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Date posted: May 20, 2008
By Yasmin Abou-Amer for MIFTAH

On Saturday 10th May, a press conference was held in Beit Sahour, just outside of Bethlehem, to draw attention to the plight of child prisoner, Ziad Mahfuth. One issue that has been afforded the least coverage in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that of child prisoners. Along with checkpoints and roadblocks, prison is yet another of the central features of Palestinian life. There are hundreds of Palestinian children from within the Occupied Palestinian Territories who have been arrested, interrogated and detained in severe violation of international law. According to Defence for Children International, at the end of April 2008, 327 children were held in Israeli detention facilities. Of this figure, four are girls and 12 are being held without charge or in administrative detention. Administrative detention is a procedure whereby a person is detained without charge or trial and which is permitted under international law in limited circumstances.

The press conference was to highlight the issue of child prisoners generally, with a focus on the case of Ziad Mahfuth, aged 17. In the early hours of the 2nd May 2007, Ziad was arrested from his home, the fifth time he has been arrested since he was 13 years old. On each occasion, he has been charged with throwing stones. When he was arrested for the third time however, he was also charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail. Not only was he kept in solitary confinement for a week, but he was also presented with papers written completely in Hebrew (a language he does not understand) and told he had to sign them. Out of fear and fatigue, he agreed to sign them. It later transpired that he had signed a confession and that he would have to go back to prison until the trial, at which he was sentenced to seven months in prison.

Upon his latest arrest (2nd May), he was taken to the Hagai Investigation Center in Kiryat Arba and then to Etzion Detention Center, where for five days he was questioned twice a day for half an hour. He was told by the investigators that they knew he had been throwing stones on specified dates. Nonetheless, Ziad refuted these allegations and refused to sign any papers, so he was released without a confession. It is extremely important to obtain a confession from the arrested children otherwise it is difficult to make a case. It is clear that the majority of the time, the children are intimidated to such a degree that they will willingly sign any paper placed in front of them regardless of the language in which it is written or the consequences of it being signed. These confessions serve as the primary evidence against the child, gravely inhibiting their chance of receiving a fair trial. It should be noted that stone-throwing carries a maximum sentence of 20 years; just five years less than the average murder sentence in Israel. The reason behind this hefty sentencing is politics. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, stone-throwing is considered an act of war.

Faced with the possibility of such a lengthy sentence, many defense lawyers have entered into deals offered by the military prosecution, whereby the accused pleads guilty in return for a negotiated reduced sentence. However, a groundbreaking decision by lawyers representing Palestinians before the Military Courts was made on April 17th 2008(Palestinian Prisoners’ Day) to no longer accept plea bargains on behalf of their clients. The motive behind this move is the hope that the adoption of legal defense procedures will lead to fairer trials as well as signaling to the Military Court that the imprisonment of Palestinians (particularly children) as such a rapid rate needs to be addressed. The effectiveness of this move is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain; for such an ambitious move to be productive, lawyers and NGO’s will have to remain unified in their aims. The Military Court may seek to impose harsher sentences as a result of this action and it is up to these groups to bring this to the attention of the international community.

ARREST

Most children are arrested in one of the following three ways: at home, on the street or at a checkpoint. So, taking each one in turn, let’s examine the reality of how these children’s nightmares begin.

At Home

Many children are arrested at home. However, these arrests do not occur with a quiet visit to detain the child; instead, large numbers of Israeli soldiers break into the house, sometimes in the early hours of the morning and conduct a violent raid in which the child is arrested. These children are then taken for interrogation without the chance for any rest. Note that the soldiers often do not have a warrant for the arrest or searches. The entire house is often ransacked causing destruction to the property, as well as extreme humiliation to the rest of the family.

On the Street

Alternatively, sometimes the child is arrested while walking down the street. This arrest usually occurs when a soldier claims to “remember” a face from a demonstration or such activity as to lead to an arrest.

At Checkpoints

At checkpoints, a child who is “wanted” will have their name on a list checked by Israeli soldiers manning these crossings. When they go to cross the checkpoint, they will be arrested with no prior warning. The child is often made to wait for hours at the checkpoint, with their hands cuffed, before they are transferred to detention and interrogation centers.

In all three scenarios, the child is not informed of the reason for their arrest. They are then transferred to an Israeli Civil Administration center in a military jeep, which for most adults would be enough to impair self-control and rationality, so it is bound to be a terrifying experience for a child, often as young as 12 years old.

Given this lengthy and inordinate process, one would assume that these children were guilty of the most heinous crimes. However, more often than not, they are apprehended on the suspicion of stone-throwing. It is hard to see how a child can be considered a threat to Israeli security when up against the might of the Israeli army.

INTERROGATION

Once the child has been transferred to one of the Israeli Civil Administration Centers, the child is then interrogated. There are three bodies that may carry out the interrogation:

Police

The vast majority of child detainees are dealt with by the police. However, Shabak (General Security Service) agents are usually present supervising the process.

