How any state treats children is surely one of the great litmus tests of its moral standing. Sadly, far too many fail them, leaving lifelong scars. The children of the Middle East are collectively being failed and even more so over the last five years with conflict and trauma rampant in many states. The next two decades will witness the fallout from this generational agony.
For the most part, the options to help the children of Syria, Iraq and Yemen are limited. Ultimately only ending the conflicts will allow the sorts of childhood interventions necessary to mitigate against some of the worst effects. Of the tens, even hundreds of thousands of those languishing in the Syrian regime jails, who knows how many of them are children?
Yet the international community has no excuse when it comes to the issue of Palestinian child detainees in Israeli detention. Israel is a first world power with strong political, economic and cultural ties to the world’s leading powers. It claims to be a democracy that respects the rule of law and to be treated as a state with such a reputation. Sadly, the reality is miles from that and the evidence of abuse is available and accessible not hidden or unknown.
Palestinian children in the West Bank including East Jerusalem live under occupation. Outside of Jerusalem, this means under Israeli military laws and no matter what the transgression, Palestinians appear in a military court. Israeli settlers, all 550,000 of them living in the same geography have all the benefits and protections of Israel’s legal system, which for children, rivals any state in the world.
What should the international community be doing to actually protect its own legal system, because a systematic war crime has continued for nearly half a century?Chris Doyle
Not so for Palestinian children. At every stage in the arrest, interrogation, judicial and prison processes, they typically suffer maltreatment. According to Gerard Horton, a lawyer with Military Court Watch, since the latest escalation in violence, “more children seem to be subject to physical abuse.” Night raids of Palestinian villages and refugee camps have gone up as has the violence. According to the latest official Israeli prison service figures, there are 407 Palestinian children in prison – a rise of 138% since September when it was 170. (There are 5936 Palestinians held as security figures). These, as Horton points out, are just the official figures and do not include all those who have rounded up and held for hours or even overnight. These figures are the largest since March 2009 following riots in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead.
The rest of the process is farcical, culminating in a kangaroo court process. Around 60% of children still are asked to sign documentation even confessions in Hebrew which they nearly always do not speak. Most do not meet a lawyer until after their interrogations where no responsible adult is present with the child. Most of the interrogations are not recorded or if so, the recordings are not always handed to the defence. The military courts are as one MP remarked to me a “process centre” where the children are told by their lawyers to plead guilty if they wish to get out in a reasonable time. The military court at Ofer has 99.74% conviction rate. Only North Korea might be disappointed with such a figure. Israel not unreasonably argues it has a security threat but does not appear too concerned as to whether it catches the perpetrators of serious incidents as opposed to collectively punish huge swathes of the Palestinian population.
In East Jerusalem, the Israeli authorities have faced massive challenges. This has been one other epicentres of the recent escalation with frequent demonstrations and of course inexcusable attacks including knifings of Israeli civilians. Yet here Israeli civilian law applies so in theory at least Palestinian children should be better treated. It has sparked furious debate as to how to toughen measures against stone throwing whilst of course not including in the net any Israeli Jewish children.
International pressure on this is vital not least given that Israel’s Justice Minister is happy to post articles referring to Palestinian children as “little snakes.”
This Wednesday, Jan. 6, the British parliament will debate the issue for the second time following a debate in 2010. It comes in advance of a second (albeit oft delayed) British Foreign Office sponsored visit by distinguished lawyers to assess Israel’s efforts to improve its record following the publication of a damning report, “Children in Military Custody”, by a team led by the former British attorney-general, Baroness Scotland in June 2012.
A systematic war crime
What can the international community do? Or more to the point, what should the international community be doing to actually protect its own legal system because a systematic war crime has continued for nearly half a century. Some 56% of Palestinian child detainees, rising to 88% for adults, are transferred out of occupied territory into prison inside Israel. This is a clear grave breach of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which prohibits any transfer of the occupied population out of occupied territory. There is no dispute of fact here – Israel in no way denies this. In total, it has involved 7,000 people a year for the last 48 years. UNICEF in its 2013 report cited this as well. Palestine is now a member of the International Criminal Court governed by the Rome Statute which also lists this as a war crime.
If international law is to mean anything at all, then the high contracting parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention cannot continue to just watch. This will be a key demand in the debate in the British House of Commons that Britain takes the requisite action. Under English law, specifically the Geneva Conventions Act of 1957, those who commit, aid or abet a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention could face up to 30 years in prison. One suggestion being put forward by Sarah Champion MP who procured the debate, is that those known to have participated in such violations be put on the watch list at UK borders.
Ultimately the only solution is the end of the occupation. Israel’s uses these methods because it is the only means at the disposal of the military to perpetuate the illegal presence of over 550,000 Israeli civilians living amongst 2.8 million Palestinians. If it did not intimidate and harass on a daily basis, its system of occupation would just fall apart and the army knows it.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.