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Palestinian Children Denied UNCRC Rights

Friday, August 12, 2005

Status of the United Nations Convention of the Child and Palestinian Children

By Laura Breslin*

Overview:  On 2 November 1991, Israel ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) without reservation.1  However, since becoming a signatory to the UNCRC, Israel has failed to uphold the standards put forth by the Convention in its treatment of Palestinian children.  Although numerous articles of the Convention have been breached, one of the most grievous is the violation of Palestinian children's right to liberty.  Israeli treatment of Palestinian child prisoners is in direct violation of all the provisions of the UNCRC Articles 37, 38, 39, and 40.2 According to documentation complied in 2004 by the Defense of Children International/Palestine Section (DCI), 479 Palestinians under the age of 18 are currently held in Israeli prisons.3 Furthermore, DCI, which also provides legal assistance for child prisoners, found that most children who are arrested, and subsequently tried by the Israeli military courts are imprisoned.4 According to the Convention, imprisonment as punishment is explicitly stated as being the "last resort" for child perpetrators,5  yet the imprisonment of Palestinian children is always the first resort by Israel.6  

Israel also holds children in administrative detention, which is imprisonment without charge or trial for reasons deemed by the Israeli government as threatening to its national security.  Detention periods can range in duration from one month to one year and may be extended indefinitely.  While in administrative detention, the prisoner is not required to be informed of the reason for imprisonment or the expected date of his or her release.  In 2004, approximately 30 Palestinian children were being held in administrative detention.7

Furthermore, the treatment of Palestinian child prisoners often involves torture of varying degrees, sub-human living conditions, lack of adequate nourishment or appropriate medical assistance, and denial of other basic rights.  Palestinian children are often held without legal counsel; if access to a lawyer is granted, it is only after a waiting period of 72 hours.  Likewise, family members of minors in Israeli detainment may be denied permission to visit, although UNCRC specifies that a child should be allowed familial contact if imprisoned.8

United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child

On 20 November 1989, the United Nations adopted the UNCRC, a comprehensive document which articulated a broad spectrum of rights thought to be inherent for children.  The convention was quickly adopted, widely supported, and ratified by all but two members: the United States and Somalia.  UNCRC became effective on 2 September 1990 after obtaining the necessary 20 signatures.  Within the articles of the UNCRC are rights that the United Nations deemed to be "fundamental human rights."9   The rights enumerated cover a much broader scope than previous UN conventions regarding human rights, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because "the United Nations has proclaimed that childhood is entitled to special care and assistance."10   The rights protected under the UNCRC can be categorized into subsets which deal with a child's right to life, liberty, education, leisure, nationality, protection, and freedom against discrimination.  In the case of Palestinian children, these rights are violated by Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.

Israeli Jurisdiction

Israeli officials contend that after signing the 1994 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, Israel is not obliged to uphold the Convention within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).  Israel argues that "A Areas," as stipulated in the 1994 Oslo Accords, are under the security control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).11 According to UNCRC Article 2, paragraph 1, "States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction,"12 jurisdiction which Israeli officials assert is now a responsibility of the PA.  However, former Israeli Military Advocate General Major General Finkelstein explained in his overview of the Israeli military legal system that "Since 1967, governmental, legislative, and administrative power of the territories held in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip have been in the hands of the IDF," therefore negating that argument that the OPT are not within the realm of Israeli jurisdiction.13 

Furthermore, Palestinian residents of the OPT are subject to Israeli military law, which applies to all areas including the densely populated cities, referred to as Area A. Even after the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, Israel will indefinitely retain control of crossing points from Israel to Gaza.  Moreover, the military law in place in the West Bank will not be lifted.  Despite Israeli arguments to the contrary, the degree to which Israel maintains sovereignty over the Palestinian population is such that United Nations bodies and treaty monitoring groups have consistently rejected Israeli claims that the OPT are outside their jurisdiction, hence obligating Israel to uphold the UNCRC in the OPT.14

