“They destroyed the front door, entered my room, covered my face with a bag and took me away,” explained Abdullah. “They told my father that I would return the next day.” However, he did not return to his family until the following year and was detained six more times.
This is not uncommon in occupied Palestine where child prisoners are now a major part of the Palestinian narrative. Hundreds of children, some as young as 12, are detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system every year.
The most common charge is stone-throwing, which the Israeli military consider to be a “security offence”. Those found guilty can get up to 20 years in prison, depending on the child’s age.
Israel is the only country in the world to prosecute children routinely in military courts that lack basic safeguards for a fair trial. Moreover, Palestinian children detained by Israel face abuse and systematic torture, which has been legitimised by the judiciary and government.
The plight of these youngsters is well documented. The scale of the problem has been captured by NGO Save the Children in a new report.
There are currently at least 200 Palestinian children held in Israel’s Ofer, Damon and Megiddo Prisons. They include children with disabilities and mental health problems. Damon and Megiddo are seriously overcrowded, and child prisoners are kept in close proximity to each other in squalid and unsanitary conditions. There is little healthcare provision.
Campaigners say that Save the Children’s findings demonstrate that children in custody are being treated worse than animals, describing their treatment as “appalling” and warning that “children are being harmed.” The reality is that if animals were treated like this, it would be a national and even international scandal.
Female prisoners are also subjected to horrifying treatment. Interviews with former prisoners conducted by Save the Children reveal that girls reported being detained more frequently at checkpoints, whereas a majority of boys were arrested at their homes. It is common for Palestinian youngsters to be targeted when they are near illegal Israeli settlements.
While most of the punishments were carried out within the Israeli prisons, the report also documented that more than half of the children who were interviewed said that the abuse usually starts before any investigations, during which they are humiliated and tortured even more. In testimonies collected by the NGO, children reported the use of handcuffs and blindfolds, as well as physical and verbal abuse during their arrest and transportation. Furthermore, many were arrested at night and were not allowed to sleep before being interrogated.
Issa* was 15 years old when he was arrested. “While I was being interrogated,” he explained, “they kept shouting at me, and they put a gun on the table in front of me to scare me. They said bad, bad words. I don’t want to think about those words. Prison was an ugly place. They would set off alarms at midnight, 3am and 6am so we could never sleep for long. If you’re not awake at these alarms, you will be beaten. I was beaten with wooden sticks a few times. I still have back pain now because of a particularly bad beating.”
Another victim was detained when she was 14. Fatima’s testimony describes how she was assaulted by Israeli security forces when she was detained at a military checkpoint on the way to school. “They searched my bag and spoke to me in Hebrew, a language I do not understand. They handcuffed me, threw me on the floor and stepped on my back.”
Those left without lasting physical damage are often scarred psychologically. Almost half of the children interviewed agreed that they are failing to return fully to normal life. Eighty-five per cent said that they have changed due to their experiences. The impact of their detention is felt most when they try to get back to normal life with their families.
These vulnerable children are clearly stressed and broken. It’s not just the trauma of what happened to them inside the prisons, but also what they’ve had to bear before they were detained. The brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of the Gaza Strip and the systematic denial of the Palestinians’ legitimate rights have created a serious and very complex crisis that has affected the psychological and physical health of the people of Palestine. Emotional problems are common.
Moreover, from the time of their arrest — which is often in the middle of the night — until they are processed in court, children face a number of rights violations, including physical and verbal abuse, coercion and being denied the presence of parents or lawyers during their interrogation. Moreover, when they eventually leave prison, the Israeli occupation remains an ongoing and brutal part of their lives.
Human rights violations and the harsh conditions during detention have significant psychological effects on the children and their families. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common. “As a person, I have changed,” said Mahmoud, who was detained when he was 17. “My anger has increased, and I can’t tolerate anything.”
Former child detainees report an inability to trust anyone and build meaningful relationships in “post-detention life”. In fact, they display poor social skills and tend to isolate themselves from the outside world because of their insecurities and fear of “the others”. The effects of imprisonment also result in constant feelings of insecurity, with many children dropping out of school or struggling to sustain family relationships at home.
The Palestinian Authority has been criticised repeatedly for its lack of action to ease the return of children when they are released from Israeli prisons. Save the Children suggests in its report that the PA should facilitate the reintegration of former detainees in their communities and in the education system by changing the practice of children not being allowed to continue the school year after a certain number of days absent, for example. The NGO also urges the PA to support an awareness-raising programme to help children understand their rights at every stage of the detention process, including their right to silence, legal assistance and education. This should be integrated within the school curriculum, said Save the Children.
The international community must take action and put pressure on Israel to end its abuse of Palestinian children. International law is clear about what can and cannot be done to children who are arrested. As in so many other areas of life, though, Israel treats the law with contempt.
The 1989 international Convention on the Rights of the Child says that imprisonment of children must be “a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.” Israel ratified the convention in 1991 but has faced UN criticism about its implementation or lack thereof. The time has surely come for the state’s ability to act with impunity to be brought to an immediate end.
*All of the names used have been changed to protect the victims’ identities.