Tons of paper, gigabytes of email and hours of talking heads on TV, led up to the psycho-political drama of the unknown territory that was the application for UN recognition of a Palestinian state. The high-level rhetoric and the contradictory legal opinions; the sad, expected Obama betrayal of the Palestinians; the heavy arm-twisting of the Palestinian leadership; the shameless speech of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the UN; all were distractions from the realities of the Israeli Occupation, which demand a change in the world's consciousness of Palestine today.
The B'Tselem human rights group website has a short video of four Palestinian teenagers describing their sudden night-time arrests at home by Israeli soldiers; they were blindfolded, handcuffed, hit, kicked to stop them from sleeping, and threatened with even worse beatings or bringing their families to prison if they did not confess. "I confessed to throwing stones," said one, after describing the threats. The youngest, 13 year-old Fadi, said, "He grabbed my hands and forced me to sign." He goes on to say, "In prison I missed my friends – we're too little to be in jail. Grownups can suffer, but we're too little. I can't even be indoors, how can I be in jail… in one room, without seeing the sun?"
Fadi smiles to the camera as he describes being squashed between two fat soldiers in the jeep, but the other boys, a couple of years older, have the withdrawn look about them that I have seen before, over the years, in the houses of Palestinian children released from prison. In those family homes mothers have spoken sadly of the impact of a lost school year, lost concentration, the unspoken fear and anger that keep a boy in his room; childhoods stolen from the boys who come home markedly different people.
B'Tselem reports that between 2005 and 2010, 835 children were in the Israeli Military Court for stone throwing; just one was acquitted. Defence of Children International (DCI), in Ramallah, reports that 180 children were in Israeli detention at the end of last month; 34 of them are under 15 years-old. The figures have been coming down in the last three years due to determined advocacy by these and other groups, and two years ago a Military Youth Court was introduced. It has not produced any noticeably different verdicts: 93% of children are denied bail and 87% suffer physical violence or threats thereof. DCI analysis of affidavits from dozens of children has shown that the ill-treatment of children in military courts is systematic and in some cases amounts to torture. For instance, in one affidavit 15 year-old Ahmad, from a village near Nablus, reports a full litany of kicking, beatings with rifle butts, sleep and food deprivation, being exposed to freezing air conditioning, being kept blindfolded and having a dog eating food off his head and from near his genitals.
As the four teenagers' stories illustrate, the boys are coerced into signing confessions written in Hebrew, which they cannot read. In prison they are kept alongside adults, are allowed no telephone calls because they are held under security legislation, and most have no visits from family members because they are transferred to prisons inside Israel – a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention – and no permits are issued for entry to Israel. B'Tselem says that the military legislation conforms neither to Israeli nor international law, and "the police, judges and soldiers involved in these cases are fully aware of the children's conditions".
There are glaring discrepancies in Israeli "justice": illegal settlers who attack Palestinian villages across the occupied West Bank with relentless regularity are tried in civilian, not military, courts. No Israeli child under the age of 14 will ever be imprisoned; 12 year-old Palestinians can be, and frequently are.
There appears to be no lower age limit for Palestinians to be subject to such ill-treatment. For instance, 9 year-old Mahmoud was playing with his brother and a cousin outside his house near a road used by the Israel Defence Forces and illegal settlers when he was seized by some soldiers who claimed that the children had thrown stones at their jeep. Mahmoud was blindfolded – remember, he's 9 years-old – and his hands were tied with cloth in front of him before he was taken to the Kiryat Arba settlement and sat on a chair for hours, still blindfolded. He was slapped a few times – "Not hard," he claimed – before being taken to Gush Etzion and returned to his father after eight hours.
The systematic detention of Palestinian children is part of Israel's decades-long mass imprisonment policy, which has seen an estimated 700,000 people jailed as "security" prisoners since 1967. It is rare to find a Palestinian family in the Occupied Palestinian Territories which has not experienced this. It has marked the society profoundly as Palestinian leader after leader (if they have not been assassinated) has been cut off from their community, in prison, usually inside Israel.
