Who protects Palestinian children from the police?

Three East Jerusalem children wait for hours in an Israeli police station — their parents aren’t notified and their lawyer isn’t allowed to speak with them. The case exposes a gaping black hole in the laws regulating the treatment of minors and their representation by public defenders in Israel.

By Alma Biblash and Michael Salisbury-Corech

Israeli police arrest a protester during the second day of protests that followed the kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian teenager, East Jerusalem, July 3, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)
Israeli police arrest Palestinian minors, East Jerusalem, July 3, 2014. (Photo by Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills.org)

Israeli police arrested three children — 10, 11 and 13 years old — in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan last Thursday evening on suspicion of throwing stones. Undercover officers arrested them and took them to the Shalem police station, next to the Old City.

Under Israeli law, children under the age of 12 are not criminally culpable and it is illegal to keep them in custody or to interrogate them. Contrary to what the law says, police did not notify the children’s parents about their arrest, and when they arrived at the police station after neighbors informed them of the arrests, officers prevented them from entering the station and getting information on their children.

“The kids went to pick figs. Two undercover officers came and took them to a police car,” recalled Muhammad Adib, the uncle of one of the boys who waited for them outside the police station. “It happens every day — they arrest children here like that. Two hours later, when the parents were worried and didn’t know what happened, one of the neighbors told them they were arrested.”

“The police didn’t notify us before that,” Adib continued. “It’s becoming a situation in which undercover officers come through our neighborhood and arrest children all of the time.”

An attorney called the police station and asked to speak with the children in order to give them legal advice — police refused. Thus, three children were held in the police station for three full hours without seeing an attorney or their parents. Only after local activists began arriving at the police station and members of the press asked the police spokesperson for comment did the officers allow the attorney to enter the police station.

A long time passed before police released the children, first the two young ones, and the “big” one only after interrogating him. It was 10 p.m., despite the fact that Israeli law only permits the interrogation of minors under the age of 14 until 8 p.m., aside from exceptional cases.

‘They went to pick figs.’ The father and uncle of two of the minors who were arrested, at the Jerusalem police station. (Michael Salisbury-Corech)
‘They went to pick figs.’ The father and uncle of two of the minors who were arrested, at the Jerusalem police station. (Michael Salisbury-Corech)

The primary mechanism for protecting arrested children is the public defender. In certain circumstances, and when there is no private attorney, a public defender shows up at the police station and in court to provide legal representation. In addition to its great public importance, the Public Defender’s Office in Israel is also a very professional body, which provides responsible, sensitive and quality legal representation.

Without the ability to provide appropriate representation for their children, however, parents find themselves helpless in face of the system. Even those who know the law — which limits the arrests and interrogation of children and obligates police to notify a child’s parents and allow them to be present during any interrogation — do not always manage to overcome the clenched fists and contemptuous smiles of the police. That is exactly where public defenders are critical, not only in defending minors’ rights, but also their bodies and souls.

The Public Defender’s Office’s mandate, however, only legally allows them to provide representation in police stations for arrestees. So what about those who are only being detained? Or even worse, somebody who is under the age of criminal culpability and whom police aren’t even allowed to officially arrest? Here we have a gaping black hole in the Public Defender’s mandate. That is how three children were illegally kept in custody in a police station last Thursday — without any public defender.

This story, like may others we have encountered in recent years, raises difficult questions about the public and moral responsibility resting on the shoulders of the Public Defender’s Office. In light of the terrible situation in East Jerusalem in which arrests of children are a daily, familiar phenomenon, perhaps it is time for the Public Defender to rise up on its hind legs and demand the broadening of its authority, or at least to demand that a serious discussion be held on the matter.

It is estimated that some 800 children are arrested each year in East Jerusalem, some of the them under the age of criminal culpability, and whose legally guaranteed rights are regularly denied. The Israel Police long ago started treating the law regulating the treatment of minors as a series of toothless recommendations.

The Public Defender’s Office issued the following response:

The law only allows the Public Defender to represent minors when they are under arrest or are about to be arrested. Police are obligated to inform the Public Defender of every minor who is arrested and who will be interrogated. Regarding minors who are under the age of criminal culpability (12 years old), the police do not have the authority to arrest them at all, and the police must inform Social Services of their interrogation.

Nevertheless, when we receive information on the interrogation of a minor under the age of criminal culpability we do everything in our power in order to put an end to their detention in the police station. Regarding the case mentioned in the article, the head of the youth division of the Jerusalem district received information from a third party about the minors’ interrogation.

The information was received around 7 p.m., after which a number of attempts were made to verify the information by contacting the Israel Police and personally contacting the youth investigations [division of the police]. Despite the many attempts, no details were received of an arrest or interrogation of minors. It is very regrettable that the Israel Police did not carry out legal orders and did not inform the Public Defender of the arrest as required.

Jerusalem Police responded that, “the three were caught ‘red handed’ while they were throwing stones toward a group of tourists. The three were brought to the police station, where their age became clear. Attempts were made to locate their parents, who arrived after hearing about the arrest[s]. The minors, aged 11.5, were released with [sic] their parents and a report about them was sent to Social Services, whereas the 13.5-year-old minor was interrogated under caution in the presence of his parents.”

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where both of the authors are bloggers. Read it here.

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