Regardless of Israel's argument that it does not have jurisdiction over those areas controlled by the PA after the Oslo Accords, Israel is still in violation of multiple articles of UNCRC, particularly those which protect the child's right to life.  In the years between Israel's ratification of UNCRC and the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords (1992-1994), the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem recorded the deaths of 58 Palestinians under the age of 18, the majority of whom-47 individuals-died as a result of Israeli military incursions.5

Defining Who is a Child

The selective implementation of Israeli law further complicates the evaluation of Israeli's adherence to the UNCRC.  Part I, Article I of the UNCRC defines a child as every human being under the age of 18 years unless the country's laws state otherwise.  However, due to disparities between the international definition of a child, Palestinian law, and Israeli civil and military law, determining who is a child is problematic.  In compliance with international law, Palestinian law defines a child as any individual under the age of 18. Israeli civil law-not applied in the OPT-also defines a child (minor) as those persons below the age of 18 as stated in Section 3 of the Guardianship and Legal Capacity Law.16   However, Israeli military law, specifically the Israeli Military Order 132 in effect since 1967, categorizes individuals living in areas of military rule-the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem-who have reached the age of sixteen as adults.17  

Conversely, Israeli Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza are not subject to military law.  Israeli settlers under 18 are still regarded as children, even though the application of military law is determined geographically.18 Israeli treatment and sentencing of Palestinian prisoners age 16 and 17 are repeatedly scrutinized because of the discrepancy between Israeli military law versus international law, Palestinian law, and Israeli civil law.

The Effects of Violating Children's Rights

Since the ratification of the UNCRC, documented Israeli incidents affecting Palestinian children have placed Israel in gross violation of the UNCRC.  Although similar transgressions occurred during the 1987 Palestinian uprising (intifada) against Israeli occupation, the magnitude and frequency of incidents since the start of the 2000 Al Aqsa Uprising, the second against Israeli occupation, are of particular importance. 

The majority of documented child deaths since 2000 have resulted from Israeli military gunfire.  Some deaths were a result of Palestinian gunfire, shelling, and bombing, although only comprising a small minority of the child fatalities.  Based on the findings of several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international groups, such as B'Tselem, the Palestinian Human Rights Group and DCI, approximately 653 children have died since 2000,19 of which 375 were a result of Israeli military gunfire.20 Other causes of death attributable to the Israeli military include artillery shells, missiles, tear gas, house demolitions, and extra-judicial killing during which innocent civilians were killed.21 The violence in the OPT is such that the international monitoring group Save the Children listed the West Bank and Gaza as the fifteenth most dangerous place in the world for children.22

Aside from the loss of life, Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territory has obstructed Palestinian children's access to basic survival necessities, such as food, water and shelter.  Although malnutrition reached its pinnacle in 2002, as reported by the USAID's Nutritional Assessment of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many Palestinian children still do not receive an adequate diet.23 Consequently, ten percent suffer from stunted growth; ten percent from acute malnutrition; 33 percent are anemic; and 75 percent suffer from vitamin deficiencies, particularly Vitamin A.24 According to DCI, "the problem is not a lack of availability, but of access to food."  Restrictions on the movement of people and goods in the OPT has resulted in lost employment, falling household incomes, increased food prices, and supply shortages.25

The correlation between unemployment, poverty, and inadequate food is undeniable.  According to the World Bank, 47 percent of Palestinians live in poverty, surviving on less than $2.10 per day.  Over 32 percent of Palestinians were unemployed in 2004, making 78 percent of all Palestinian households dependant on humanitarian and monetary aid.26 Conditions such as poverty, inadequate health care, poor nutrition, and lack of safe water and housing jeopardize a child's mental and physical growth.27 "Because they are still developing, children are especially vulnerable-more so than adults-to poor living conditions," stated the United Nations Children's Educational Fund (UNICEF).28

The destruction of Palestinian homes, whether to make way for Israeli settlement expansion or as a consequence of Israeli military action, has a profound impact on children.  In addition to leaving them homeless, many Palestinian children who have witnessed the destruction of their homes suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.29 A United Nations study found that 48 percent of Palestinian children suffer from some sort of psychological distress, attributable to housing destruction, acts of violence, and other conditions present since the 2000 Intifada.30  

