In June 2012, a delegation of nine UK lawyers led by the former British Attorney-General, Baroness Scotland, published an independent report entitled Children in Military Custody on the plight of Palestinian children arrested and detained by Israel. The FCO-funded report found that Israel’s military detention system and its treatment of Palestinian child prisoners and detainees was in breach of two articles of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as six articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Four years after the publication of the report, Defence Children International-Palestine (DCIP) organised a speaking tour in the UK in an effort to reach out to Britons and call on the UK government to put pressure on Israel to implement the report’s forty recommendations which seek to end Israel’s violations of Palestinian child detainees.
DCIP is the only human rights organisation specifically focused on child rights in Palestine, its work is divided into two programs: accountability, which focuses on child rights as they intersect with Israeli military and legal systems, and child protection, which addresses the children’s rights inside the Palestinian legal framework.
Speaking to MEMO during his tour in the UK, Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Director of the Accountability Program at DCIP, said the program is made up of three units that, together, aim to promote and protect the rights of Palestinian children: legal aid, monitoring and documentation, and advocacy.
“In addition to providing direct legal aid to Palestinian children detained and prosecuted in the Israeli legal system,” Abu Eqtaish continued, “DCIP works diligently to monitor and document Israeli abuses and violations of the children’s rights in order to present evidence and try to influence public policy and hold perpetrators to account.” Working at DCIP since 2000, Abu Eqtaish’s work has focused mainly on documentation as well as local and international advocacy for cases involving the ill treatment and torture of child detainees.
Right to freedom from torture and ill-treatment
Around 700 children are arrested and prosecuted in Israeli military courts every year. DCIP collects testimonies from some 150 children who have been detained and interrogated every year, Abu Eqtaish told MEMO.
“These testimonies show that all children face ill-treatment and torture at the hands of Israeli forces from the moment of arrest,” he added, “drawing a clear pattern of torture and abuse that is both systematic and widespread.”
Israel, which uses dual legal systems in the West Bank, automatically prosecutes Palestinian children in military courts that lack basic safeguards for a fair trial, and many Palestinian child detainees do not have access to legal representation or parental presence. According to DCIP, three out of four children experience physical violence during arrest or interrogation, including punching, kicking and slapping. Blindfolds and “painful” plastic ties are also often used to restrain children.
Abu Eqtaish said that, aside from physical violence, Israel uses a carrot and stick policy with the children as a form of psychological pressure.
“The purpose of these tactics, which often include placing the children in solitary confinement, is to extract confessions,” Abu Eqtaish continued. “Confessions are considered the main evidence for indictment in Israeli military courts, and how they were obtained is irrelevant.”
Right to Life
DCIP has also been documenting Palestinian child fatalities and injuries at the hands of the Israeli military and settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territory since September 2000. At least 28 Palestinian children were fatally shot by Israeli forces in 2015, and DCIP found that in several cases, the children did not pose a direct, mortal threat at the time they were killed.
“Due to the disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of Israel’s military assaults on the Strip,” Abu Eqtaish told MEMO, “the majority of child deaths have been from Gaza, particularly over the past 8 years.”
“During Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, 547 Palestinian children were killed and the circumstances of their killing indicate that it was avoidable,” he continued, “but Israel uses military tactics which often maximise civilian deaths and are clear violations of International Humanitarian Law, such as the Dahiya Doctrine.” The Dahiya Doctrine is a military strategy put forth by Israeli general Gadi Eizenkot, which entails the indiscriminate targeting of civilian infrastructure, including residential blocks, as a deterrent against the militant use of that infrastructure.
“The use of Palestinian children as human shields by Israeli soldiers is another violation that falls under our work to promote and protect the Palestinian child’s rights to life,” Abu Eqtaish added, “in addition to settler attacks.” According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 224 settler attacks occurred in 2015. In some cases, DCIP found that Israeli soldiers, who frequently fail to intervene in confrontations to ensure that civilians are not harmed, have actively participated in settler attacks against Palestinian civilians.
A culture of Impunity
“The absence of accountability is one of the main obstacles we encounter,” Abu Eqtaish told MEMO. “There is a culture of impunity within the Israeli military, whereby soldiers seem to get away with the ill-treatment as well as killing of Palestinian children.”
“This gives Israeli soldiers and police a green light to continue violating the rights of Palestinian children, without having to worry about the consequences of their actions.”
DCIP continues to file complaints in order to emphasise this pattern of abuse, Abu Eqtaish added, “but despite the complaints, there is often no serious investigation that follows.” When there is an investigation, he said, it is often closed without any indictments.
DCIP uses the information gathered through the legal and documentation units in advocacy, regularly providing reports to international bodies, such as agencies of the United Nations, as well as running online interactive campaigns that advocate for the rights of Palestinian children, such as the No Way to Treat a Child campaign, and the stories thread on the organisation’s website.
“We also reach out to politicians and parliamentarians around the world in order to put pressure on Israel to comply with the conventions and laws they have signed,” Abu Eqtaish asserted, “but unfortunately, Israel does not seem to respect those conventions.”
Despite over twenty years of advocating for the rights of Palestine children, Abu Eqtaish says he cannot claim there has been a significant shift in Israel’s treatment of Palestinian children. “In many respects, it seems only to be getting more severe,” he continued, “although there has been an increase in international criticism and condemnation of Israel’s policies and practices.”
Abu Eqtaish says that Israel employs a series of manoeuvres that give the impression that there is change, when in fact the human rights situation of Palestinian children is just as worrying. “For example, setting up military juvenile courts gives the impression that there is a new system in place which is better equipped in dealing with juveniles,” he continued. “In effect, however, these courts run in the same way as any other military court.”
After two debates in the British parliament on Palestinian children in Israeli military custody in 2016, and the recent unprecedented letter in which twenty members of the US Congress called for the appointment of “a special envoy for Palestinian youth”, urging the “Department of the State to elevate the human rights of Palestinian children to a priority status”, Abu Eqtaish hopes that the shift in international public opinion and growing concern for the rights of children in the Palestinian Occupied Territories will lead to real and practical changes to the children’s grave human rights situation.