The innocence of childhood is precious, to be cared for gently and nurtured, allowing the child, whose future we are building, to develop happily and safely in an atmosphere of love and peace. For many Palestinian children their childhood is lived in fear with the threat of violence and abuse at the hands of an armed force that stalks the streets of their homeland.
In the eleven years since 2000, Israeli forces have killed 1,4711 children in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the bulk of them aged between 13 and 17 years old. The children of Gaza have been and continue to be at greatest risk, with almost a thousand killed – some would say murdered in the last twelve years, on the streets of their city, on their way to and from school, whilst playing with friends, shopping for their family or simply relaxing in their homes. Most were shot randomly, indiscriminately, or killed as a result of Israeli air and ground attacks. Around 50 had their lives taken prematurely by unexploded ordnance.
The latest sustained attack on the people of Gaza began on Friday 9th March, "killing 25 Palestinians"2. The Israeli air force fired missiles from the comfort of their warplanes at civilians in an arbitrary way, shooting onto the streets of Gaza and into people's homes "in the Jabaliya refugee camp that were mostly full of women and children". (Palestine Monitor) The faceless attackers even shot at mourners attending a funeral. Such is the callous, vicious nature of the Israel Defence Forces, which kill, injure and intimidate innocent women and children, destroying all hope of living peaceful decent lives, and all in the name of 'security'. That, of course, is nonsense; this is criminal violence, nothing more nor less. These most recent atrocities come on the back of the massacre that took place in December '08/January '09, when a total of 1,417 Palestinians were killed, of whom 318 were children and 116 were women. That horror is still fresh in young memories, with its constant bombardment, the loss of loved ones, and the shootings. Around 1,000 children were injured in the three-week assault; many were left with severe physical disabilities and deep psychological wounds. The latter are more difficult to see and treat than broken bones and scarred flesh. "The Gaza Community Health Programme estimates that half Gaza's children – around 350,000 – will develop some form of post-traumatic stress disorder."3 This is staggering but unsurprising, and the attacks this March on unarmed civilians will serve to intensify the mental suffering and anguish that these children are living with; "both parents and psychologist fear that Gaza children could be affected psychologically in the long run."
Children make up around 45% of the four million or so total Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,4 a fact that terrifies an aging Israel. What impact does living under the brutal Israeli occupation have on them? Are they inclined towards peace and brotherhood, is tolerance fostered in their hearts and minds or are the seeds of hate and the desire for revenge being carefully sown? Does violence ever bring peace, or does it perpetuate conflict? Colonel Desmond Travers, one of the co-authors of the UN's Goldstone Report said that he and his colleagues spoke to a psychiatrist in Gaza5 who said, "We already see in our schools in Gaza the next generation of Hamas revolutionaries, children exposed to so much violence, they have no option but to terminate their childhood and move into a different frame, and the likelihood is that they will never stabilize." In order to justify the unjustifiable, unjust Israel needs to instil hate into another generation of Palestinians to maintain the state's position as the 'enemy within', thereby excusing in some perverted distortion of the facts its continued aggression, violence and violation of international laws.
Intimidation and Torture
Palestinian children living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the Israeli occupation are subjected to brutal treatment, illegal imprisonment, torture and intimidation by the Israeli security forces. Defence for Children International states that "a pattern of systematic ill-treatment [of Palestinian children] emerges, [from their report 'Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted' (BBC)] much of which amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as defined in the UN Convention against Torture, and in some cases, torture – both of which are absolutely prohibited."6 Since 1967 Palestinian children as well as adults have been subjected to Israeli Military Law, a legal system based on prejudice and short on justice. In the time since this supposedly emergency system was instigated 726,000 Palestinians have been arrested and detained. The numbers of children arrested and taken from their homes is shocking. "In the past 11 years alone, around 7,500 children, some as young as 12 years, are estimated to have been detained, interrogated, and imprisoned within this system. This averages out at between 500-700 children per year, or nearly two children, each and every day." The children arrested nearly all live in villages in areas of tension, "friction points, namely settlements built in violation of international law, and roads used by the Israeli army or settlers". The situation seems to be escalating, particularly in certain areas of the West Bank: "The extreme Golani Unit of the Israeli military is escalating its arrests of Palestinian children in Al Khalil (Hebron), targeting boys between the ages of 12 to15 years old with at least 10 reported cases of child arrests made (in early February 2012) just in the span of one week."7
As well arrests, incarceration in solitary confinement has also increased, with almost a quarter of all children arrested being held in isolation. Children, mainly boys, aged from 12 to 17 years old are taken forcefully from their family home, often at night, imprisoned in a tiny, dank cell, beaten and tortured, intimidated and, on occasion, subjected to electronic shock treatment. Most children are detained for the terrible crime of throwing stones at soldiers armed with M16 rifles and tear gas courtesy of the American arms industry.
