about their experiences in the army. Much of the data is also confirmed by B’Tselem and other Israeli organisations. Breaking the Silence will be bringing out a report in the next few months with the testimony of 50 former soldiers with very similar stories to those described here. This quotation is from former Commander Eran Efrati (Israeli Army, BBC News, August 2009):

“I never arrested anyone younger that 9 or 10, but 14, 13, 11 for me, they’re still kids. But they’re arrested like adults. Every soldier who was in the Occupied Territories can tell you the same story. The first months after I left the army I dreamed about kids all the time. Jewish kids. Arab kids. Screaming. Maybe the kid is blindfolded for him not to see the base and how we’re working […]. But I believe maybe we put the blindfold on because we don’t want to see his eyes. You don’t want him to look at us – you know, beg us to stop or cry in front of us. It’s a lot easier if we don’t see his eyes.”

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