Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948, the detention of children has been characteristic of the military measures taken to govern the occupied territories. Military emergency laws do not take the age, race or religion of the indigenous population into consideration. All of them have been covered by martial law and prosecuted at military courts under emergency laws, which violate human rights and the privacy of groups such as children and women, who have been treated as fighters and fedayeen (militants), both in terms of the circumstances of their detention and the conditions of their detention inside prisons. The courts do not regard them as civilians but treat them as military fighters, and the terms of their detention are consequently much harsher.
According to data from the Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees, the occupation authorities have arrested more than 7,000 children since 2000, most of whom reached the age of majority in captivity and have still not been released. The number of child prisoners in 2018 is approximately 350. They are held in juvenile prisons under poor living conditions. They are systematically abused and often blackmailed to cooperate with the Israeli intelligence services. This is according to recently released children, who said that security officers often asked them to work as informants in return for a reduction in their sentences or better living conditions.
Speaking about a fellow child prisoner, Rauf Sunubar testified as follows: “Interrogation was violent; [officers] threatened to have his mother and sister detained; and they pressed hard on a head injury he had sustained one year earlier when an Israeli bullet entered his head and he was seriously wounded. The child made confessions under duress and signed a statement written in Hebrew, which he did not understand. Consequently, he was convicted in court and sentenced to 30 months in prison. The same child added that, a few weeks before his release, he was brought from his detention place to meet an Israeli intelligence officer. He was told his financial situation would improve and his injury would be treated if he cooperated and worked as an informant for the Israeli security services.”
A number of children accepted such offers, causing them many social and security problems after their release because they were accused of being agents of the occupation. They were consequently rejected and excluded by their society, adding to the problems and complications that they and their families suffer.
These methods and circumstances have been confirmed by multiple humanitarian and human rights organizations that have examined the prison conditions and gathered numerous testimonials from former child prisoners.
Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP) has affirmed that Israeli military courts enforce the same laws against children under 18 that are applied to adults. In its report to the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People, DCIP said that the arrest, trial, torture and investigation of children is widespread and systematic. The report is based on sworn affidavits by nearly 108 children who were arrested at different times.
In an interview with Fanack Chronicle, Jamil Saadah, a lawyer at the Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees, said, “The occupation authorities are systematically repressing detained children, who are … often taken from their homes at night by large military forces and in a fierce manner that results in complicated psychological effects on these children. The interrogation is conducted in a violent manner, as happened with child prisoner Ahmad Manasirah and others, according to leaked footage of violent interrogations and barbaric arrest conditions.”
He added: “Israeli military courts deal with children in the West Bank in accordance with military laws. They circumvent international laws by delaying verdicts until the children reach 18, so the children are tried as adults, irrespective of the age at which they committed the act for which they were prosecuted. The courts hand down severe sentences against the children and impose large fines on them too.”
The total fines imposed by military courts on children under 18 are estimated at 660,000 shekels ($189,000) in 2018 alone. The investigation that precedes the convictions also involve major human rights violations. Children are intimidated, shackled and detained for long periods without being given access to a lawyer, and they are subjected to physical and psychological pressure. Some children testified that they suffered verbal and sexual harassment, as was the case in the interrogation of Ahd al-Tamimi. Human Rights Watch mentioned this in a 2018 report on the situation in the occupied territories. According to the report, ‘Israeli security forces arrested Palestinian children suspected of criminal offences, usually stone-throwing, often using unnecessary force, and they questioned them without the presence of any family member, and made them sign confessions in Hebrew, which most did not understand. The Israeli military detained Palestinian children separately from adults during remand hearings and military court trials, but they often detained children along with adults immediately after arrest.’
In an interview, a number of senior prisoners and freed leaders of the Palestinian Prisoners Movement affirmed that the conditions experienced by detained children, including those related to education, have undergone some improvements. However, the occupation authorities did not make these improvements for humanitarian reasons. Rather, they were forced to do so by the female prisoner movement, which staged several hunger strikes and took other steps to pressure the prison administration and Israeli government to make positive changes. Even so, the prison administration tries to fabricate excuses to deny prisoners these improvements whenever they can.
In an attempt to improve its local and international image, Israel has claimed to observe human rights laws, saying that it detains children in acceptable human and ethical conditions, exploiting incomplete facts about the actual situation. This was the case with child prisoner Ahd al-Tamimi, who said in a video that she was playing and having fun with other inmates. The government presented the statements as applying to all prisons and claimed that psychological and physical torture does not exist in prisons. However, prisoners have denied the claims.
“We would be punished collectively if we wanted to play against the will of the jailer. The jailer would cut off the power at the section, or the rooms would be closed and we would be deprived of the morning walk as well,” said child prisoner Fadi Washahah in an interview with Fanack.
Despite Israel’s attempts to promote its humanitarian treatment of child prisoners, monitoring of these children after their release clearly shows the dire conditions that they experienced in prison as well as the psychological and social effects they suffer after their liberation due to the systematic procedures applied to destroy their self-esteem.