by Catherine Cook
Since the political process between Israel and the Palestinians was reinvigorated in May 2003, prisoners, including children, have been high on the Palestinian political agenda. With one of the highest per capita incarceration rates in the world at times according to Human Rights Watch, one would be hard pressed to find a Palestinian who has not either themselves, a family member or a friend been imprisoned by Israel. Although no mention of a prisoner release is made in the US backed initiative, which seeks a resolution of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict and the establishment of a Palestinian state, pressure from political factions and the Palestinian community as a whole has made it a priority for the Palestinian leadership.
Since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation (Intifada in Arabic) in September 2000, Israeli military forces have detained over 2,000 Palestinian children under the age of 18, some as young as 13 years. As of July 2003, approximately 350 were being held for interrogation, pending trial or while serving sentences issued by Israeli military courts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Of these, ten are girls, and at least 28 are under administrative detention, imprisonment without charge or trial. At various points during the past three year period, children have reached 10 percent of the total Palestinian political prisoner population, which currently stands at close to 6,000 prisoners.
In 1967, Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and established a system of military orders and courts designed to maintain Israel's control over the people, land, and resources of these areas. These military orders function as law and regulate the lives of Palestinians to the minutest detail. They are applied to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but not to Israeli settlers living in those areas.
During the course of its occupation, Israel has arrested thousands of Palestinian children. While no comprehensive data on child arrests exists, Palestinian prisoners' rights organizations estimate that Israel detained over 600,000 Palestinians between 1967 and 1998. Research examining the first Intifada (1987 _ 1993) estimates that, during the first two years, Israel arrested over two percent of Palestinian children between the ages of 9 and 17.
Sentenced children are charged with acts of resistance to Israel's occupation. The majority of these children are charged with throwing stones at Israeli military personnel and military installations in the OPT, or at Israeli settlers who have illegally colonized the West Bank and Gaza Strip. More serious charges include throwing `molotov cocktails', membership in a political group, and stabbing or attempting to stab Israeli soldiers or settlers in the OPT. Additionally, cases involving more serious charges, such as preparing violent attacks on civilians inside Israel, though previously rare among Palestinian children, have occurred with increasing frequency since 2002.
In addition to children who are charged, hundreds of Palestinian children have been arbitrarily detained for days at a time during mass arbitrary arrest campaigns the Israeli army has carried out since February 2002. These mass arrests are enabled by Military Order No. 1500 which allows the Israeli army to detain for a period of up to 18 days any Palestinian in the West Bank and Gaza Strip without charge. During this period the detainee can be prevented from meeting with a lawyer and does not appear before a court.
Affidavits gathered from Palestinian child prisoners outline a similar pattern of arrest, interrogation and incarceration. The experience endured by these children, and confirmed by human rights organizations, is characterized by widespread and systematic violations of international law, including of the instruments designed to safeguard the rights of children deprived of their liberty.
The Israeli military arrests children on the street, at checkpoints, or from their homes, often in the middle of the night. After arrest, they are handcuffed, blindfolded, and immediately taken to an interrogation center. The majority of Palestinian child prisoners report being subjected to some form of physical and psychological abuse from the moment of their arrest through interrogation. This abuse, which often amounts to torture, regularly includes sleep and food deprivation, threatening language, humiliation, beatings with batons, being punched and kicked, as well as being tied in painful and contorted positions for long periods of time (known as position abuse or shabeh in Arabic). The abuse frequently results in signed confessions that serve as justification for their prosecution through the military court system.
Children are almost uniformly denied access to a lawyer during the arrest and interrogation process. Defence for Children International/Palestine Section (DCI/PS), a child rights organization that has represented detained Palestinian children since 1992, reports that in 90 percent of cases, the first time a lawyer meets with a child client is during the first court hearing.
Sentence lengths have increased over the past three years, though the charge for which the majority of children are sentenced, stone throwing, has remained the same. According to DCI/PS, in 1999, 74 percent of cases received a sentence of six months in prison or less. By 2002, sentences of that time length had decreased to 40 percent, while approximately 30 percent received between six months to one year, and the remaining receiving sentences in excess of one year.
Sentenced children are detained in two types of prisons: those under the jurisdiction of the Israel Ministry of Public Security, in which Palestinian children under the age of 16 are held; and military prisons and camps controlled by the Israel Ministry of Defense, which hold children 16 and over. Israel's military order system considers Palestinians aged 16 and over as adults. Consequently, children in this age group held in military prisons are detained as adults. While there is a technical distinction afforded to Palestinian children detained in Ministry of Public Security prisons, in practice they are treated the same as adult political prisoners.
