On a hot afternoon last August, Mohammed, 13, and Ahmed, 14, sat and watched from afar as a scuffle broke out between Israeli forces and local youth in their West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. Young villagers threw stones; Israeli soldiers responded with tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition.
An Israeli military jeep pulled up to Mohammed and Ahmed, neither of whom were participating in the clash, according to Mohammed’s father, Abed Tamimi. Soldiers stepped out and beat the two boys, then dragged them into the vehicle and took them to a detention center.
Interrogators threatened the children, Tamimi said, demanding they give up the names of the youth who participated in the clash that day. They were told they would be imprisoned if they did not comply. Neither boy implicated themselves or any others and both were released shortly before midnight.
Mohammed and Ahmed were lucky to be held captive for only a few hours, but the abuse they withstood was entirely ordinary. Over 75 percent of Palestinian children arrested in 2018 said they were physically abused while in Israeli captivity, according to a 2018 survey of 120 Palestinian child detainees by Defense for Children–Palestine (DCIP), an advocacy group.
A ‘Dangerous Phenomenon’
The vast majority of Palestinian children facing prosecution are charged with throwing stones at Israeli soldiers or settlers, who have illegally occupied the West Bank since the state wrested it from Jordan in 1967.
Under Israeli civil law, which includes occupied East Jerusalem, the sentence for stone-throwing varies depending on the circumstances. If intent to harm can be proven, Palestinians as young as 12 can be given 20 years in prison. If not, they can nonetheless be sentenced up to 10 years. In the rest of the occupied West Bank, which falls under Israeli military law, Palestinians also face up to 20 years in prison for stone-throwing.
Israeli Knesset Member Nissan Slomiansky, who belongs to the far-right Jewish Home party, was instrumental in ratcheting up civil legislation against rock-hurling. He has described the act as a “dangerous phenomenon.”
“David killed Goliath, the strongest Philistine of all, with a stone,” Slomiansky said in 2015. “In other words, a stone can kill.”
Palestinian youth imprisoned in Israel are held in conditions that are so poor they constitute a “grave violation of prisoners’ rights,” the Israeli public defender’s office stated in a 2017 report. It found that inmates are crammed into 2–3 square meter cells, smaller than the minimum standard in many Western countries. Additional findings included poor air quality, uncleanliness and a lack of adequate medical treatment. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Public Security reduced prisoners’ water allotment and installed phone-jamming devices that some inmates say cause headaches.
Officials at the Israel Prison Service and the Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.
An Illegal, Brutal System
Israeli soldiers use a variety of ill-treatment and torture techniques on detained Palestinian youth, both physical and psychological, to extract confessions, according to DCIP’s Ayed Abu Eqtaish. And, in a growing trend, Palestinians are being “exposed to more psychological methods of pressure, like threatening or solitary confinement.”
When 19-year-old Qarim Tamimi, a distant relative of Mohammed’s father, was dragged by Israeli soldiers from his home in 2017 he was handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten. Upon arrival at a pre-trial detention center, he was placed in solitary confinement for 31 days. The cell, he said, was roughly 2 square meters and often smelled of feces from the toilet, which he described as “a hole in the floor.”
The cell was so small that “in order to sleep, I had to lift my legs up,” Qarim said.
According to a United Nations expert, Juan E. Méndez, solitary confinement may constitute torture. It “should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” he said before a General Assembly committee in 2011.
“It can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” Méndez added.
Israeli military court judges continue to use confessions obtained through torture or coercion, however. DCIP reported that “military prosecutors rely, sometimes solely, on these confessions to obtain a conviction.”
But extracting confessions through torture or coercion is unlawful according to a U.N. treaty that Israel itself signed.
During his month in solitary, Qarim’s only contacts were with an interrogator who retrieved him from his cell several times during the first week of his detention, and an attorney who visited him once before his trial. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison for “throwing a stone [at Israeli personnel] from a distance of 50 to 100 meters,” about the length of a professional football field.
— CNN (@CNN) April 1, 2019
The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that if an individual is arrested in occupied territory and sentenced to jail time, they must serve their sentence in that territory. But Qarim served his sentence in Israeli prisons – a direct violation of international humanitarian law. He said he confessed to stone-throwing to avoid administrative detention. This legal practice allows courts to hold prisoners as young as 12 without charge or trial for up to six months at a time and is renewable indefinitely.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, found that 835 Palestinian children were prosecuted in Israeli military courts for stone-throwing between 2005 and 2010. All but one child were found guilty. Up to the present day, Israel has “the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes between 500 and 700 children in military courts each year,” according to DCIP.
Qarim said he felt unsafe during his imprisonment, especially in the last two months of his sentence, which he served in al-Naqab prison near the Egypt-Israel border. Police would raid the cells four times a week, usually at night, and phone jammers prevented him from speaking with his loved ones between 6 am and 6 pm.
When Qarim was finally released on April 4, after 16 months in prison, “it felt as if it was a dream, the whole thing,” he said.
Detained Palestinian youth do not come to feel that their imprisonment is a reality-crushing stupor, as Qarim did, by mere happenstance. Instead, such experiences are emblematic of a broader scheme of intentional psychological mistreatment and abuse, according to DCIP’s Eqtaish.
“We believe that the whole process,” from detention to interrogation to solitary confinement, “is designed to affect the psychological well-being of children who pass through this experience,” he said.