March 24, 2012
NEW REPORT: PALESTINIAN CHILDREN TORTURED AND ‘SYSTEMATICALLY’ ILL-TREATED
The test of a democracy is how you treat people incarcerated, people in jail, and especially so with minors”
– Mark Regev, spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu
A major new EU-funded study documents ‘a systematic pattern of ill-treatment, and in some cases torture‘ of Palestinian children detained by Israel. Drawing on 311 sworn testimonies, collected over a period of four years, the report by Defence for Children International (DCI) finds that most children passing through Israel’s military detention system suffer multiple forms of ill-treatment and abuse, much of which amounts to ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading’ treatment as defined by the UN Convention against Torture. It’s pretty long, but important, so I thought I’d post a condensed summary.
Most children are arrested in the middle of the night. Israeli civil law restricts the times when children can be interrogated, which in turn influence the times when they are arrested. But Palestinians are subject to military law, which contains no such provision. Most have their hands ‘painfully tied behind their backs and are blindfolded’, before being transported to an unknown location—usually neither children nor parents are informed where, or on what basis—for interrogation. This process is ‘often’ accompanied by ‘verbal abuse and humiliation, threats as well as physical violence’. Palestinian children are not accompanied by a parent and are usually interrogated without legal advice or being informed of their right to silence. Nearly a third of the children who testified to DCI reported experiencing violence during their arrest, usually punching, slapping or kicking. A former Israeli military commander, describing this process to the BBC, confessed that after leaving the army, his dreams were haunted by children ‘screaming’:
“You take the kid, you blindfold him, you handcuff him, he’s really shaking… Sometimes you cuff his legs too. Sometimes it cuts off the circulation.
“He doesn’t understand a word of what’s going on around him. He doesn’t know what you’re going to do with him. He just knows we are soldiers with guns. That we kill people. Maybe they think we’re going to kill him.
A lot of the time they’re peeing their pants, just sit there peeing their pants, crying. But usually they’re very quiet.”
A former Israeli soldier interviewed in the DCI study tells a similar story, describing how he helped arrest Daoud, a 15 year-old boy from Hebron, for throwing tiles at an army post. “[He] began to cry, to scream, sweat and tears streaming from him onto the floor”. Two soldiers and a deputy commander all shook him and shouted at him to stop crying. One of them hit him over the head with his walkie-talkie. Why did they subject the obviously terrified boy to further abuse?
“Because they were such worms, from a certain point on I remember we literally loathed them. I did. I was such a racist out there, too, I was so angry at them for their filth, their misery, the whole fucking situation: you threw a stone, now why did you do it? … He is there on the floor crying. Hands tied. At some point we unshackled his hands because he wept and pleaded. He screamed there, and was all wet from tears and sweat and mucus. You just don’t know what to do about it.”
The transfer to an interrogation centre is ‘routinely accompanied by further ill-treatment’, with children often being beaten, verbally abused and forced to lie down on the metal floor of the military vehicle for the entire trip, which often takes hours. Overwhelmingly this violence occurs while the children are blindfolded with their hands tied. Ahmad, age 15, was arrested on 6 July 2011, accused of throwing stones. At 2am soldiers burst into his house shouting, and turned the place over. They tied Ahmad’s hands painfully tight and marched him out of the house. When his brother asked where he was being taken, one soldier beat him with the butt of his rifle in front of the family, including young children. Ahmad was blindfolded upon leaving the house and transported to an interrogation centre near Nablus. Upon arrival he was verbally taunted and insulted. His head was repeatedly forced against the car engine as another soldier stepped on the accelerator. He was left outside without food from 5am to 3pm the following day. “We want you to die out here”, one soldier told him. Whenever he tried to sleep a soldier would start shouting at and kicking him to force him awake. At one point soldiers put a bit of bread on his head, and had a dog eat off it. “His saliva started drooling all over my head and that freaked me out. I was so scared my body started shaking because I thought he was going to bite me”, Ahmad recalls. The soldiers laughed and put another slice of bread near his genitals. Later he was taken to Ariel police station and interrogated. He denied throwing stones.
Most children arrive at the interrogation centre with their hands tied, blindfolded and in a ‘state of fear’. The interrogation takes place without the presence of their parents—unlike their Israeli counterparts Palestinian children are not entitled this—or a lawyer. Often their hands remain tied for the entire interrogation. 38% of children report experiencing physical violence during interrogation. Usually this takes the form of pushing, slapping and kicking, but some children are punched, have their heads slammed against the wall, and are given electric shocks. Malek, aged 16, described his interrogation process in Gush Etzion police station. His interrogator, David, “blindfolded me and ordered me to kneel down. He immediately slapped me hard across the face.” Another “huge man came from behind, grabbed my [hand] ties and lifted me up and I felt sharp and terrible pain. He also put his foot on the ties and pressed down so hard that made me scream more… ‘Confess so we can spare you the pressure,’ David said… ‘I have nothing to confess,’ I said, and he went crazy and started screaming. He started slapping me and kicking me. He even grabbed my head and slammed it against the metal wall of the room where we were.”