Conditions of detention for Palestinian child political prisoners are as abusive as the arrest and interrogation process. In addition to the fact of their imprisonment, many Palestinian children are housed in unhygienic facilities that fail to provide adequate light or ventilation. Others are housed in outdoor tent prisons where coping with the weather is a near constant battle. Lack of water, in some facilities, or leaks of various types, in others, leave prisoners either with inadequate water for cleaning and bathing, or with perpetually wet environs. Several of the facilities have inadequate toilet or bathing facilities, with child prisoners forced to use makeshift toilets dug in the ground or shower while standing over a toilet that also serves as a drain. Combined with these factors is the lack of essential services provided by the prison administrations, particularly with regard to food, medical care, and basic supplies. Forming the core of the prison experience, however, is a pattern of abusive mistreatment of Palestinian detainees by Israeli prisoners and prison guards.
Palestinian child prisoners receive formal education in only one of the five facilities in which they are imprisoned. However, the instruction covers only three subjects (Hebrew, Arabic, and Math), rather than the full curriculum taught in Palestinian schools. For most Palestinian child prisoners, the only access to education is through ad-hoc study groups and independent study. However, as the prison authorities frequently restrict the movement of educational materials into the prisons, the detainees have virtually no materials with which to work. The severe lack of education during imprisonment places those children who wish to continue their education upon release at an extreme disadvantage.
Conditions of detention have dramatically worsened since October 2000 with a massive increase in the numbers of Palestinians detained, often leading to overcrowded conditions, and harsher treatment by prison administration and staff. In Telmond facility, newly imprisoned children are forced to sleep on the floor as the prisoner population has exceeded the capacity of the facility. In Ketziot, a notorious desert detention facility that imprisoned thousands of Palestinians during the first Intifada, prisoners are held in an outdoor tent prison in extremely overcrowded conditions; groups of 120 prisoners share two showers and four toilets.
In April 2003, human rights organizations reported that Ministry of Public Security prisons would no longer provide personal hygiene supplies (toothpaste, toothbrushes, toilet paper, razors, etc.) to Palestinian political prisoners, due to budget cuts. Also, in 2003, Ministry of Public Security prisons instituted a new policy of fining political prisoners for violations of prison rules, such as failing to stand during counting or participating in collective action to improve conditions of detention. Consequently, child prisoners, the majority of whom are from low income families, are forced to pay the prison administration from the little amount of money they have to purchase additional provisions from the prison canteen.
In the past, prisoners' families or human rights organizations helped provide supplies to prisoners in need. However, this has been largely impossible given that since October 2000, there have been virtually no family visits, due either to a complete bar on prison visits or because families are denied the permit Israel requires for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to travel outside these areas. Prisoners from East Jerusalem, whose families do not need a permit to travel, receive family visits, but those are very difficult. In Ketziot military camp, visits are restricted to 30 minutes once a month and take place with a five foot wide concrete barrier between the prisoner and his family. In Telmond compound, child prisoners are strip searched prior to visits.
During the period of this Intifada, children's access to an attorney has become increasingly restricted. New procedures implemented in July 2001 effectively prohibit Palestinian lawyers from the OPT from visiting their child clients. Israeli lawyers enjoy comparatively greater access, but are subject to a variety of bureaucratic procedures.
The absence of regular visits by families and lawyers has made monitoring the conditions of detention for Palestinian child political prisoners increasingly difficult and leaves these children extremely vulnerable to abuse. The appalling conditions of detention for Palestinian prisoners are one reason why their release is a major priority of Palestinian political groups and the community as a whole. The mistreatment children suffer through the detention process is not random, but understood as an integral part of a system designed with specific purposes in mind. The entire edifice of the military court system is based on maintaining Israel's control of the occupied territories; eliminating existing resistance and preventing or obstructing future resistance is an important aspect of this strategic goal.
Through arbitrary arrest campaigns and the use of administrative detention, Israel is able to artificially inflate the prison population. During political negotiations, the prison population is then used as a bargaining chip to pressure the Palestinian leadership. While large numbers of Palestinian prisoners, including children, may be released as part of the current negotiations, as long as the system which motivates and facilitates their imprisonment remains intact, Israel is able to re-arrest large numbers of Palestinians when it serves their political interests.
For more info, contact George Abu al-Zulof with FREEDOM NOW! Campaign to Free Palestinian Child Political Prisoners, an initiative of Defence for Children International/Palestine Section, ++972 2 240 7530, email@example.com, www.dci-pal.org.
Catherine Cook is media coordinator at the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC and former International Advocacy Coordinator for Defence for Children International/Palestine Section. This article is drawn from a book on Palestinian child political prisoners, co-written by Cook, Adam Hanieh, and Adah Kay, which will be published in 2004 by Pluto Press (www.plutobooks.com).
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