Children are used by the Israelis in the prosecution of adults. In December 2009, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a schoolteacher who coordinated peaceful Friday protests at the village of Bil'in in the West Bank, was arrested. Abu Rahmah led the Popular Committee, which organised against the Israeli Wall and the encroaching settlements eating Bil'in's land, and had represented his village in a court case in Canada; during a speaking tour in France and Germany Bil'in received a human rights award. Thirty-one people were arrested in Bil'in for protesting against the loss of village land. Abu Rahmah's prosecutors used the testimony of three children, all of whom retracted their "confessions" in court, but he went to prison for 16 months anyway, convicted of "organising demonstrations". Amnesty labelled him a "Prisoner of Conscience", and there was a major international campaign against his sentence. It had no impact.
Individuals like Abu Rahmah are targeted for the effectiveness of their public resistance, no matter how peaceful it is, and a court case and prison sentence is not the worst that can happen to them. So-called "administrative detention" puts a person out of circulation for an indefinite period, using secret intelligence. It is a preventive intervention, not a punishment for any offence already committed. Administrative detention goes back to 1945 and the practices of the British Mandate authority; today the orders come from the Israeli military commander. Israeli military law does not limit the period of administrative detention and an order can be and is extended many times when the current period is about to end.
The longest-serving prisoner to be kept in prison under administrative detention was the political scientist and writer Dr Ahmed Qatamish whose order was renewed repeatedly for nearly six years until his release in 1998. He pointed out later that, "none of the administrative detainees [could have been] engaged in violence because you would have been tried for that." On his release, he estimated that 90% of such detainees were from the Islamic movement, 7% were leftists and 0.5% belonged to Fatah. Dr Qatamish, accused of being a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was also detained in the 1970s, and had spent many years underground. He worked towards his diploma in Arabic literature and his PhD by distance learning because he was never given permission to travel. He was arrested again in April this year (2011) and again placed on an administrative detention order, which was renewed in September. He has been a fierce critic of the Occupation all these years and, like the late Edward Said in the US and Haider Abdel Shafi in Gaza, was an open critic of Oslo from the very beginning. Speaking years later about what Oslo had done to Palestinian society, he said, "Oslo defeated our will to struggle and to sacrifice, and now people tend to their personal affairs." Certainly no one can miss that trend in many casual conversations in Ramallah today.
For many of those who never believed in Oslo's promises, prison is still the dark shadow over lives of resistance. In 2010, four years after winning the 2006 elections, four Jerusalem MPs from the Islamic Change and Reform bloc took refuge in the International Red Cross compound in Jerusalem seeking protection against an Israeli threat to expel them from their own city. Other elected parliamentarians have been arrested; all four in the Red Cross compound have had their Jerusalem residency permits revoked by the Israelis, while one was tricked into stepping outside the compound and abducted by Israeli forces last month.
Across the occupied West Bank the arrests of academics and others (like the boys accused of stone throwing) has continued relentlessly but attracts little attention. Most recently, one of the founders of Hamas, Sheikh Hassan Yusuf, was rearrested under administrative detention after serving six years and having just a few tantalizingly brief days of freedom.
Walid Daka, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and member of the PFLP, is an authority on the Israeli prison system; he is serving a life sentence and has been in prison for almost a quarter of a century. He has written how different it is to the prisons that are now bywords for torture: Tazmamart, Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. "In Israeli prisons you face a harder form of torture, because it is 'civilised'; it turns your own senses and mind into tools of daily torture, quietly creeping without any club, without making any noise… the state of losing the ability to interpret reality, the feeling of impotence and the loss of initiative." He describes the life of a Palestinian prisoner as a parable of the lives of civilians in the OPT: "a scientifically planned and calculated scheme to remould the Palestinian consciousness."
Israeli journalist Gideon Levy once wrote about him, "Daka was convicted of taking part in the abduction and murder of the soldier Moshe Tamam. If Daka were a Jew who had murdered an Arab, he would have been released long ago; the same if he were a Jew who murdered a Jew. If he were a Palestinian from the territories, he would have been released in a prisoner exchange deal by now. But Daka is an Arab from Israel, and no one cares about him or his punishment."
None of us can afford not to care about Walid Daka, or little Fadi, or Sheikh Hassan Yusuf, or Dr Ahmed Qatamish, or any of the thousands of Palestinians whose names we do not know, but who are incarcerated for wanting the same freedom and life chances that we have. European politicians must use the political opportunity of the break in the long, long logjam of the unbearable status quo, to come off the fence and act to end the Israeli Occupation. Today.
Victoria Brittain is a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian. Her books include Hidden Lives, Hidden Deaths and Death of Dignity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.