Most children who are arrested are charged with throwing stones. The maximum sentence for throwing a stone at a moving vehicle, for a child aged 14 or above, is 20 years. Insulting or offending a soldier’s honour carries a maximum penalty of a year in prison, while the maximum penalty for ‘[an] act or omission’ that ‘entails harm, damage, disturbance or danger to the security of the region or the security of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’, or to the ‘use or security’ of any IDF vehicle or property, is ‘life imprisonment’.
The average sentence received by children convicted of throwing stones is ten months in jail. Most children are held in prisons inside Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on imprisoning members of an occupied population outside the occupied territory. In practice this means that most children receive limited or no family visits.
‘A critical feature of the system’, DCI reports, is that in the overwhelming majority of cases (87%) children will not be released on bail. As a result, even though in most cases the evidence against them is weak, almost all children (90%) plead guilty, because whether innocent or not a guilty plea is the quickest way to leave the system. Military courts are presided over by judges who are military officers in regular or reserve army service. Most children are not informed of their right to silence; many are presented with or forced to sign documents written in Hebrew, a language they don’t understand; of the 311 children who testified to DCI, none had a lawyer present during their interrogation; and the (few) children who are held under ‘administrative detention’ can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, on the basis of ‘secret evidence’ that is not shown to the defendant or his lawyer.
This set-up is certainly efficient. According their own records, in 2010 Israeli military courts achieved a conviction rate of 99.74%. The conviction rate for Israeli soldiers and interrogators accused of abusing Palestinian detainees is somewhat less impressive: ‘between 2000 and 2010, a complaint lodged by a Palestinian against an Israeli soldier had a 96.5 percent chance of being dismissed without an indictment being filed’. Between January 2001-late 2010, 645 complaints were filed against Israeli interrogators for alleged ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian detainees, resulting in a total of zero criminal investigations. In some cases, shielding Israeli soldiers from legal accountability required real creativity and commitment on the part of the courts. On 27 January 2011, for example, a military court refused to imprison Lt. Col. Omri Burberg, who was convicted of ‘shooting a bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainee at close range with a rubber coated steel bullet’, even though a prison sentence was recommended by the prosecution.
The background to all of this is Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. Since the occupation began Palestinians in the West Bank have lived under Israeli military law, prosecuted in Israeli military courts. An estimated 726,000 Palestinians have been detained through Israel’s military courts system since 1967, and in the past 11 years around 7,500 children have been detained, interrogated and imprisoned under it. This averages out at 5-700 children per year, or nearly two children a day. The settlers, who reside in occupied Palestinian territory in violation of international law, are in practice subject to Israeli civilian law, ‘which contains significantly more safeguards and protections than military law’. The result is that
‘[since] June 1967, Palestinians and Israelis living in the occupied West Bank have been judged under different laws, and by different standards. Furthermore, no Palestinian has any say or influence over the manner in which Israeli military commanders exercise executive, legislative and judicial power over them, or say in the contents of nearly 1,700 military orders affecting their rights over the past 44 years’. [my emph.]
Most of those arrested by the Israeli military are from the West Bank, but more specifically, they are from areas next to Israeli settlements: ‘most children held in the military detention system are arrested from villages located close to friction points, namely settlements built in violation of international law, and roads used by the Israeli army or settlers’. The wide disparities in legal treatment of Israeli and Palestinian residents of the occupied territories reflect the fundamentally discriminatory and racist character of the occupation; the extreme violence and prejudice that pervade Israel’s military justice system attest to the fact that inequalities on this scale can only be maintained through repression.
The DCI study offers some recommendations for making the military courts system less abusive, but it is clear that ‘no one should be under any illusion that the treatment documented in this report can be eliminated so long as the friction points remain and Palestinian children are treated as second-class individuals.’ That is, the only real solution to the abuse and torture of children documented in the report, and summarised above, is to end the occupation. On that front, the study does contain some pointers. In recent years the Israeli military has dramatically decreased the use of administrative detention for children, and has introduced new regulations to moderate some of the abuses described above. None are sufficient, and most have had virtually zero practical effect. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem found that recent amendments to military justice legislation are “marginal” and “have failed to bring about meaningful change”, a conclusion corroborated by the analysis and testimonies collected in this report. Nonetheless, the changes have had some impact, and, most significantly for our purposes, all were introduced following pressure from human rights organisations and activists.
The testimonies and data presented by this report are not new. Its appendices list eight separate UN reports since 2008, and 21 reports from Israeli and international human rights groups (and the US State Department) over the same time period, documenting the mistreatment and torture of Palestinian children, which has itself been going on for decades. This large body of data needs to be publicised and people mobilised to pressure Israel, through their own representatives, to withdraw from Palestinian territory, and to dismantle a system whose stability requires that children be tortured and abused on the scale documented in this report.