Palestinian children have suffered disproportionately as a result of the Israeli Occupation

Human rights organizations report systemic abuse of children by Israeli security forces. Here’s how to address it

During the first Intifada in Israel-Palestine, one of the most controversial aspects of the Israeli reaction to the uprising in 1987 was Yitzhak Rabin’s reputed policy of ordering soldiers to break the bones of those throwing rocks, as shown in this video. While Rabin denied having soldiers break the bones of demonstrators, he did admit to ordering the extra-judicial application of ”force, might and beatings” upon civilians. Since that time, whether it be an official policy or not, such practices–emphatically illegal under international human rights law–continue unabated. What has recently been brought into the public eye is that such illegal beatings and other acts of violence continue to be aimed not only at adults, but also at Palestinian children, some as young as 11 years old.

Reports from international human rights organizations, from the United Nations, and from the U.S. State Department are presenting a set of mutually confirming data that shines a bright light on the physical and psychological harm the Israeli state has perpetrated upon Palestinian children, in the vast majority of cases in violation of international human rights law, covenants and conventions. For anyone concerned about the welfare of children, especially children who stand defenseless against the actions of a powerful state that the U.S. has pledged its allegiance to and to which we contribute more than $3 billion of our tax dollars to annually, it is well worth considering some of the key findings of these reports.

First, Human Rights Watch has just issued a report on the systemic abuse of Palestinian children by Israeli security forces, finding widespread practices of chokeholds, beatings and coercive interrogations:

Human Rights Watch interviewed four boys, ages 11, 12, and 15, from different neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and a 14-year-old girl and 15-year-old boy from elsewhere in the West Bank, whom Israeli forces arrested or detained in separate incidents for allegedly throwing rocks from March to December 2014. They and their parents gave accounts of abuses during arrest and interrogation that caused the children pain, fear, and ongoing anxiety. Human Rights Watch has seen photos and marks on the body of one of the children, consistent with the accounts he and his parents had given; the children’s accounts were also consistent with each other…

Rashid S., 11, said that Israeli border police forces officers threw a stun grenade (a non-lethal explosive device that produces a blinding light and intensely loud noise causing loss of balance) at him and put him in a chokehold when they arrested him for throwing stones in November. He said that officers put a black bag over his head, threatened him with beatings, and kicked him in the shin while taking him for interrogation. The border police forces pulled his coat and shirt off during arrest, but kept him outside for about an hour despite cold temperatures, he said. Human Rights Watch observed photographs of police arresting him and marks on the boy’s leg consistent with his account.

The report goes on to note that:

Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991, requires court procedures to take into account the age of child defendants and “the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.” The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel also ratified in 1991, elaborates on this requirement and directs states to ensure that children are “not compelled … to confess guilt.”

And yet over and over again in the testimony we find Israeli police forces using physical abuse to wrest confessions out of children.

One of the most active groups fighting these abuses is Defense for Children International (Palestine), which notes:

Palestinian children detained by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank last year fell victim to a pattern of abuse designed to coerce confessions.

Among the most troubling experiences were prolonged periods of solitary confinement, a correctional tactic primarily reserved for adult prisoners—and, even then, only after they are convicted. In 2014, the average time an individual child spent in solitary confinement for interrogation purposes was 15 days, according to DCIP research. In one case, Israeli authorities kept a child in isolation for 26 total days.

Between 2012 and 2014, Israeli military, police and security agents held 54 Palestinian children in solitary confinement for interrogation purposes prior to charging them with any offense.

Data compiled by DCIP from 107 affidavits of Palestinian children, ages between 12 and 17, detained in 2014, showed the vast majority had to fend for themselves. Unlike their Israeli counterparts, Palestinian children have no right to be accompanied by a parent during an interrogation. In 93 percent of cases, children were deprived of legal counsel, and rarely informed of their rights, particularly their right against self-incrimination.

Besides these reports by international human rights groups, the U.S. government has also conducted its own investigation and issued a report:

The annual country reports on human rights practices, which include a specific section covering the situation of human rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), raises a number of issues related to ill-treatment of Palestinian child prisoners and denial of fair trial rights in Israeli military courts. It notes other grave violations against Palestinian children, including the killing and maiming of Palestinian children and attacks on schools in Gaza by Israeli forces. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released the annual report at a press conference in Washington.

Last week, nineteen members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary Kerry urging him to prioritize the issue of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention. The letter, initiated by Representative Betty McCollum (D-MN), noted that “Israel’s military detention system targeting children is an anomaly in the world,” and that UNICEF has found ill-treatment of Palestinian children is “widespread, systemic and institutionalized” throughout the detention process.

The lawmakers urged the Department of State to prioritize the human rights of Palestinian children and “address the status of Israel’s military detention system’s treatment of Palestinian children in [the] annual human rights report.”

The UNICEF report just mentioned is titled “Children in Israeli Military Detention.” The DCIP describes the findings thus:

The UNICEF report notes that while Israeli authorities have, since March 2013, issued new military orders and taken steps to reinforce existing military and police standard operating procedures related to the detention of Palestinian children; evidence collected by a UNICEF-led working group since 2013 shows continued and persistent reports of ill-treatment against Palestinian children by Israeli forces. The report provides an update on the implementation of previous recommendations made by UNICEF in a March 2013 report.

“Despite an ongoing dialogue with UNICEF over nearly two years, Israeli authorities have persistently failed to implement practical changes to stop violence and ill-treatment against Palestinian child detainees,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Accountability Program director at DCIP.