For example, 15-year-old Yahya, who was arrested with four friends and taken to the [illegal] Israeli settlement of Zuffin, where, "hands tied behind their backs, they were blindfolded, before being forced to kneel on the ground for several hours." (BBC)The inevitable insults then began to rain down on the children. "After about two and a half hours the boys were loaded into a truck and transported to a police station… the boys were interrogated… the interrogator grabbed the boy's head and slammed it against the wall, slapping him twice, a short time later he returned holding a small electric shock device [Taser]. 'He placed the device on my body and I felt a great powerful shock and my body started shivering'. This shock treatment continued until 'I couldn't feel my arms or legs and I felt extreme pain in my head. I felt I was going to be paralysed, so I decided to confess."(BBC) In another example of torturous abuse at the hands of the Israelis, there is the case of 16-year-old Mohammad Shabrawi from the West Bank town of Tulkarem, arrested in January 2001, again accused of throwing stones. His ordeal mirrors in part that of Yahya – taken to a settlement, his hands tied and being forced blindfolded to kneel on the asphalt for an hour or so, before being taken to "Cell 36, deep within Al Jalame prison in northern Israel."8 According to the Guardian, "It is one of a handful of cells where Palestinian children are locked in solitary confinement for days or even weeks. One 16-year-old claimed that he had been kept in Cell 36 for 65 days." Mohammad spent "17 days in solitary, apart from interrogations. He first saw a lawyer 20 days after his arrest, he said, and was charged after 25 days". The effect of this terrible ordeal on the boy was that, "Since his release, he said, he was 'now afraid of the army, afraid of being arrested'. His mother said he had become withdrawn."
The use of hand ties and blindfolds is extensive; in 2010 the UN documented 90 cases of "ill treatment"9 of Palestinian children in Israeli detention, of which 75 had their hands tied behind their backs and were also blindfolded. Almost a third of children were under 15 years of age. Of the 90 detained "62 children reported being beaten, 35 children reported position abuse and 16 children were kept in solitary confinement. In three cases, children reported the use of electric shocks on their bodies. Particularly concerning was the fact that there was an increase in documented cases of sexual violence." (UNDOPI) All of this contravenes international law and conventions signed and ratified by Israel and the democratic principles Israel so loudly proclaims. Mark Regev, the Spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in the Guardian, "The test of a democracy is how you treat people incarcerated, people in jail, and especially so with minors." Democracy was thus damned by words of duplicity. Much of the mistreatment exercised towards Palestinian children not only contravenes international law, but also violates Israel's own domestic laws.
When in Israeli custody children are interrogated violently; they are shackled, blindfolded and bound to a chair whilst being questioned. According to Israeli Law, "Interrogation of a minor may be conducted only by an interrogator who is trained as a youth interrogator. A parent is allowed to be present at all times,"10 and, "Minors have the right to consult with the parent before the interrogation." They are insulted verbally ("You're a dog, a son of a whore" is common). Many are exhausted from sleep deprivation. Day after day they are fettered to the chair, then returned to solitary confinement. The majority of children sign confessions that they later claim to have been obtained under duress: "Children under interrogation unsurprisingly eventually admit to the 'crimes'… in the end at least 90 percent will plead guilty, as this is the quickest way out of a system that denies children bail in 87 percent of cases." Accusations of crimes justifying these illegal detentions are usually throwing stones, or occasionally Molotov cocktails, at soldiers or settlers, both of whom let us remember are present illegally upon Palestinian land. A few are arrested for "more serious offences such as links to militant organisations or using weapons," claims the Guardian.
Major violation, minor insecurity
What 'National security information' is being elicited from the interrogation of these children who the Israelis are abusing? "They are pumped for information about the activities and sympathies of their classmates, relatives and neighbours." Within walls of intimidation a child can be forced to betray their friends and families; eliciting the names of other stone throwers is a primary aim of the torturer. B'Tselem, the Israeli Human Rights Organisation, said, "One method the police use to identify juvenile stone throwers is incrimination: the police arrest one or more youths, they are required to give names of other youths whom they saw throwing stones, and these youths are then arrested and required to provide the names of others, and so on." The children under interrogation in a frightening isolated place, far from the sanctity of home, are under great emotional stress and inevitably give up the names of friends; the effects of the experience are then compounded by the added trauma of guilt.