Military Intelligence

If during interrogation by the military intelligence, a confession is extracted from a child, the child will then be sent to the police to make the same confession in order to afford the whole process a hint of legality as only confessions signed in the presence of police officers are allowed before the court.

General Security Services

Otherwise known as the Shabak, the GSS is an independent body within the Israeli state. They usually carry out interrogation of more serious offences, although again, when a child is interrogated by them and subsequently confesses, the child will be sent to the police to repeat the confession.

HELD PENDING TRIAL

Following their interrogation, a child will be sent to prison and held there whilst awaiting their trial. This period of time is undetermined and the Israeli court system certainly shows no signs of expediency. Palestinian children are often held in extremely inhumane conditions, made to live in overcrowded and dirty cells. Often, children are placed in solitary confinement in tiny cells with no natural light. Prisoners do not receive sufficient food to maintain a healthy level of nutrition and are often prevented from going to the toilet. Children can often be held in sections with criminal prisoners, deprived of education, medical treatment and not allowed family visits. Take the example of 8 Palestinian girls who were arrested in 2004 and transferred to Telmond Prison. The girls say that the conditions in their section of the prison were particularly bad. There was insufficient space in the cells and some girls were forced to sleep on the floor. They were sharing the room with rats. The toilets were blocked and there was no hot water. This is not an isolated incident; this is indeed an everyday occurrence in Israeli prisons.

SENTENCING

When the child is eventually presented in court, there are three main sentences that may be imposed by the judge:

  1. IMPRISONMENT; the length of any sentence is affected by the political occurrences at any given time. Most children are currently sentenced from periods starting at six months extending to any given number of years.
  2. SUSPENDED SENTENCE; in contrast to Israeli children, who are often given suspended sentences in line with the principle of the “best interests of the child”, Palestinian children are often given a suspended sentence in addition to serving time in prison.
  3. MONETARY FINE; the range of monetary fines starts at around $145 up to thousands of dollars in some instances. This punishment is extremely crippling, as it is the family of the accused who must pay it. This can often leave the family in extremely dire circumstances. Fines are often imposed in addition to a period of imprisonment, particularly where there is a reduction in the time served due to a plea bargain being established.

CHILD PRISONERS IN INTERNATIONAL LAW

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted by the United Nations in 1989 and to which Israel is a signatory, spells out the basic human rights to which children everywhere are entitled. Both the CRC and Israeli law define a child as someone under 18, although Israeli military law treats children as 16 or over as adults. The Military Orders churned out by the army allow for the arrest of children as young as 12 years of age.

Let us not forget that the CRC expressly states that “no child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”. Unlike Israeli children who come into conflict of the law and are afforded the flexibility of a juvenile justice system, arrests made on Palestinian children by the Israelis (police or military) are governed by Israeli military orders –a series of orders issued by successive Israeli military commanders “in the interests of security and public order”. The guiding principle of the “the welfare of the child” passes by, unrecognized by the Israelis, resulting in the detention and abuse of these children.

In accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, it is prohibited for individuals to be transported from the occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power. Israel is in flagrant breach of this, child prisoners are transferred to prisons located within Israel.

Palestinian children in the Israeli prison system are not given any legal advocacy and are denied most of their rights. One Swedish lawyer, Arne Malmgren, observes that “small children are brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and full chains”. Is this how Israel exhibits the democracy it claims to possess?

The UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty offers clear standards for the conditions of detention that children may be held in. Just by way of example, one of the rules states that “every detention facility shall ensure that every juvenile receives food that is suitable prepared and presented at normal meal times”. How does Israel justify accounts by children that they were given a glass of water and one slice of bread over a period of two days? It is glaringly obvious that Israel’s treatment of these children falls way below the standard.

The case of Ziad and the above examples is just one look into the policy of the Israeli state of institutionalizing abuse of child prisoners. The policy is maintained because many branches of the Israeli state contribute to it, each playing a key level within the overall system. Unfortunately, this is also due to the weakness and ambiguity of the structure of the international human rights framework. Time and time again, Israel employs its use of the tried and tested ‘security’ discourse to justify its actions, against children, women and men alike. As long as governments around the world continue to ignore the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these abuses will continue.

A recent report by DCI made several recommendations with a view to putting an end to Israel’s policy of mass arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinian children, mainly that Israel should raise the age of adulthood in Military Order 132 from 16 to 18 years of age, ensure that all confessions obtained from children under duress should be rejected as evidence in proceedings in the Military Courts and end the practice of detaining persons under the age of 18 in administrative detention and either promptly charge all child detainees with a recognizable offense or immediately release them.

The issue here is not really about the throwing of stones; this system is just another way of favoring the occupation of the West Bank. The cruelty being dosed out to Palestinian children is yet another example of Israel flexing its muscles and making a clear statement about who the real ruler is in the West Bank.

Resources

- Al Jazeera English http://www.engligh.aljazeera.net
- Al-Ayyam Newspaper http://www.al-ayyam.ps/znews/site/default.aspx
- Defence Children International, Palestine http://www.dci-pal.org/english
- Inter Press Service http://ipsnews.net
- The Palestine Monitor http://www.palestinemonitor.org

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