By EA Alexia, Southern West Bank.
Today (April 17) marks Palestinian Prisoners’ Day. There are currently 7,000 prisoners in the Israeli military prison system, including over 400 children.
“Maybe he will tell you the answer to that question. He doesn’t speak to me about what happened. He keeps saying: ‘what happens in jail, stays in jail’.” This is what Tariq’s mother tells us before her son arrives in from playing with his friends outside. If you replaced “jail” with any other word, it might be a familiar expression to many a teenager’s mother. But Tariq’s teenage life is not what you might consider normal. At the age of 14, he has just spent six months in prison.Tariq lives in Beit Ummar, near Hebron in occupied Palestine. The town of 18,000 is encircled by five illegal Israeli settlements, in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The town’s centre is under Palestinian Authority control, but according to Beit Ummar’s mayor, 70% of its land is now within Area C, under Israeli military and civil control since an interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1995.
The agreement was meant to last for five years before leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Over two decades later, Palestinians are still living under Israeli military occupation.
According to data from Israeli organisation Peace Now the nearby Israeli settlements – all in Area C – are built on over 600,000 km sq of private Palestinian land. Tariq’s mother tells us that his grandfather owned lots of land around the West Bank, most of which is now off-limits due to settlement construction. Her late husband also owned about 3 km sq which he lost to the nearby Gush Etzion settlement. The residents of Beit Ummar fear they may lose more land as the settlements expand.Tariq was arrested in October 2015 at a protest against the settlements at the military checkpoint at the main entrance to Beit Ummar. The human rights organisation Military Court Watch reports that increased Israeli military presence around the settlements, allegedly to guarantee their protection, frequently leads to the detention of Palestinians. Tariq says he was “treated harshly” when he was first arrested. He does not elaborate. A report released on this week by Defence for Children International (DCI) found that 75% of children arrested by the Israeli army had experienced “some form of physical violence during arrest or prior to or during interrogation”. Tariq was worried about how his mother would take the news. She says she was anxious when she received his phone call from the interrogation centre: “He is only a teenager. He is nervous. I was afraid he would get into more trouble”. The DCI report states that 97% of children “have no lawyer or family present during initial interrogation”, in contravention of international law. Confessions obtained at this stage are heavily relied on during trial.
The number of arrests of Palestinian minors has more than doubled since October 2015. Tariq was sentenced to six months for throwing stones, the most common charge against Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons. According to DCI, most plead guilty immediately in order to shorten their sentences. A recent blog post by a fellow Ecumenical Accompanier covers the difficult subject of stone throwing, as well as the ‘non-lethal’ methods employed by the Israeli army against children.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel signed in 1991, states that children should only be deprived of their liberty as a last resort. In addition, the UN and other bodies have repeatedly condemned the discriminatory practice of applying military law to Palestinians, including Palestinian children, while Israelis living in illegal West Bank settlements are subject to civil law. Bail is reportedly denied to at least 70% of Palestinian children, the inverse of the situation for Israeli children. As well as no independent oversight during interrogation, a right generally respected for Israeli children, the time Palestinian children must wait before being brought before a judge is longer and often contravenes international standards.
Tariq plans to return to school again, but he doesn’t know anything more than that. For now, he is happy to be free. Child prisoners are often re-arrested. “Since he was released, he is more mysterious,” Tariq’s mother says. “Mysterious like other teenagers, but not just because of that.”
Ask your elected representative to demand that the Israeli authorities end discrimination against Palestinian children and adults living in occupied Palestine, and respect international standards in relation to arrests and detention, as outlined in the DCI report.