The Plight of Child Prisoners: Israel’s Glaring Human Rights Violations

By Palestine Center Interns — Sarah Dickshinski and Mirvat Salameh 

One of the greatest signifiers of Israel’s military occupation is the daily abusive treatment of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli soldiers. This harsh policy is part of the larger framework of systemic oppression used to silence Palestinian resistance. The current rise in the number of Palestinian children found in Israeli military prisons has directed the attention of many scholars of international law and activists to take a stronger stance on Israel’s continued abuse of military law and on the defense of illegal Israeli settlers under civil law. Examining the nature of Palestinian child arrests is critical to exposing Israel’s role in the occupation as one that neglects not only the rights and dignities of Palestinian adults but also that of their children, who remain vulnerable in a violent and unstable environment.

Starting in October 2015, Palestinians began to resist the military occupation at much higher rates, triggered largely by the rise in settler violence in the West Bank. The combination of settler violence with the severe restrictions imposed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in towns like Hebron, Bethlehem, and Duma (ostensibly to protect Israeli settlers) has had a direct impact on Palestinian children, who have recently been reported to have greater difficulty concentrating on homework due to psychological stress and trauma. The hostile environment in which they live often leads them to react aggressively at armed  Israeli checkpoints and settlements in close proximity to their homes and neighborhoods. While it should never be condoned, violence by Palestinians against Israelis is inextricably linked to the conditions Palestinians face under occupation in a settler colonial context. As Frantz Fanon discussed in The Wretched of the Earth, the oppressed use the tool of the oppressor to resist subjugation, where the oppressed find their resistance as therapeutic despite the odds of achieving liberation. The IDF’s increasing rate of detention of minors is alarming, and its use of excessive force and brutality underscores how Israel’s military detention system shows little differentiation between Palestinian adults and minors, which is a violation of international law.

Human rights organizations have been tracking Israel’s disturbing treatment of children within its military detention system. Recently the Israeli organization B’Tselem published a comprehensive statistics page that shows the number of Palestinian child detainees held in Israel each month since 2008. On this timeline, February 2016 marks the highest number of child detainees (438 imprisoned Palestinian minors), with  April 2016 not far behind (414). These figures include children such as 12 year-old Dima al-Wawi who was detained in February, 2016 after attempting to stab an Israeli soldier at the Karmi Tzur settlement. Al-Wawi’s story is unique for two reasons. First, she is the youngest Palestinian to be imprisoned by Israel, and second, she engaged in violent resistance in an Israeli settlement. Such acts point to the growing number of minors who have participated in resisting the Israeli occupation. Recent articles such as Diaa Hadid’s “Surge in Palestinian Youths in Prison Tests Israel’s Justice System have suggested that al-Wawi was influenced by Palestinian media portrayals of violence against Israel. However, this perspective does not account for the reality of intergenerational oppression, where Palestinian children, exposed to a never-ending cycle of military abuse from an early age, become highly vulnerable and susceptible to  participating in further acts of violence.

Hadid also refers to B’Tselem representative Sarit Michaeli’s explanation of how an Israeli child attempting a similarly violent act would never be sentenced because s/he would be subjected to Israeli civil law while the Palestinian minor is bound by Israeli military law. Israeli Youth Law emphasizes that child arrest should be a last resort, and in the case of a child arrest, the child must be summoned before questioning with the parents present. Yet Israeli military courts fail to provide Palestinian youth with these same rights;  Dima Al-Wawi did not have her parents or a lawyer present during interrogations and court sessions, and her feet were in shackles, which is a violation of international law. This unequal treatment of Israeli and Palestinian children is clearly the result of a larger system of inequality and oppression.

The application of military law in the West Bank allows Israeli occupation forces — from low ranking officers to central intelligence members — to abuse the judicial powers provided to them. Consequently, Palestinian minors receive harsher treatment at the hands of IDF soldiers. When 14-year-old Raghad was arrested, as he attests in Mohammed al-Azza’s short documentary Just a Child, he was severely beaten by Israeli soldiers, taken immediately to a facility and interrogated, encouraged to sign waivers and agreements in Hebrew (a language he did not know), and had his prison release date continually prolonged. Hamza Hammad’s story is almost identical to Raghad’s – he was forcibly removed from his village, aggressively interrogated by IDF soldiers, then placed in administrative detention in February 2016. On June 28th, his sentence was lengthened by an extra four months. The imprisonment of Dima, Raghad, and Hamza, without due process and with their basic rights denied, represents hundreds of stories of child prisoners in Israel’s military detention system.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCIP) are two international humanitarian organizations that repeatedly call attention to Israel’s illegal treatment of Palestinian children. Both UNICEF and DCIP have published reports recently highlighting the specific ways that Israel deviates from certain UN conventions on human rights. UNICEF’s “Children in Israeli Military Detention” and DCIP’s “No Way to Treat a Child” list the internationally recognized rights of children, violated by Israel, as the following: receiving a notification and reason for arrest, being restrained only if one poses an imminent threat, possessing a privilege against self-incrimination, having access to legal representation and parents or legal guardians, having the right to appear before a judge, and having all evidence expunged if it was gained through means of torture. Even more alarming, the DCIP reports that 53 percent of Palestinian child detainees are subjected to violence in military detention and that imprisonment of minors is actually used as the first resort when the Israeli Youth Law upholds that it should be a last resort. It is not surprising that the DCIP report concludes that this mistreatment of Palestinian youth has become “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.”

As can be seen in the violation of international law concerning military courts and child prisoners, Israel not only punishes adult Palestinians for resisting the occupation but their children, too. While resistance can manifest in nonviolent and violent ways, it is important that the treatment of children under either circumstance remain within the boundaries of accepted international norms — norms that have also been ratified by the Israeli government. Human rights organizations both within Israel and in the international community must continue to demand that Israel address its abuse of children in the military detention system if there is going to be an alternative to the recent crisis of violence and despair in which Palestinian youth are currently caught.

1. Published in the New York Times in April 2016.

2. The discrepancy in Israel’s treatment between Israeli and Palestinian youth has existed since 1967 when Israel placed inhabitants of the West Bank under military code and occupation. Civil law applies to the Israeli citizens within the 1967 borders as well as settlers who occupy illegal settlements in the West Bank.

3. Weill, Sharon. “The Judicial Arm of the Occupation: The Israeli Military Courts in the Occupied Territories.” International Review of the Red Cross 89.866 (2007).

4. In 1991 Israel ratified both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which seek to guarantee children with unique rights and all individuals from inhuman treatment respectively.

Sarah Dickshinski and Mirvat Salameh are Summer 2016 Interns at The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.

The views in this brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.