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Children’s Lives in the Balance

With the news that the bodies of three missing Israeli teens had been found in a field not far from the stretch of road where they disappeared June 12, people everywhere reacted rightly with sorrow and anger.

Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, also 16, were students who lived with their families in a Jewish-only settlement near the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. The settlement and others like it have been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice because they are located in occupied territory and impede Palestinians’ liberty of movement and right to employment, health and education. However, they were youth just starting out on life, sons and brothers whose families will forever grieve their horrific deaths. We must all condemn such violence.

We must also condemn the collective punishment and violence unleashed by the government of Israel in response. To date, the Israeli police and military have broken into and ransacked 1,500 homes, businesses and schools in its rampage, arresting more than 550 residents.  More than half of the abducted individuals are being held without charge or trial, more than 100 have been injured and at least six have died – including a 14-year-old boy who was shot in the chest at point-blank range and a 78-year-old woman who suffered a heart attack during a house raid. As this article was written, the 680,000 residents of greater Hebron had been surrounded by angry troops and settlers, with ominous reports trickling out of death and mayhem.

Imagine if similar homicides occurred in your town. Despite the tragedy of the crimes and the desperate desire to find the perpetrators, would civilized society countenance the widespread ransacking of property, imprisonment of hundreds and the death of innocents? No, of course not. So why should it be considered an acceptable response among a population pushed to desperation by decades of military occupation?

To fully understand just what happened and why, an analysis must begin before the June 12 disappearance of the three teenagers, residents of a Jewish-only settlement near the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. Rather, it should start with April 23, when the two main Palestinian political factions, Fatah (which had governed the West Bank) and Hamas (which filled the same role for the Gaza Strip) announced formation of a unity government. While the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority has long cooperated with Israeli security forces, Hamas continues to actively resist Israel’s control over the Palestinian territory. The announcement of the reconciliation was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was enraged when the U.S. and other governments instead took a wait-and-see approach.

When the three Israeli teens disappeared, Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas, although it has reportedly denied responsibility, and launched a campaign to punish any person associated with the party, as well as those it wanted to target for other reasons (such as previously released prisoners). An informed observer cannot help but conclude that he seized on the personal tragedy of the families involved to pursue a broader political goal. Israel’s intention to “perform a root canal to uproot everything green [Hamas-related] in the West Bank” was announced on the national Army Radio, while Economy Minister Naftali Bennett promised to “turn membership of Hamas into an entry ticket to hell.” A high-ranking Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz  that the mass arrests are “a kind of thorough cleaning.” Israel, he said, had decided “to use the upcoming days to arrest anyone ‘infected’ with Hamas.” In one Israeli news source, an IDF officer even admitted that the operation had been planned ahead of time, and that its goal was not to find the boys, but provoke unrest.

With the discovery of the Israeli teens’ bodies, Israeli military and the settlers intensified the attack on Hebron and other towns, with a 17-year-old boy shot in the Jenin refugee camp. Renewing his vow that “Hamas will pay,” Netanyahu ordered an escalation of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip – more than 40 in just the first night, terrorizing the entire population of 1.8 million. Although the strikes in part are in retaliation for rockets shot into Israel by a faction that is not affiliated with Hamas, Netanyahu’s own words make the connection clear.

According to the prisoner advocacy group Addameer, about a quarter of the hundreds of arrested Palestinians are being placed in “administrative detention,” a procedure that allows the Israeli military to hold individuals indefinitely based on secret information without charging them or allowing them to stand trial.  Israel routinely uses administrative detention in violation of the strict parameters established by international law, claiming to be in a continuous state of emergency since its inception in 1948. In addition, says Addameer, administrative detention is frequently used – in direct contravention to international law – for collective and criminal punishment rather than for the prevention of future threat.

Children and youth are frequently targets. Defence for Children International has documented the killing of more than 1,400 Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers or settlers since 2000, of which only 40 were found to be active participants in hostilities. That’s the equivalent of one Palestinian child killed by an Israeli every three days for the past 13 years.

In addition, a report issued this week by the Euro-Mid Observer for Human Rights documents that 2,000-3,000 Palestinian minors have been seized and detained by Israeli forces every year for the last five years, an average of 200 a month, with some as young as 12.

“The Israeli police or military typically break into homes in the middle of the night or take youth right off the streets without telling them what they are charged with or informing their parents, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” said Ihsan Adel, legal advisor for Euro-Mid. “How is that different from the kidnapping of the Israeli students?  And yet it is occurring every day, every year. Where is the international outrage?”

The Euro-Mid report states that rarely are youth informed why they are being arrested – at least, not until they are interrogated, without counsel from parents or attorneys – often while shackled to chairs and deprived of sleep.  Yet article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (of which Israel is a signatory) states that youth and their parents must be informed of the reasons behind their detention, as well as allowed legal assistance.

UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights each have found that Israel bases its punishments on confessions that its interrogators coerce from children who are not represented by lawyers. Is it surprising that an estimated 95 percent of these children “confess”?

Children are not pawns, pieces to be used in a game for purposes of publicity or leverage. That’s true for Palestinians and doubly so for Israelis, who operate from a position of unequal power – that of occupier. It is important to note here that the United States is culpable as well for Israel’s actions as de facto military dictator: Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, to the tune of an unrestricted $3 billion a year. That must stop.

Perhaps no one has expressed these basic principles of humanity better than columnist Gideon Levy, a rare voice of self-criticism in Israel. In a recent column that has gotten very little exposure, he compared the cases of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the murdered Israeli boys and Mohammed Jihad Dodeen, the 14-year-old Palestinian killed during the Israeli mass arrests.

Levy wrote about the journey of Rachel Fraenkel, Naftali’s mother, to a meeting in Switzerland of the United Nations Human Rights Council. She told the group that “her Naftali is a good boy who loves to play guitar and soccer.” But, Levy observed, “Mohammed was also a good boy, who helped his father build their house during his school vacations and sold sweets to help support his family. Rachel wants to hug Naftali? Jihad, Mohammed’s bereaved father, also wants to hug his son. Incidentally, nobody brought him to Geneva. He remained alone with his mourning, at the wretched house whose construction hasn’t yet been finished, and perhaps never will be.”

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights group Global Exchange.

Pam Bailey is a freelance writer who has traveled extensively to the West Bank and Gaza.

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Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human right organization Global Exchange. Follow her on twitter at @MedeaBenjamin.

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