Children are mostly held inside Israel itself, which restricts access to legal support and excludes family members from visiting, their freedom of movement being constrained under the occupation; the necessary permit to visit the prisons is often impossible to obtain. Families are therefore unable to support their children through the ordeal of confinement. Holding children in prisons inside Israel is in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits such transfers. According to DCI, "testimonies [from 310 children] reveal that the majority of children are taken away to an unknown location for interrogation."(BBC) This process of arrests, detention and torture operating inside Israel and outside international and national law, offers the victims no legal recourse to a complaints procedure.
Legally binding, illegally bound
The Israeli judicial system as it currently pertains to Palestinian children allows illegal practices to take place within the walled settlements -themselves illegal inside police stations and in Israeli prisons. International law on the rights of the child, to which Israel is bound, is clear and extensive: "The main document establishing the rights of children is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN in November 1989. Israel signed the Convention in July 1990 and ratified it in August 1991." In the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, we find condemnation of "targeting of children in situations of armed conflict and direct attacks on objects protected under international law, including places that generally have a significant presence of children, such as schools and hospitals."11 Schools are targeted repeatedly by Israeli security forces; according to the UN in 2010 there was an increase in the number of attacks on education institutions. "These attacks resulted in damage to schools or interruption of education, placing the safety of the children in Gaza and the West Bank at risk. The majority of cases involved the presence of Israeli security forces within school compounds following raids, forceful entry, and search and arrest operations, including the use of tear gas on students." (UNDOPI) All international treaties and conventions signed by the lawbreaker, Israel, safeguard children in conflict, and Israel ignores them all. "These treaties relevantly provide that: in all actions concerning children their best interests shall be a primary consideration; children should only be detained as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time." (BBC) Held for '17 days in solitary' as Mohammed was, is neither short nor appropriate, indeed it is illegal. It is one example within a catalogue of atrocities which sees Israel contravening another convention, breaking yet another international law and doing so with impunity. This must stop, urgent action is required to safeguard the children of Palestine and protect them from the tyranny that is Israeli policy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
To all of this must be added the fact that the Fourth Geneva Convention "grants special protections to minors" and provides 146 articles that protect in law the lives of all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Israel is in breach of them all. Indeed 'grave breaches' in itself constitutes a war crime: "the world has seen those [grave breaches] inflicted every day by Israel against the Palestinian People living in occupied Palestine: e.g., wilful killing of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli army and Israel's illegal paramilitary settlers." Israel is guilty of 'grave breaches' of the convention and the more serious offence of 'crimes against humanity' against Palestinians "as determined by the UN Human Rights Commission", which is the "legal precursor to the international crime of genocide as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." The argument that Israel is or has in fact already committed the crime of genocide, is powerful and to many indisputable.
Genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, crimes against humanity: Israel appears to be guilty of all. Call them what you will, the actions of Israel in the OPTs are vile, murderous, calculated and illegal. It is for the international community acting in unity, and led by the UN, to stand up and act to protect the lives of the innocent men, women and children of Palestine – especially the latter – lifting the shadow of constant fear, intimidation and aggression from their lives. Humanity is one. Together we must stand in the face of injustice, violence and hate to safeguard the lives of the innocent, the oppressed and the defenceless.
1 If only Americans Knew. (IOAK) http://www.ifamericansknew.org/cur_sit/dec08.html
2 The Palestine monitor (PM) 13th March 2012 http://www.palestinemonitor.org/?p=4401
3 Occupied Palestine (OP) 17th March 2012 http://occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/memories-of-violence-haunt-gaza-children/
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_Palestinian_territories – UN_estimates_.5B14.5D
5 Mondoweiss. http://mondoweiss.net/2011/07/col-travers-israels-treatment-of-palestinian-children-shows-that-it-does-not-seek-peace.html
6 Defence for Children International report, bound-blindfolded-and-convicted-children-held-military-detention-2012 (BBCC) http://www.dci-palestine.org/documents/new-dci-report-bound-blindfolded-and-convicted-children-held-military-detention-2012
7 International Solidarity Movement. http://palsolidarity.org/2012/02/hebron-at-least-10-children-arrested-by-israeli-military-in-one-week/
8 The Guardian (TG) The Palestinian children – alone and bewildered – in Israel's Al Jalame jail http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/22/palestinian-children-detained-jail-israel
9 United Nations Developments in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel (UNDOPI)
10 B'TSELEM report No Minor Matter: Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors Arrested by Israel on Suspicion of Stone-Throwing (BTSR) http://www.btselem.org/publications/fulltext/201107_no_minor_matter
11 OHCHR Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc-conflict.htm
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.