In the West Bank, there is no justice, even for children

Hundreds of Palestinian minors were arrested for weeks and even months by Israel in the last five years. Those children – including 34 of them under the age of 14 – were tried in military courts. Only one was acquitted. A new report by human rights NGO B’tselem shed light on one of the occupation’s most horrifying aspects

In the West Bank, there is no justice, even for children

As part of its annoying habit of shedding light on parts of the occupation most Israelis would prefer to know nothing about, B’tselem published yesterday morning a report about the arrest of minors in the West Bank. Most Israeli media preferred highlighting a dry statistic: In the last five years, the occupation forces indicted 835 Palestinian minors for stone throwing; just one of them was acquitted. This rate of acquittal is low even when compared to that of the Israeli criminal justice system, which convicts 998 accused people out of 1,000.

The military justice system – which famously bears the same relation to justice as military music to music – is biased against its detainees even more than the Israeli one. Minors suspected of throwing stones are, as a rule, detained until the end of the process, which can last two years. The minors and their lawyers – some of them, B’tselem found, show a distinct lack of interest in their clients – face a dilemma: Most trials, as in Israel, end in a plea bargain. A minor who pleads guilty, even if he did not commit the crime, will be out of prison faster than if he insists on trial and manages to clear himself; Choosing the bargain may lead to his release on the same day. All too often, the prison terms of minors is the sum of days they were already imprisoned, particularly if they are under the age of 14. Rashid ‘Awadi, aged 15, received an offer he couldn’t refuse from his lawyer: Plead, and get a reduced sentence. The prosecution claimed it could produce a soldier who saw ‘Awadi throwing stones, but finding the soldier and dragging him to the witness bench would take eight months, which ‘Awadi would spend in prison. ‘Awadi pled guilty, and was out in a month.

In one extraordinary case, extraordinary in that there was an actual trial and in that the minors involved were released on bail after “only” 27 days in custody, the military prosecution retracted an indictment against eight boys. This happened after their lawyer proved that the soldiers testifying against them lied. The soldiers claimed they arrested the boys near a road, but the lawyer threatened to bring forth witnesses who will prove they were arrested within their school, and that they were in class when the stones were allegedly thrown. The prosecution retracted the indictment, which was bit too late for grown man who was already convicted on the false testimony of the same soldiers, and who spent eight months in prison.

How do the trials take place? Well, for starters they are held in Hebrew, which neither the accused nor their family understands; they are forced to rely on interpreters, whose work is sometimes shoddy. In a large number of cases, when minors are brought before a judge for their bail hearing, they don’t know they are entitled to lawyer – and even if they did, for obvious reasons they would be hard-pressed to hire one. In rare cases, the court appoints them one – which is standard practice in any self-respecting justice system. Not that bail is likely; Most motions are denied. DCI, which represents Palestinian detainees, found that the rate of accepted bail motions is 23% among minors. Even in such cases, some minors were not discharged, since they could not post bail. Anyone denied bail is detained until the end of process. Unless, of course, they confess.

In the years 2005-2010, 34 people aged 12-14 were prosecuted; Some 255 defendants were aged 14-15; and 546 defendants were aged 16-17. B’tselem also found that, contrary to law, the IDF detained two minors younger than 12, which is the age of criminal responsibility. These two cases were documented by B’tselem volunteers, so there may be others. In one of those cases, that of nine-year old Mahmoud ‘Alameh, the officer who arrested him and drove him from the place, handcuffed and blindfolded, informed the people of his village the child will be released only if stone throwing from that village ends. In clearer words, an IDF officer kidnapped a nine-year old child and held him hostage. ‘Alameh was held by the IDF gunmen for five hours, without any contact with his parents, even though his father was nearby and begged to see him. The incident may well have lasted longer, if not for the heavy pressure brought to bear by B’tselem. The spokesman of the division did not deny the incident, but claimed the child was held because they considered fining his father, which they then decided against.

This, however, is the most visible part of the system, the part which is exposed to some light, dim as it may be. The arrest and the interrogation themselves are something else. In a majority of the cases – 30 out of 50 minors interviewed by B’tselem – the arrest is carried out, contrary to regulation, at night. You may note that there are precious few stone-throwing incidents at night, so the forces are not in any immediate danger. The minors are routinely handcuffed and blindfolded, though they do not show resistance. (Myself, I always wondered about the blindfolding: We were told it was for “field security” reasons, but there are very few Palestinians who do not know where the local military base is).

Contrary to Israeli regulations, which stipulate that a minor will not be interrogated unless a parent or another adult known to the minor is present, this is not the case in most arrests in the West Bank. The psychological effect on a child, who was just abducted from his house by sometimes-hooded gunmen, is easy to imagine. Here is the testimony of Malek ‘Omar, aged 14, of Jalazun refugee camp:

On Thursday, 11 February 2010, about 01:15 in the morning, I was sleeping in my room with two of my brothers […] I woke up and saw a soldier standing over me. He nudged me with the barrel of his rifle. I was scared. He said: “Get up and get dressed, because we need you a bit”. I was afraid because this was the first time I had ever seen an Israeli soldier so close up. I thought they wanted to search the house. I got up. The soldier ordered me to get dressed and I got dressed.

There were a few other soldiers with him who were masked. They spread out around the house. They had rifles with lights on. Two soldiers grabbed me by my armpits and took me outside. My father was with the soldiers when I was taken from my room. He gave them my birth certificate because I don’t have an ID card. I’m still under 15. [All Palestinians, and Israelis for that matter, are issued with ID cards at the age of 16, which they must carry at all times – YG]. I was born on 3 July 1995. My father told them, “He’s a minor, what do you want from him?”. The soldiers said: “We want him for a bit, half an hour. Then we’ll bring him back.” On my way out, I saw that the doors on the first floor had been broken. The soldiers took me outside and one of them tied my hands behind my back with plastic cuffs. They covered my eyes with a strip of cloth and then took me by foot to a place in the village, where there were other children who had been arrested.

A significant part of the arrest is separation between the minors and their parts, a separation which is a part of the interrogation, a technique intended to break the detainee, make him confess and incriminate other minors. Here is the testimony of U.A., aged 12:

The soldiers took us to Etzion and dropped us off in the yard. We sat on the ground, our hands cuffed and our eyes covered, for more than three hours. When they took us from the yard, I heard my father’s voice. He called to an officer. I saw him from under the blindfold. He was standing behind the main gate. Later, when they took us and other children to another place, far from the gate, I couldn’t see my father anymore, but I could hear him call to a soldier: “Soldier! Soldier!”

The report includes many more injustices, some smaller, some larger; but I think we should focus on these two testimonies. It shows how the occupation, which most of us prefer not to think about, looks on the ground: A 14-year old kid kidnapped from his bed, having his eyes blindfolded; a 12-year old sitting, handcuffed and blinded, listening to the pleads of the father – “Soldier! Soldier!” – which he cannot reach.

There will be people who will defend this abomination, as well. They will claim, correctly, that stone throwing may put lives at risk. They’ll have a harder time of it explaining why the arrests are carried out at night, why do we arrest minors when they are not remotely endangering lives, why those same protocols are not used against the children of their settler neighbours when they throw stones – not that anyone would wish that, children are children – and, above all, who needs all that. Yes, in the army enters an occupied town, it will be stoned. These arrests are a necessary result of Israeli occupation. They are a part of its price. People who support its continuation, would do well to look directly at them.

Read more on this issue:

Hope ends here: The children’s court at Ofer Military Prison