SYDNEY - A spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry has conceded that human rights abuses of Palestinian children in the West Bank are “intolerable” and that having soldiers arrest young kids in the middle of the night is problematic. The admissions by Yigal Palmor were contained in an investigative documentary produced by a team of Australian journalists and aired last night by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
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Titled “Stone Cold Justice,” the investigation alleged that some Palestinian children were being physically abused, forced into false confessions and targeted in order to gather intelligence on Palestinian activists.
The broadcast prompted local Jewish and Zionist leaders to accuse the Australian journalists of paying “insufficient attention” to the security difficulties faced by Israel and rehashing similar allegations published in 2011.
During the documentary, Palmor describes as “intolerable” the human rights abuses contained in last October’s UNICEF report, which concluded that Palestinian children have been “threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member.”
The maltreatment of Palestinian children appears to be “widespread, systematic and institutionalized,” the report found.
Palmor said: “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.”
Palmor also admitted that the nighttime arrests of Palestinian children by soldiers was problematic. “The question of the arrests is a question that needs to be addressed because once you send soldiers and not policemen to arrest people the whole attitude will be different,” he said. “So we need to train soldiers to behave as policemen and that is something that’s not so easy.”
But he defended allegations that Israel’s policy in the West Bank was to create fear. “A policy to create fear? There is no such thing,” he said. “The only policy is to maintain law and order, that’s all. If there’s no violence, there’s no law enforcement.”
Among the Israelis and Palestinians interviewed was a kid who claimed he was conned into signing a confession paper in Hebrew after he was told it was a release paper. Others claimed they’d been shot with rubber bullets, beaten, and threatened with electric shocks.
Some 700 Palestinian children appear before Israel’s military courts each year, with most accused of throwing stones, according to the report.
John Lyons, the Australian reporter for the program, also interviewed the mother of a 3-year-old Israeli girl suffering critical brain damage after their car was hit by rocks in the West Bank.
“Her 3-year-old child is basically still in hospital and it’s unlikely that she will recover from that event,” said Lt. Col. Maurice Hirsh, an Israeli army officer who oversees prosecutions. “That is terrorism.”
Robert Goot, the new president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, accepted that the program highlighted “disturbing issues” but accused it of paying “insufficient attention” to the difficulties faced by Israel.
The documentary noted that separate laws exist for Israeli and Palestinian children – civil law for the former, military law for the latter.
But Goot said: “Extending Israeli law to those non-Israeli residents of the West Bank would almost certainly be condemned as tantamount to annexation and therefore a violation of international law.”
Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, told Haaretz: “The issue of the treatment of Palestinian juveniles in the military court system raises a more fundamental question. Why have these teenage boys been recruited to participate in armed conflict? Should they not be attending school, instead of being exploited to use rocks as dangerous weapons, often with deadly repercussions?”
He said the military justice system for Palestinian children in the West Bank is “independent, open and transparent, [and] presided over by professional judges.”
But Chester added: “If it is objectively established that youth in detention are not being appropriately treated then Israel should improve its practices.”
Last month Justice Minister Tzipi LIvni ordered the practice of keeping some detainees - including minors - locked in outdoor cages overnight to be stopped. Israel has agreed to try issuing Palestinian children with a summons instead of being arrested at night, according to the documentary.
UPDATE: This article was amended to reflect the fact that the now-halted practice of holding detainees in outdoor cages involved Israeli citizens and not necessarily Palestinians.