In the middle of the night in the West Bank, a young Palestinian boy awakes to shouting, the crash of a door and the arrival in his bedroom of a masked Israeli soldier holding an automatic rifle. Pulled out of bed, hands tied painfully behind his back, the boy is pushed into the back of a security van. His parents are not told why he is being detained or where he is being taken. When he arrives at the detention centre he will be interrogated without a lawyer or responsible adult present, often verbally and/or physically abused and told to sign a document in Hebrew confessing to his crime.
The vast majority of arrests are for stone throwing and often a child needs only to be in the vicinity of such incidents to warrant detention. When brought before a judge most of the defendants have already agreed to a plea bargain without due process or a trial to prove their innocence or guilt. Almost all defendants are sentenced to a prison term, usually the time already served but occasionally as long as 18 months, a suspended sentence and a fine.
This is a typical experience for around 700 Palestinian children every year, mostly boys aged 12-17. In recent years reports produced by UNICEF, Defence for Children International and a delegation of British lawyers have all reached similar conclusions: that the Israeli military is in breach of international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified by Israel in 1991), which states that the detention of a child “shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time” (Article 37b). UNICEF reports: “in no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights”. The reality of this breach of children’s rights is the significant impact it has on the child’s psychological state and welfare.
The process also falls short of Israel’s own domestic standards regarding the detention of children. The minimum age for custodial sentences for a Palestinian child is 12, and the maximum period of detention without a lawyer is 90 days in comparison to the rules for Israeli children where the corresponding figures are 14 years and 48 hours. This creates a dangerous discrimination, which can only serve to exacerbate perceived inequalities, injustice and tension within the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
Whilst in 2009 Israel introduced military juvenile courts to separate children from adults within the criminal justice system, this is generally seen as an attempt to placate increasing international, and domestic, pressure for change, rather than making a real difference in practice. Until the inherent inequalities and illegalities in the system are reformed, many Palestinian children will continue to grow up psychologically affected by a system that criminalises and subjugates generations, thus contributing to a spiralling cycle of disengagement and violence.