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US Congress members question Israel’s abuse of Palestinian children

June 23, 2016 at 3:31 pm

Members of the US Congress made an unprecedented move by calling for the appointment of “a special envoy for Palestinian youth”. In a letter to Barack Obama, US lawmakers petitioned the President to address the abuse of Palestinian children.

Twenty members of the US Congress signed the letter urging the “Department of the State to elevate the human rights of Palestinian children to a priority status” and warned of the dangers in “ignoring the trauma being inflicted on millions of Palestinian children”.

If Obama approves, the new appointment will authorise the special envoy to travel to the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Israel to hear directly from Palestinian youth, human rights and legal experts, NGOs, Palestinian and Israeli officials, including police and military leaders about the ill treatment of Palestinian children.

Initiated by Congresswomen Betty McCollum, this positive step comes on the back of many serious concerns raised by a number of human rights organisations over the abuse of Palestinian children living under Israeli occupation. “Palestinian children live under the constant fear of arrest, detention, and violence at the hand of the Israeli military”, the lawmakers wrote. They stressed that “a reality that must be acknowledged is that 46 per cent of the 4.68 million Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are under 18 years of age. These children deserve to grow up with dignity, human rights, and a future free of repression.”

“We must raise our profound concern regarding a longstanding policy of detaining, interrogating, and imprisoning Palestinian children as young as 12 and 13 for up to a year, sometimes longer, without a trial and in violation of international standards.”

Their unease is sharply felt by what they see as “utter hopelessness” experienced by new generations of Palestinians. It’s the underlying cause of the knife attacks they argue: “Collective physiological trauma associated with the Palestinian people living under Israeli military occupation directly contributes to the violence.”

The lawmakers echoed widely held concerns held by many human rights organisations. According to the UN Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, there has been a “detrimental” impact on children from the rising violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 2015, 30 Palestinian children (25 boys and five girls) were killed and at least 1,735 injured (1,687 boys and 48 girls), predominantly in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. They also noted that violence against children was not inflicted exclusively by the Israeli occupying forces; settler attacks on Palestinian children has also increased.

Most Palestinian children endure some form of violence and physical abuse from Israeli authorities. According to a children’s campaign group Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes between 500 and 700 children in military courts each year. It has also been accused of introducing a “shoot to kill” policy which led to the fatal shooting of 28 Palestinian children by Israeli forces in 2015. The abuse also takes place behind closed doors, through administrative detention; hundreds of Palestinian children are arrested, detained and prosecuted within the Israeli military system.

Child detainees report physical and verbal abuse, are denied fair trial standards, and often suffer from long term psychological trauma. Their abuse is further aggravated by Israeli settlers, illegally occupying Palestinian territory. The heinous murder of Ali Dawabsheh, the 18-month-old baby who was burned to death, is just one of 224 settler attacks carried out, at times, under the eyes of Israeli occupying soldiers.

The light of Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip is even more precarious; of the almost 2,200 people killed by the Israeli onslaught in 2014, 547 were children.

Details of many cases of violence and abuse were raised by the UN Committee Against Torture. During their May 2016 meeting in Geneva the committee expressed concern over Israel’s excessive use of force against Palestinians and its ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian detainees. In their concluding observations, the committee expressed alarm at the “many instances in which Palestinian minors were exposed to torture or ill-treatment, including obtaining confessions”. The confessions given to Palestinian children were in Hebrew, a language they do not understand.

Furthermore, the committee noted that interrogations were carried out in the absence of a lawyer or a family member and expressed further unease over the fact that “many of these children, like many other Palestinians, are deprived of liberty in facilities located in Israel thus hindering access to visits of relatives who live in the OPT”.

Other UN affiliated human rights group have also reported a culture of abuse and human rights violations. A joint report submitted at the UN meeting in Geneva by Defence for Children International and World Organisation Against Torture, also raises alarming concerns. The human rights organisations reported that least 48 Palestinian children from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip have been killed between October 2015 and March 2016 as a direct result of intensified violence. The report also noted that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported more than 2,177 cases of Palestinian children from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, having suffered injuries from Israeli forces and settler violence.

The report, which was based on the testimonies of 429 children, stated: “Three-quarters of the children interviewed had endured some form of physical violence following their arrest. More than 41 per cent were arrested from their homes in the middle of the night. And 97 per cent were interrogated in the absence of a parent or legal counsel.”

A culture of systematic violence and abuse of Palestinian children has prompted this positive move by Congresswomen Betty McCollum. Her calls that “ignoring the trauma being inflicted on millions of Palestinian children undermines [our] American values and will ensure the perpetuation of the conflict” are unlikely to be heeded by Obama and the chances of appointing a special envoy are slim.

The letter is however further evidence of the growing disillusionment with Israel’s policy. Israel and its supporters have long feared that at some point the American public will come to realise that its occupation, policies and treatment of Palestinians undermines American values and America’s interest in the region. This is another sign that cracks are beginning to form in the special relationship.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.