Israel imposes two parallel legal systems across the occupied West Bank. Illegal Jewish settlers who commit a crime face the mainstream Israeli courts, with in-built legal rights and safeguards. Palestinians, on the other hand, are channelled through a military court system, with none of the legal protections enjoyed by Jews. This is true for adults and children alike.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out a range of rules to safeguard the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. Although Israel has ratified the convention, a UNICEF report this week found evidence of "widespread, systematic and institutionalised" ill-treatment of Palestinian minors by Israeli officials.
According to the report, Israeli forces have arrested, interrogated and prosecuted around 7,000 Palestinian children aged 12 to 17 over the past decade; that's an average of 700 a year, or around two every day. Most of them are boys, and the vast majority of arrests are for throwing stones, which is classed as an offence under Section 212 of Military Order 1651. The maximum sentence for children of 12 and 13 is six months behind bars, but from the age of 14 the penalty rises dramatically to between 10 and 20 years. The disproportionate nature of a 10-year prison term for a 14 year old who has thrown stones needs little elaboration.
The report tracks the whole process from arrest, through a trial, to imprisonment, and identifies practices that "amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention against Torture".
The ill-treatment of minors typically begins at the point of arrest, which is frequently carried out in the middle of the night by heavily-armed soldiers. The UN report describes the common experience as being "aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation centre tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear".
Abuse continues throughout the prosecution and sentencing process. This includes "the practice of blindfolding children and tying their hands with plastic ties, physical and verbal abuse during transfer to an interrogation site, including the use of painful restraints." Minors are often subjected to physical violence and threats during interrogations, coerced into confession and are not given immediate access to a lawyer or their families during questioning. They may be forced to wear leg irons and be shackled during court appearances; be denied bail; or transferred outside the occupied Palestinian territories to serve sentences in Israeli prisons, all of which violate children's rights.
Furthermore, frequently, "the principal evidence against the child is the child's own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation", meaning that children are essentially not given the chance to defend themselves.
The report notes that there have been some improvements in the past few years. In 2011, Israel raised the age at which Palestinians are treated as adults from 16 to 18, in keeping with the CRC. However, teens of 16 and 17 can still be sentenced as adults. In 2010, a military order was issued requiring Israeli police to notify parents about the arrest of their children and to inform children that they have the right to consult a lawyer. The juvenile military court, established in 2009, means that Palestinian minors are not tried in an adult court, but this does not mean that their rights are protected. "In no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights," said the UNICEF report.
The response from Israel has been far more conciliatory than its normal reaction to critical UN reports. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that his department and military officials had cooperated with UNICEF, with the aim of improving conditions. "Israel will study the conclusions and will work to implement them through ongoing cooperation with UNICEF, whose work we value and respect," he said. Whether this is translated into action remains to be seen, but it is certainly a positive sign.
The mistreatment of children is wrong for obvious reasons. Not only are they less able to defend themselves, but also, in this instance, endemic cruelty in the prison system will do nothing but deepen the sense of injustice, alienation and hatred in these young people. Yet this points to the wider problem with the whole military court system: it is inherently unfair, since it applies only to one section of the population and fails to protect the rights of either adults or children. It is right and good that the mistreatment of children should be highlighted and addressed, but it is simply the tip of the iceberg of a whole host of legal injustices enforced by Israel and its occupation apparatus.