To Israelis a Child Is a Child, Unless He Is a Palestinian

The separation of migrant kids from their parents in the United States caused outrage, but for decades Palestinian children have faced detention away from their homes

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File photo: Israeli soldiers detaining a Palestinian child in Hebron, 2014
File photo: Israeli soldiers detaining a Palestinian child in Hebron, 2014Credit: AFP

Trump has come down from the tree. Horrifying pictures and numbers of children separated from their parents and penned in cages did the trick. Hundreds of thousands of Americans signed manifestos and joined demonstrations, refusing to ignore the situation and get on with their lives at a time when their beloved country treats children inhumanely. The moral line was drawn and reemphasized: Children are a red line that is not to be crossed.

Time will pass and the shock from this affair will fade away, and only the children who were torn away from their parents and experienced this trauma will continue to carry the wound in their souls for years.

In Israel people didn’t remain indifferent either: We are a nation that loves children, and the sight of children in cages gave us no rest either. Children’s rights are enforced here zealously and justly, and many fields – especially by welfare, education and health – are even more meticulous about observing them. Our children are our most precious possession, personally and collectively.

And in spite of that, there are children who are unable to touch the hearts of Israeli Jews: Palestinian children. At any given moment, hundreds of Palestinian children are filling the prisons and the interrogation facilities, beaten and humiliated, isolated and thrown into cages. And still the Israelis are not taking a stand nor mobilizing to change the situation.

After all, we all know that these are not thousands of ticking bombs, and that most are children accused of participating in demonstrations or throwing stones. Some of them were walking along a street where stones were thrown and “someone saw them,” wore a green shirt or had the misfortune of being born in the wrong village and to the wrong family. The absolute majority of the detainees have no idea why they were seized from their home in the middle of the night (and, according to studies by human rights organizations, violently, and with additional harm caused to other children living in the house), and why they were brutally dragged to the military jeep and thrown to the floor.

The numbers are alarming: At any moment there are hundreds of Palestinian minors in the detention centers, prisons and interrogation facilities. Some are under administrative detention. In 2017 alone, the United Nations documented 185 instances of abuse of minors in detention – widespread and consistent abuse, which goes far beyond keeping them in a cage far from their parents:

After being seized from their beds in the middle of the night (Israel doesn’t believe in summoning Palestinian children for investigation in an orderly manner, by means of summonses), the children are taken with their hands tied behind their backs, often painfully. They are blindfolded for hours on end (an activity that adversely affects orientation and creates a petrifying fear of violence that sometimes does in fact arrive). They experience physical violence, threats, curses and humiliation. They are subject to body searches while naked. In a large percentage of cases they are denied sleep, food, drink and access to toilets. Sometimes they are left in painful positions for a long period of time, sent back and forth for hours on end among various facilities, and are subject to the good graces of the soldiers and policemen who are holding them.

While the children are being violently tormented, their parents often have no idea where their child is and what is happening to him. Only when the child is registered in some police station, hours after the detention begins, does the information appear on one of the computers, and even that is very hard to come by, due to problems of language and access.

The children usually receive treatment reserved for terrorists, and nobody stops for a moment to think – just a moment, this is a child! Nor do the military courts show mercy to schoolchildren. The former president of the West Bank Military Court of Appeals, Col. Aharon Mishnayot, noted that the protections that Israeli law grants to minors don’t apply to Palestinians in the West Bank, and that there are lacunae in the military law when it comes to minors. Still “a minor is a minor is a minor.” This refreshing but vague ruling recognizes that minors are a population that deserves special protection from abuse.

But in spite of the proper rhetoric, Mishnayot (like his fellow military judges) cooperated daily with the usual system – the one that dragged frightened children into his court, children whose confessions are often taken after abuse, humiliation and threats, without the presence of parents or a lawyer, and without their knowing what they are signing. (The confession is usually written in Hebrew.) This is a system that is meant to guarantee convictions, and that sometimes puts children into interrogation rooms without any evidence against them, but ensures that they will leave them after signing a confession or acting as an informant.

In addition, the military courts don’t really treat the children as minors deserving protection: They sweepingly recommend that the children be detained until the conclusion of proceedings against them. Lawyers and parents are well aware of this pattern, and because they are in a race against time to minimize the physical and emotional damage to the child, and are determined to bring their child home as quickly as possible, they agree willy-nilly to plea bargains in which the pleas are not necessarily true and the bargains are certainly not just.

A country is supposed to promote the welfare of children, and not to subvert the principle of the best interest of the child, which is integral to the Israeli justice system. Denying their freedom should be a last resort and a practice reserved for very rare and exceptional cases. There must be an end to the common practice of detaining Palestinian children, and a start to the promotion of the welfare of all children.

The writers are members of the NGO Parents Against Child Detention, which works to stop the detention of children in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem.

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