The number of Palestinian minors being held in Israeli prisons has soared following the wave of violence that started last October.
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Figures submitted by the Israel Prison Service show that the number of Palestinian minors imprisoned for security-related offenses rose from 170 last September to 438 in February. Some 54 percent of the prisoners, 238, are in custody until the end of the legal process against them. Seven have been detained without being charged, including one who is not yet 16.
Human rights groups say that locking up minors infringes on their rights and increases the chances of their returning to violence or terrorist activity.
While no Palestinian youths younger than 14 were held in prison last September, by February five were incarcerated, including one girl. The number of prisoners aged 16-18 rose from 143 to 324, while the number of prisoners aged 14-16 rose from 27 to 98.
The figures show the growing involvement of girls in violent activity. While only one Palestinian girl was serving a prison sentence in September, 12 girls were in prison by February, including one younger than 14 and six others who were detained until the end of legal proceedings.
The minors are mostly being held in the Ofer, Megiddo and Hasharon prison facilities. All the young girls are being held in Hasharon Prison. Prisoners who commit security-related offenses do not receive rehabilitation sessions, since the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority deals only with criminal prisoners, by law.
Although most minors being held are not associated with any terror organization, 18 of them declared that they belonged to the Palestine Liberation Organization. One minor said he belonged to Hamas and another to Islamic Jihad.
Most of the minors, 106, came from Hebron, with a further 104 from East Jerusalem and 86 from Ramallah.
Itamar Barak, a data coordinator from the B’Tselem human rights nonprofit, criticized Israel’s policy of jailing minors. “This is an oppressive system based only on incarceration. There is no attempt to provide alternatives to imprisonment,” he said.
“The question is what a 14- or 16-year-old who spends a year in prison with security prisoners learns about life, the world and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It only sends them back to the cycle of violence,” he added.
Barak warned of Israel’s expanding use of detaining minors without charging them for any offense or putting them on trial – a measure rarely used until recently. “We must ask ourselves, What great danger is posed by a 16-year-old boy that required imprisoning him without trial?” he said.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel also criticized the tactic. The nonprofit published a report in February, Arrested Childhood, about the repercussions of policy and legislation changes on minors suspected of security offenses such as stone throwing and disturbance.
“The main, possibly only thing the state considers is deterring the minors, not rehabilitating them and making them abandon violence,” finds the report, written by attorneys Nisreen Alyan and Meytal Russo. “This troubling practice is contrary to the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and infringes on the instructions and principles of Israeli law.
“Beyond that, it is doubtful if this harsh policy achieves its goal – deterrence,” they wrote.
The attorneys based their conclusions on a Prison Service study, which showed that the lower the prisoner’s age, the higher his chance of returning to crime. The study, focusing on prisoners who were released in 2008, found that 75 percent of those incarcerated as minors would return to prison later in life.
According to figures the Prison Service gave to the advocacy group Adalah in January, out of 437 minors who were jailed then for security offenses, 431 were Palestinian – including 45 Israeli citizens and 101 East Jerusalem residents. The remaining six underage prisoners were suspected of being involved in Jewish terrorism.
Adalah added these figures to the petition it filed to the High Court of Justice last week against the law that denies social benefits to parents of minors convicted of security offenses. The law was passed last November as part of the government’s effort to combat the stone-throwing incidents, which involved mainly minors.
The petitioners, which include Hamoked – the Center for the Defense of the Individual, the human rights group Addameer and the Israel Association for Child Protection, say that denying social benefits is discrimination on the basis of nationality, as it applies almost exclusively to Palestinian children. They claim that separating the prisoners who were imprisoned for security offenses from others also constitutes discrimination.
The law also infringes on the basic right to live in dignity by denying the parents child allowance for a convicted child, the petitioners say. The law doesn’t take into account whether the offense was light or serious; for how long the minor was sent to prison; and the circumstances of the incident. It also doesn’t consider the circumstances of the child’s family, which will be impacted by the denial of its social benefits, they say.