“Israel is the only nation in the world that automatically and systematically prosecutes children in military courts lacking basic fair trial guarantees,” said Brad Parker, attorney and international advocacy officer at Defense for Children International Palestine. “Often in the international community there is this notion that Israeli military courts are ‘broken’ and can be improved, however this mistakenly accepts the premise that Israeli military courts exist to and are interested in administering justice. The military court system is not a ‘justice system’ but more correctly characterized as a tool of prolonged occupation that acts to legitimize control of the Palestinian population, including children. Widespread and systematic ill treatment and torture of Palestinian kids furthers the control objective of the occupation.”

Besides the physical trauma the Occupation has inflicted upon Palestinian children, there is substantial evidence, gathered by human rights groups and by the United Nations, of widespread long-term psychological effects. One study found that:

Palestinian children suffer from various physical aliments due to their disadvantaged situation, including 10% who suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition. The children also suffer from significant mental health disorders, including 33% with acute levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, 49% with moderate levels and 15.6% low levels. In “hot” areas, 55% of the children have acute levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, 35% moderate levels, and 9% low levels.

As Dr. Jess Ghannam, clinical professor of psychiatry and global health sciences at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, notes:

Palestinian children in Gaza are exposed to more violence in their lifetime than any other people, any other children, anywhere in the world. If you look at children right now who are 10 years old, they’ve been through Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, the invasion in 2012 and now the invasion and destruction in 2014, in addition to the siege. If you look at the statistics, for example, even before Cast Lead, 80 percent of Palestinian children in Gaza have witnessed some sort of violence against them, a friend or a family member. And now you’re getting to the point where probably close to 99 percent of children in Gaza are being exposed to a level of violence where they have seen family members be killed, murdered, burned alive. There’s nothing like the levels of traumatic exposure that any child in the world has ever been exposed to on a chronic and daily basis.

We can rebuild a broken bone, but when it comes to rebuilding someone’s psychological integrity, this is something that the people in the West and the Israelis don’t understand. They’re creating psychological damage for these kids that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

And we should not forget the disproportionate deaths suffered by Palestinian children. According to the UN, last summer was the deadliest in the history of the conflict since 1967: Israel killed more Palestinian civilians in 2014 than in any other year since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip began in 1967.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, of those killed last summer 551 were Palestinian children. The Middle East Children’s Alliance notes that:

The official statistics from the Ministry of Information in Ramallah reveal that 1,518 Palestinian children were killed by Israel’s occupation forces from the outbreak of the second Intifada in September 2000 up to April 2013, according to the Middle East Monitor.

That number means that one Palestinian child was killed by Israel every 3 days for almost 13 years.

The ministry added that meanwhile the number of children injured by the Israelis since the start of the Second Intifada against Israel’s occupation has now reached 6,000.

Noting that 2012 saw an unprecedented rise in the number of children arrested by Israeli forces, the report pointed out that 9,000 Palestinians under 18 years old have been arrested since the end of September 2000. Almost half of the Palestinian population is under 18. Almost two hundred and fifty Palestinian minors are being held in prison by Israel; 46 of them are children under 16 years of age.

Remember These Children has tracked the numbers of children killed in Israel-Palestine since September 2000. It finds that during that period 133 Israeli children have been killed, as compared to 2,026 Palestinian children.

A 2013 report of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child states:

The Committee reiterates its deepest concern that children on both sides of the conflict continue to be killed and injured, children living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories being disproportionately represented among the victims. The Committee expresses serious concerns that hundreds of Palestinian children have been killed and thousands injured over the reporting period as a result of the State party military operations, especially in Gaza where the State party proceeded to air and naval strikes on densely populated areas with a significant presence of children, thus disregarding the principles of proportionality and distinction. The Committee is deeply concerned about: (a) Palestinian children being shot by the State party’s military near the Gaza border whilst collecting building material to support their families in the reconstruction of their homes, 30 such cases having been reported over the reporting period; (b) The rise in the number of children from the OPT being subjected to attacks by settlers in the West Bank, four of them having been killed since 2008 and hundreds injured over the reporting period. The Committee notes with concern that in most of the cases Israeli military forces not only fail to intervene to prevent violence and to protect children, but also bring support to those committing violence. The Committee further notes with concern that, in most of the cases, perpetrators are not brought to justice and enjoy full impunity for their crimes; (c) The devastating impact on the right to life, survival and development of children living in the OPT of the construction of the Wall as well as the Gaza blockade imposed since 2007 which was considered by the International Committee of the Red Cross as a collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law.

Each of these deaths is abhorrent, let there be no mistake. The question is, how can we address the most systemic and pervasive offenses, including the documented abuses of children put under arrest and imprisoned by the Israeli military forces, disproportionate use of force on a civilian population, and at the same time work toward a just end to the conflict?

Besides the moral outrage one might feel upon hearing such reports, why should we in the United States be particularly concerned? As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch notes: “Israeli forces’ mistreatment of Palestinian children is at odds with its claim to respect children’s rights… As Israel’s largest military donor, the US should press hard for an end to these abusive practices and for reforms.” Importantly, we should recognize how the U.S. has shielded Israel diplomatically from being held accountable. Hopefully, with its own investigation confirming much of what international human rights groups and the United Nations have reported about the treatment of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli military forces, the U.S. government will finally use its power to pressure Israel into making meaningful changes in its actions and behavior toward these children.

A while ago, a prominent African-American scholar told of being invited to lecture in Israel. The topic of his talk was to be the marks of torture on the black slave body. Then he learned of the broken bones policy. He canceled his trip, asking the organizers how in the world he could give that lecture without mentioning the maimed bodies of the Palestinians. We might think of that act of solidarity as we contemplate the growing movement of non-violent non-cooperation with Israel state institutions now taking the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. We might think of doing so for the sake of the most defenseless.