A recently released Australian documentary titled “Stone Cold Justice” alleges that Palestinian children have been physically abused and forced into making false confessions by the Israeli military to gather intelligence on Palestinian activists.
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, declared in the documentary, “The natural reaction is that this is intolerable – these are intolerable cases, and that I would like my authorities to do their utmost to make sure that this will not be repeated and that this will change. And I believe that this is precisely what we are doing.”
Jewish leaders in Australia issued a blistering rebuke on what they called a “quasi-documentary.” They claimed that it was a “blanket demonization [of Israel] laced with sensationalism, inadequate skepticism and fact-checking.” An official in Israel’s armed forces debunked the allegations of torture contained in the documentary, and branded its director’s portrayal of the Israeli court system as “fictitious, blatant and malicious.”
The documentary comes after a 2013 UNICEF report entitled “Children in Israeli Military Detention,” which was sharply critical of Israel’s treatment of detained Palestinian children and youths. According to that report, 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.
A new UNICEF progress report states that, although some progress has been achieved, “violations are ongoing.” The progress report states that there were 19 sample cases of abuse of youths between 12 and 17 in the West Bank in the second quarter of 2013.
The details on mistreatment of Palestinian children and youths is the result of several years of information gathering by United Nations agencies. This information is regularly reported to the U.N. Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict.
Last June, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child confirmed the abuses against Palestinian children, including torture, solitary confinement and threats of death and sexual assault in prisons. “These crimes are perpetrated from the time of arrest, during transfer and interrogation, to obtain a confession but also on an arbitrary basis as testified by several Israeli soldiers,” the committee wrote.
The reported abuses of Palestinian children also confirm what the organization Breaking the Silence – which was founded by Israeli soldiers to expose human rights violations – has published in a report titled “Children and Youth, Soldiers Testimonies 2005-2011.”
In one of the testimonies, a first sergeant in the Nahal Brigade said, “On your first arrest mission you’re sure it’s a big deal, and it is actually bullshit. You enter the Abu Sneina [Hebron] neighborhood and pick up three children. After that whole briefing, you’re there with your bulletproof vest and helmet and stuck with that ridiculous mission of separating women and children. It’s all taken so seriously and then what you end up [with] is a bunch of kids, you blindfold and shackle them and drive them to the police station at Givat Ha’vot. That’s it, it goes on for months and you eventually stop thinking there are any terrorists out there, you stop believing there’s an enemy, it’s always some children and adolescents or some doctor we took out. You never know their names, you never talk with them, they always cry, shit in their pants.”
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.” Another clause notes that “[e]very 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, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, has stated: “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.”
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.
According to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, 7,000 children aged from 12 to 17 years, but sometimes as young as nine, have been arrested, interrogated and detained since 2002.
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 the Gaza Strip. Israel’s government had 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.
Israel’s government has declared its intention to continue working with UNICEF to address the issue of mistreatment of Palestinian children. However, treatment of children and adolescents under detention as it is carried out even now contravenes Israel’s democratic principles and contributes to the perpetuation of the Middle East conflict.
Cesar Chelala, a medical doctor, is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.