In Israeli civilian courts, detention is always a last resort for a minor. But when it comes to Palestinian minors in Israeli military courts, prison is almost guaranteed.
Israeli authorities have dedicated significant effort in recent years to highlighting the improvements allegedly made in the treatment of Palestinian minors within Israeli military courts in the West Bank.
Among the ostensible achievements are the establishment a juvenile court in the military court system, allowing for the increased involvement of parents in the military justice system, decreasing the length of time a child can be detained before being brought before a judge, and even an abandoned experiment of issuing summonses to Palestinian minors instead of sending an invading force of soldiers to arrest them in their homes in the middle of the night — the common practice today.
A report published by Israeli human rights group B’Tselem on Tuesday argues that these so-called improvements have improved very little. The juvenile military court system system, which uses the tactic of denying bail to pressure over 70 percent of juvenile defendants and their families into accepting plea bargains, has a startling conviction rate that exceeds 95 percent.
The military juvenile courts do not come close to conforming to international standards and conventions signed and implemented by Israel, according to the B’Tselem report. And Israel’s treatment of Palestinian minors contrasts starkly with the treatment Israeli children receive in Israel’s separate, civilian juvenile justice system.
The Israeli army prosecuted 1,046 Palestinian minors in 2014 and 2015, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. More than a quarter of those indictments were of children 15 and under. Already in the first two months of 2018, the army arrested 274 Palestinian minors who were thrust into the military court system, according to Palestinian human rights group Addameer.
One of the most disturbing differences between the Israeli civilian and military juvenile justice systems is that in the Israeli system, arrest and pre-conviction detention is supposed to be a last resort; other options are to be exhausted before resorting to imprisonment. In the military system, to which Palestinian children are subjected, pre-conviction detention (denying bail) is the rule; there are virtually no alternatives to detention, and exceptions are extremely rare.
What this means is that Palestinian minor defendants are faced with the following choice: fight the charges and remain in prison for the duration of their trial or sign a plea deal and get a reduced sentence. Considering the time spent in prison awaiting trial, however, even defendants likely to be acquitted still might spend more time behind bars than if they had just signed a plea deal.
One of the testimonies collected by B’Tselem and published in the new report describes what the system looks like from the perspective of a Palestinian teenager:
Abed Sabah, a 15-year-old from the Jalazun refugee camp near Ramallah, was arrested last August. Soldiers broke into his house at 3:00 a.m. without explaining why. He was handcuffed and blindfolded. According to Abed’s testimony, soldiers beat and cursed him during the drive from his home to the military base. He was detained for several hours overnight at the base, handcuffed and tied to a wooden post outside, forbidden from going to the bathroom. The soldiers took him to a police station in the morning. In the interrogation room, he was questioned about stone-throwing and a pipe bomb. The interrogator permitted him to call his parents but not a lawyer. The interrogator never explained Abed’s rights to him, particularly his right to remain silent.
During this first interrogation, the interrogator pressured Abed to confess to the crimes of which he was accused, saying that it would help him. Abed refused. The interrogator wanted Abed to sign two documents in Hebrew, which Abed did not understand and refused to sign. Abed was then moved to the cell for minors at Ofer Prison, and then to the military court there. The entire ordeal was less than 12 hours — but 12 hours during which he was completely alone. There was no one waiting for him in court either — neither his parents nor a lawyer. Abed said he did not know what the purpose of the hearing was, and when the hearing was over, he was sent back to prison.
Two months later he was brought back to court. A lawyer told him he wanted to sign a deal that would include a sentence of two-and-a-half months — exactly the amount of time Abed had already spent in prison. And so it was. Abed’s parents paid a fine of NIS 2,000, and Abed received another five months of probation. At 7:00 p.m. that night, Abed was informed that he was being released. His brother was waiting for him outside of the prison, but the Israeli authorities instead released him at the Ben Sira checkpoint, where no one waiting. Abed said he used a waiting cab driver’s phone to call his brother, who came and took him home.
So what about the improvements Israel has made? B’Tselem addresses them one by one.
Did the decision to require bringing minors before a judge sooner actually change the length of time they spend in pre-conviction detention? First of all, remand and bail hearings are not held in the new juvenile military court, so considerations of the child’s wellbeing are rarely raised — the use of detention as a first resort, as opposed to a last resort, has not changed. Secondly, seeing a judge sooner and more frequently has not led to any discernible reduction in the amount of time spent in detention or the ease with which the courts deny bail, according to the report.
Did the change allowing a greater role for defendants’ parents in the juvenile military court system lead to an improvement in advocacy for the child and their best interests? According to B’Tselem, however, the change is almost entirely symbolic, and parental involvement remains minimal. Parents do not have the right to be present during their children’s interrogation, nor does the army actually update parents on the details of their child’s detention.
The biggest problem is that none of the changes have affected the way Palestinian juveniles are arrested, interrogated, and remanded to custody without bail. As long as the system is designed to churn out confessions that lead to plea deals — and the protections for those earlier stages of custody remain unimplemented — reforms to the trial system inside the new juvenile courts will remain virtually moot. Palestinian children rarely stand trial and the merits and circumstances of their confessions are never critically reviewed by a judge.
Yael Marom is Just Vision’s public engagement manager in Israel and a co-editor of Local Call, where a longer version of this article first appeared in Hebrew. Read it here.