By Gerard Horton
Lawyer Gerard Horton from Defence for Children International describes a pattern of abuse
Gerard Horton - Last month, a 13-year-old boy from a small village in the occupied West Bank woke up to the sound of loud banging on the front door of his family home - it was 3:00 am. Omar’s father answered the door and found heavily armed Israeli soldiers waiting outside. The soldiers asked for the family’s ID cards and then informed Omar’s father that they were taking his son, but without saying why or where. Omar was blindfolded and his hands were tied behind his back before being led outside to a waiting military vehicle and driven off into the night.
Omar was taken to the settlement of Ari’el. He was interrogated by two policemen and accused of throwing stones at settlers near his village. He denied the accusation but after several hours of interrogation, in which he was punched and slapped, he confessed. What happened to Omar is not unusual.
This month marks the 44th anniversary since the start of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory - an occupation in which arrest and detention are common. According to the UN, since June 1967 well over 700,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israeli security forces and prosecuted in military courts. One leading Israeli NGO described these courts as 'operating since the beginning of the occupation under virtually an absolute veil of darkness.’
A number of Israeli and Palestinian organisations have attempted to shed more light on what exactly is going on under this military regime since the publication of Yesh Din’s report in 2007. One organisation, Defence for Children International, focuses on children such as Omar, who is just one of around 700 minors, some as young as 12 years, prosecuted in military courts each year. Based on hundreds of sworn testimonies, a picture of systematic ill-treatment and punishment is emerging.
Like Omar, most children arrested in the West Bank live close to settlements, or roads predominantly used by settlers. This causes friction, and some children do throw stones at Israeli military vehicles and settlers. The question facing the Israeli army is this: How do you protect 300,000 Israelis living in illegal West Bank settlements (excluding East Jerusalem) from stone throwers when it is difficult to identify and catch those responsible? The army’s current solution is a policy of deterrence, using a mixture of intimidation and collective punishment – and here’s how it works.
Once an incident of stone throwing is reported, an assumption is made that the culprit comes from the nearest Palestinian village. A list of suspects is drawn up based on age, previous arrests and other intelligence sources. Several nights later, armed soldiers enter the village, round up the suspects – mostly consisting of children and young adults – bind and blindfold all of them, and take them away for interrogation.
Most children are interrogated at the police stations in the Ari’el and Gush Etzion settlement blocks. Having remained painfully tied and blindfolded for many hours, children enter the interrogation room alone and, not surprisingly, scared. They do not have access to legal counsel and are not accompanied by a parent. In all likelihood, parents will not even know where their child is being held.
What happens inside the interrogation room takes place without independent oversight, such as audio-visual recording. Based on hundreds of sworn testimonies collected by organisations like Defence for Children International, we now know that after removing the child’s blindfold – but leaving him tied by the hands – the interrogator will likely subject the child to a mix of physical and verbal abuse, as well as threats, in order to extract a confession. Most children do confess, and extraordinarily, around 30 percent of children are either shown, or forced to sign, documentation written in Hebrew – a language they do not understand.
Eight days later, the child will see his lawyer for the first time in the military court. The lawyer will generally advise the child to plead guilty, as this is the quickest way out of a system which denies children bail in 87 percent of cases. Currently, around two-thirds of arrested children are charged with throwing stones. Their sentence ranges between two weeks and 10 months in prison. In over half of the cases, children will serve this time in prisons located inside Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits transfers out of occupied territory. In practical terms, this makes family visits difficult, and in some cases, impossible.
In 2010, 'Breaking the Silence’, an organisation made up of ex-Israeli soldiers, published a report which includes 180 testimonies taken from soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. The report tends to confirm how the army operates and the intention behind it: 'At the foundation of the reasoning behind IDF activity rests the assumption that there is no need to distinguish between enemy civilians and enemy combatants ... systematic harm to Palestinians as a whole makes the Palestinian population more obedient and easier to control.’