A group of Israeli parents mark International Day for the Rights of the Child by raising awareness of the conditions of Palestinian minors in Israeli custody.
For the majority of Israelis, stories of mass arrests of Palestinians in the occupied territories are nothing new. And yet, the Israeli mainstream rarely hears about Palestinian children who are routinely rounded up from their beds in the middle of the night and taken into detention. That’s why on Tuesday, which marked International Day for the Rights of the Child, a group of Israeli activists read testimonies by Palestinian minors arrested by Israeli security forces in the heart of Tel Aviv.
The event was organized by a group named “Parents Against Child Arrests,” who seek to raise public awareness over the issue of child arrests. Nirith Ben-Horin, a social worker and mother of two, says she decided to act after realizing that these kinds of arrests are a routine matter in the occupied territories.
“I am a social worker, I work with families who make such a great effort to stay together,” says Ben-Horin. “The thought of tearing apart a child from his home, from his parents, from the safety of the world he knows, and doing so without the understanding that this is a child we are talking about — it’s very difficult.”
“I felt that I could not stand aside and do nothing,” Ben-Horin said. “We began holding meetings once every two weeks to brainstorm and see what we could do. In June we opened up a Facebook page that we update with testimonies provided by Hamoked — Center for the Defense of the Individual. We also work with Military Court Watch, which takes testimonies from minors after they are released and publish them in English and Arabic.”
According to statistics provided to B’Tselem by the Israel Prison Service, at the end of August 2018, 239 Palestinian minors were being held as “security prisoners” in Israeli jails, including three in administrative detention. Under administrative detention, detainees are held indefinitely without charge or trial — and with out any way to defend themselves — on the basis of secret evidence. Such orders can be renewed indefinitely for up to six months at a time.
“Our primary goal is to raise awareness over this issue in Israel and internationally, and to create pressure on the legal, military, and political establishment to bring about a change in policy,” Ben-Horin continues. “We believe that because these are minors, it is possible to reach the heart of the Israeli community.”
What kind of responses did you get from passersby in Tel Aviv?
“People were mostly surprised to hear about just how widespread the phenomenon is, about the fact that hundreds of children are arrested every year, and the ways in which they are detained: nighttime arrests without alerting the parents, without allowing the children to meet with lawyers. Using sleep prevention, withholding food, interrogations after hours of being held, signing confessions in Hebrew, and more.
“I think the most absurd aspect is the way minors are released from custody. Many times they are released in the middle of the night at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere. They are forced to walk kilometers by themselves, scared to death. Why should they be forced to undergo that? I don’t have an answer.”
“Most of the minors are arrested for stone throwing, taking parts in disturbances, demonstrations, etc.” says Attorney Daniel Shenhar, who heads Hamoked’s legal department. “We often see minors arrested in order to get information on other minors. [The army] focuses on one village or neighborhood, arresting many minors who did not necessarily take part in anything. This is a way to extract information while at the same time letting them know who’s boss.”
The army, says Shenhar, also uses the arrests to put pressure on family members. “If come to arrest someone and cannot find him, they arrest someone else — including minors — until the person they are looking for turns himself in.”
What happens after you receive a phone call from the family?
“The family reaches out to us to locate the minor. Many times soldiers come in the middle of the night; they take the child, and don’t tell the family why or where they are taking him/her. They just take them and go. There are rare cases in which the father is asked to accompany the minor to the police station. When they arrive the police forbid the father from entering. He goes back home and the child disappears.
“Then there are arrests that take place during protests. The soldiers arrest the minors on the spot, he or she does not return, and the family becomes worried.
“Once we get the call, we badger the army to try and understand exactly where the minor is. After we locate the child, we do not provide him or her with legal representation, but we do sometimes send an attorney to take affidavits on the arrest process, what took place during the detention, how they were led in the jeep from their home. Sometimes there are several stages: the minor is transferred to an IDF base for a few hours, they undergo a medical examination and an interrogation, and then are taken to detention facilities in Ofer and Megiddo. If we hear about violence or abuse we can file a complaint, depending on the wishes of the minor and the family.”
What kind of legal recourse can protect these minors?
“Israeli law is very comprehensive when it comes to minors, granting them protections during interrogation and detention. The problem is that the law does not apply to Palestinian minors from the West Bank who are subject to military law.
“Another problem is that the Geneva Convention and the laws of occupation do not specify the rights of minors in detention and interrogation. There are general provisions that, when the convention was drafted, did not consider mass arrests of minors. We have international human rights law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which include clear statements regarding the rights of minors, but Israel claims that these treaties do not apply. It turns out that these minors are in a kind of limbo.
“The military courts talk about adopting Israel’s laws relating to minors, yet the treatment these minors receive is unacceptable. In practice, the laws do not apply to them. Some of them also undergo Shin Bet interrogations in isolation or tied to a chair. The only thing the police are careful about is not to interrogate them at night. However, many times they are arrested in the middle of the night, so they are forced to wait for hours, and the interrogation takes place in the morning after they have not slept or eaten.”
Is there a large gap between the manner in which minors are detained inside Israel and the West Bank?
“The gap is huge. In Israel itself, security forces do not burst into homes in the middle of the night, minors are not disappeared without the parents knowing where they are being taken, there are no violent interrogations without the presence of an adult. There are also significant differences in the criminal proceedings. Under Israeli law, minors have far more protections.”
And where is the international community in all this?
“This issue is on the international agenda, but like all the issues related to the occupation, Israel has learned to deal with it. The government boasts about its cosmetic changes, such as the establishment of military juvenile courts, or providing special training to police investigators. They want to show that they are trying to shorten detention periods, but there is no real discussion about why these minors are arrested in the hundreds.”
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.