Stone Cold Justice: Palestinian Child Prisoners

The following article, on Palestinian Child Prisoners, was published in The Australian – a widely-read, Australian mainstream media source – on November 26, 2011.

Stone Cold Justice

by John Lyons

The Australian
26 November 2011    

You hear them before you see them. The first clue that a new group of children is approaching is a shuffle of shoes and a clinking of handcuffs and shackles. The door to the courtroom bursts open – four boys, all shackled, stare into the room. Four boys looking bewildered.

They wear brown prison overalls and they trail into the room where their fate is to be decided by a female Israeli army officer/judge, who is sitting at the bench, waiting. The look on the face of one of the boys changes to elation when he sees his mother at the back of the court. He blows her a kiss. But his mother begins crying and this upsets the boy. He begins crying too.

We’re sitting in an Israeli military court which is attached to the Ofer prison in the West Bank, 25 minutes from Jerusalem. Mondays and Tuesdays are “children’s days”. Hundreds of Palestinian children from the age of 12 are brought here each year to be tried under Israeli military law for a range of offences. The majority are accused of throwing stones and, as the court has close to a 100 per cent conviction rate, almost all will be imprisoned for anything from two weeks to 10 months. Some will end up in adult jails.

Today, groups of children in threes and fours shuffle in; some cases last only 60 seconds, just long enough for the child to plead guilty and hear their sentence. Sitting in a room 50m away, more children wait. Despite their confessions, many insist that they did not throw stones or molotov cocktails, and the human rights group Defence for Children International estimates that about a third who pass through the system have either been shown or signed documentation in Hebrew – a language they cannot understand.

Inside the courtroom, the army’s public relations unit wants the IDF guide to sit next to me to explain each case. I’m told I can quote him as “my guide” but not name him and we are allowed to photograph some of the older children but not the younger ones. Nor will they allow us to photograph children handcuffed and shackled trying to walk – “absolutely not,” my guide says. The army obviously realises that such a photo would be enormously damaging. After September 11 I’d seen images of alleged terrorists walking like this but I’d never seen children treated this way. It’s not surprising that Israel doesn’t want this image out there – it would look uncomfortably like a Guantanamo Bay for kids.

Several countries, led by Britain, are turning up the heat on Israel over the treatment of Palestinian children – not only the manner of their arrest and interrogation but also the conditions in which they’re kept in custody. MP Sandra Osborne , part of a British delegation that recently visited the military court, said of the visit: “For the children we saw that morning, the only thing that mattered was to see their families, perhaps for the first time in months … A whole generation is criminalised through this process.”

Into this world has walked Gerard Horton an Australian lawyer. Horton was a Sydney barrister for about eight years and his practice included contract disputes, building insurance cases and employment matters. In 2006, while studying for a masters in international law, he volunteered for three months for an organisation that represented Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank. He has worked there ever since.

During his five years at Defence for Children International  Horton says the office has increased its evidence-gathering capacity and will only pursue credible allegations based on sworn affidavits. He takes me through the arrest process: “Once bound and blindfolded, the child will be led to a waiting military vehicle and in about one-third of cases will be thrown on the metal floor for transfer to an interrogation centre.

“Sometimes the children are kept on the floor face down with the soldiers putting their boots on the back of their necks, and the children are handcuffed, sometimes with plastic handcuffs which cut into their wrists. Many children arrive at the interrogation centres bruised and battered, sleep-deprived and scared.” The whole idea, he says, is to get a confession as quickly as possible.

DCI has documented three cases where children were given electric shocks by a hand-held device and Horton claims there is one interrogator working in the settlement Gush Etzion “who specialises in threatening children with rape”. Some cases contain horrifying allegations, such as this one from Ahmad, 15 documented by DCI, who was taken from his home at 2am, blindfolded and accused of throwing stones. “I managed to see the dog from under my blindfold,” he says. “They brought the dog’s food and put it on my head. I think it was a piece of bread, and the dog had to eat it off my head. His saliva started drooling all over my head and that freaked me out. I was so scared my body started shaking … they saw me shaking and started laughing … Then they put another piece of bread on my trousers near my genitals, so I tried to move away but he started barking. I was terrified.”

Israel is under pressure to at least allow filming of interrogations. “We want interrogations of children audiovisually recorded,” says Horton. “This would not only provide some protection to the children but would also protect Israeli interrogators from any false allegations of wrongdoing.”

Australian diplomats have shown no obvious interest in the military courts despite our Ambassador to Israel, Andrea Faulkner, being told about the treatment of children a year ago. She refused to comment on the situation for this story. Says Horton: “It is disappointing that of all the diplomatic missions in the region, Australia has been conspicuously silent on the issue of the military courts.”

Horton says the military courts function as a system of control: “The army has to ensure that the 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in occupied territory go about their daily business without interruption from 2.5 million Palestinians… it is no coincidence that most children who are arrested live close to a settlement or a road used by settlers or the army.”

He says it’s an effective system; quite often the children emerge scared and broken. But there is little recourse. From 2001 to 2010, 645 complaints were made against Israeli interrogators; not one resulted in a criminal investigation. “Sometimes if there is a group of children who throw stones and the settlers or soldiers are not clear exactly who has thrown them, the army can go into a village at two or three in the morning and five or 10 kids get roughed up and it scares the hell out of the whole village,” says Horton. He adds that when the army arrests children they usually don’t say why or where they are taking them.

Former Israeli soldiers have formed Breaking the Silence, a group that has gathered more than 700 testimonies about abuses they committed or witnessed. Former Israeli army commander Yehuda Shaul says the army sets out “to make Palestinians have a feeling of being chased”. “The Palestinian guy is arrested and released,” Shaul says. “He has no idea why he was arrested and why he was released so quickly. The rest of the village wonders whether he was released because he is a collaborator.”

Fadia Saleh, who runs 11 rehabilitation centres in the West Bank dealing with the effects of detention, says: “Usually the children isolate themselves, they become very angry for the simplest reasons, they have nightmares. They have lost trust in others. They don’t have friends any more because they think their friends will betray them. There is also a stigma about them – other children and parents say, ‘Be careful being seen with him, or the Israeli soldiers will target you too.'”