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A new UNICEF report, “Children in Israeli Military Detention,” is sharply critical of Israel’s treatment of detained Palestinian children. According to UNICEF, 700 Palestinian children aged 12-17, most of them boys, are arrested and harshly interrogated by the Israeli military, police and security agents every year in the occupied West Bank.
In some cases, stated UNICEF, it had identified practices that “amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention against Torture (CAT). The UNICEF report confirms what many human rights activists (including Israeli individual and organizations) have been denouncing for years.
The UNICEF report is the result of several years of information gathering by the UN agency related to grave violations committed against Palestinian children in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, including the arrest and detention of children. The information gathered is regularly reported to the United Nations Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. Mounting allegations of ill-treatment of Palestinian children held in the Israeli military detention system prompted this review.
According to Article 37 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, State Parties shall ensure that “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,”…and “Every child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance, as well as the right to challenge the legality of the deprivation of his or her liberty before a court or other competent, independent and impartial authority, and to a prompt decision on any such action.” These provisions have been repeatedly violated by the Israeli authorities.
As UNICEF states, “In addition to Israel’s obligations under international law, the guiding principles relating to the prohibition against torture in Israel are to be found in a 1999 decision of the Supreme Court, which is also legally binding on the Israeli military courts. The Court concluded that a reasonable interrogation is necessarily one free of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and that this prohibition is absolute.”
What makes the conclusions of this report particularly relevant is that Yigal Palmor, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, stated that officials from the ministry and the Israeli military had cooperated with UNICEF in the work carried out for this report, and that the aim of the Israeli government was to improve the treatment of Palestinian minors in custody.
Ill-treatment of Palestinian minors begins with the arrest itself, which is carried out usually in the middle of the night by heavily armed soldiers, and continues through prosecution and sentencing. Most minors are arrested for throwing stones; however, they suffer physical violence and threats, many are coerced into confessing for acts they didn’t commit and, in addition, many times they don’t have access to a lawyer or family during questioning.
UNICEF’s findings are based on more than 400 documented cases gathered since 2009, as well as on legal papers, governmental and non-governmental reports, and interviews with Palestinian children and their families and with Israeli and Palestinian officials and lawyers.
Israeli government abuses against Palestinian children are not limited to the West Bank. In the past, UNICEF has also reported that one baby in three risks death because of medical shortages in Gaza. Israel’s government also prohibited the distribution of special food to about 20,000 Gazan children under age five resulting in anemia, stunted growth and general weakness as a result of malnutrition.
On October 20, 2011, Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories had urged the Israeli Government to adopt guidelines for the protection of Palestinian children in line with international humanitarian principles and human rights standards. In his report, Falk notes the case of a three-year old girl who was taken from her home at 3 a.m. and threatened at gun point: “She was told that she would be shot and her family home destroyed unless she revealed the whereabouts of her brother,” said Mr. Falk, “and now, her mother explained, she can’t sleep through the night and bedwets.”
Treatment of children and adolescents under detention contravenes Israel’s democratic principles and contributes to the perpetuation of the Middle East conflict and the search for peace in the region.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.