The destruction of schools, either partially or fully, has been detrimental to the education of Palestinian children, as have repeated curfews, closures, and violence.  Net enrollment in schools has decreased annually since 2000, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that nearly one-third of all Palestinian children have had their schooling disrupted.31 

Upholding the Convention

The standards set forth by UN conventions are designed to guide nation-states in just and humanitarian governance.  Israel's noncompliance to the articles of UNCRC, resulting from a deeply ingrained "absolute security" mindset, has manifested itself not only in the practices of the Israeli military, but the government as well.  As a member of the UN General Assembly, Israel must abide by the UNCRC and all other conventions to which it is a signatory.  Additionally, other states-most importantly, the United States-must demand, at the very least, a substantial change in Israeli military practices toward children, and an end to the impunity with which Israel acts.  Until changes occur, the lives and well being of Palestinian and Israeli children will remain in jeopardy, compromised by violence on both sides.   

* This information brief was written by Palestine Center intern Laura Breslin as the culmination of her research project during the Summer 2005 Internship Program. The views expressed within are hers alone and may not necessarily be those of The Jerusalem Fund or its educational program, The Palestine Center. This brief may be reprinted without permission, however credit must be given.


1. "Status of Ratifications of the Principle International Human Rights Treaties," Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 9 June 2004, <
http://www.unhchr.ch/pdf/report.pdf> (28 July 2005).

2. Full text of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child available at:

3. "Surviving the Present, Facing the Future: An Analysis of Human Rights Violations against Palestinian Children in 2004," Defense of Children International/Palestine Section, April 2005, <
http://www.dci-pal.org/english/home.cfm> (28 July 2005).

4. Ibid.

5. "United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 37: B" United Nations, 20 November 1989, <
http://www.unicef.org/crc/fulltext.htm> (28 July 2005).

6. "Alternative Report to the State of Israel's First Periodic Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child."

7. "Surviving the Present, Facing the Future."

8. Ibid.

9. "Preamble: United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child."

10. Ibid.

11. "Alternative Report to the State of Israel's First Periodic Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child."

12. "United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child: Article 2:1," United Nations, 20 November 1989, <
http://www.unicef.org/crc/fulltext.htm> (28 July 2005).

13. Finkelstein, Dr. Major General Menachem, "The Israeli Military System: Overview of the Current Situation and a Glimpse into the Future," Air Force Law Review, Winter 2002, <
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m6007/is_2002_Wntr/ai_103136516> (1 August 2005). 

14. "Alternative Report to the State of Israel's First Periodic Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child."

15. "Fatalities in the First Intifada," B'Tselem, 2005, <
http://www.btselem.org/english/Statistics/First_Intifada_Tables.asp> (4 August 2005).

16. Section, 3: Guardianship and Legal Capacity Law (1962), "Alternative Report to the State of Israel's First Periodic Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child."

17. "Alternative Report to the State of Israel's First Periodic Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child."

18. Ibid.

19. Based on an average of numbers compiled by the Palestine Center for Human Rights (629), B'Tselem (653), the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, and the Defense of Children International/ Palestine Section (676).

20. "Surviving the Present, Facing the Future."

21. Ibid.

22. "West Bank and Gaza," Save the Children, 2005, <
http://www.savethechildren.org/countries/middle_east_eurasia/west_bank.asp> (4 August 2005).

23. "Nutritional Assessment of the West Bank and Gaza," USAID, September 2002, <
http://www.usaid.gov/wbg/reports/Nutritional_Assessment.pdf> (9 August 2005).

24. "Surviving the Present, Facing the Future."

25. Ibid.

26. "Review of the Humanitarian Situation in the occupied Palestinian territory for 2004," United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs for Occupied Palestinian Territory, November 2004, <
http://www.unocha.org> (28 July 2005).

27. "Why Make a Special Case for Children?" UNICEF, 2005, <
http://www.unicef.org/crc/specialcase.htm> (28 July 2005).

28. Ibid.

29. "Surviving the Present, Facing the Future."

30. "Review of the Humanitarian Situation in the occupied Palestinian territory for 2004."

31. Ibid.

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