British parliament held a debate on the issue of child prisoners and detainees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the second time yesterday, following a debate on the issue in 2010.
The debate was procured by Sarah Champion MP, who began by addressing the ill-treatment meted out to Palestinian children detained by the Israeli military as documented by two damning reports showing that Israel was in breach of its legal obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
In 2012, a delegation of nine UK lawyers led by the former British Attorney-General, Baroness Scotland, published an independent report funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Children in Military Custody, on the plight of Palestinian children arrested and detained by Israel. The report found that Israel's treatment of Palestinian child prisoners and detainees was in breach of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, as well as several articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In 2013, UNICEF also released its own assessment of the military detention system for children. After reviewing the available evidence, including over 400 sworn affidavits from children detained in a system that has a jurisdiction to prosecute 12 year olds in military courts, UNICEF concluded that "the ill-treatment of children who come into contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic, and institutionalised throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child's prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing".
Champion named a number of specific issues that British officials have raised with their Israeli counterparts as part of on-going discussions aimed at following up on the implementation of the report's recommendations by the Israeli government; these include the use of "painful" plastic ties to restrain children, arresting children in the middle of the night in "terrifying" military raids, and the mandatory use of audio-visual recordings of all interrogations.
In response to these interventions, the Israeli military issued standard operating procedures for the use of restraints and introduced a pilot study to use summons instead of night-time raids. As of last month, Champion noted, evidence shows that the majority of the summons are delivered by the military after midnight, which she said defeats the whole objective, and that the standard operating procedures are frequently ignored. She also shared some startling statistics that 93 per cent of children continue to be restrained with plastic ties, 80 per cent are still blind-folded or hooded, a practice that both the UN and UK reports said should be prohibited, and that audio-visual recording has only been mandated in non-security-related offences, meaning that 90 per cent of cases involving children continue to take place without this safeguard.
According to Champion, the "most disturbing" of these is the increase in reports of physical abuse since 2013, consisting mainly of punching, kicking and slapping, and in some cases more serious allegations such as being mauled by dogs or receiving electric shocks. Champion's claims are backed up by UNICEF, noting that the level of reported abuse remained largely unchanged in 2013 and 2014.
Peter Dowd MP read out a statement by a nine-year-old Palestinian detainee to the packed Westminster Hall: "My hands were tied in front of me, so I kept reaching up to pull the blindfold off. A soldier kept pulling my hands down to stop me. I just wanted to go home to my dad." The Member of Parliament continued: "If that behaviour happened in any one of our constituencies, we would be outraged."
Conservative Members of Parliament also spoke passionately about the rights of Palestinian children illegally detained by Israel. Colonel Bob Stewart MP, a long-time supporter of Israel, criticised Israel for using a dual legal systems in the West Bank, under which Israeli settlers living in the occupied territories are not subject to military or local law as the Palestinians are, but are rather prosecuted according to Israeli law, violating the principle of equality before the law as well as the principle of territoriality.
"If you are an Israeli child, you are treated better than a Palestinian," he said, likening the treatment of Palestinian children by Israel in the West Bank to what he saw happen to children in the Balkans while commanding UN forces. He said that it saddens him to make this analogy with what he described as being crimes against humanity. "This must stop," he added, "If it does not, people like me who actually are big supporters of Israel will lose the urge to be supporters."
Many Palestinian child detainees do not have access to legal representation or parental presence during interrogation and are often asked to sign confessions written in Hebrew, a language which they almost always do not speak or understand. Besides recommendations for dealing with all of these aspects of Israeli ill-treatment of the Palestine children, both the UK and UNICEF's reports included a recommendation that "All Palestinian children detained under Israeli military law should be held in facilities in the occupied Palestinian territories and not in Israel, which constitutes a breach of article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention."
Israeli authorities rejected this recommendation and stated that they have no intention of changing that policy. According to the latest official Israeli prison service figures, the number of Palestinian children being transferred to prison facilities inside Israel has increased since this recommendation was made, and now stands at 56 per cent.
"The issue of transferring detainees en masse from occupied territory is a standalone issue because it is a war crime," Champion stressed. "It is not contingent on the presence or absence of peace talks. It should not be contingent upon one political view or another, and after nearly half a century, it does require decisive action in accordance with our international legal obligations."
Besides continuing to lobby the Israeli government to effectively implement the 40 recommendations included in the UK lawyers' report and monitor that implementation, Champion recommended the UK establish and maintain a watch list of all known war crimes suspects, suggesting that the UK should detain for questioning or prosecution war crimes suspects entering its borders.
"As a nation we must send a strong message that we will no longer tolerate the commission of war crimes on such an industrial scale, and that we are a people who honour our commitments."
Louise Hague MP also raised concerns over the role that some UK companies play in Israeli violations of international law, namely the complicity of G4S in operating prison facilities which are used to illegally detain Palestinian children inside Israel, and the UK government's movements to stop local authorities divesting from such companies.
Other MPs pointed to the Israeli occupation being at the heart of the issue, and that the ultimate solution to the "industrial scale" abuse of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories would be the end of the occupation.
The stubborn continuation of Israel's violations of international law with regards to Palestinian child prisoners and detainees, in spite of UK and UN intervention, is perhaps best reflected in the resignation of the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Makarim Wibisono, earlier this week.
"Unfortunately, my efforts to help improve the lives of Palestinian victims of violations under the Israeli occupation have been frustrated every step of the way," Wibisono, who accused the Israeli authorities of failing to grant him access to Palestinian areas, said in a statement.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.