By EA Sophie
As she brings us sweet tea in her living room, Mona seems remarkably calm and hopeful. Her youngest son, Asem*is 15 years old, and is currently in a military prison in Israel.
Mona first heard about her son’s arrest from other people in the village. Asem was walking down the hill outside his village of Beit Furik in the occupied West Bank when he was arrested and accused of planning to throw stones at an Israeli military jeep. His mother told us that his friends who were present say that not only is this not true but that there were no military jeeps present – the arresting officers had come in a civilian car from the nearby Israeli settlement.
Asem was arrested at 9.30am, but the army didn’t contact his mother until 2pm that afternoon. They told her that his case would be seen in a military court the next day. His family did not expect him to be charged, Mona says – they hoped they would release him on the same day, as sometimes happens with other boys.
Within a week he had been sentenced to two months in a military prison.
This isn’t a one-off case. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, children should only ever be arrested or detained as a last resort. Yet according to a report by the Israeli human rights group B’TSelem, between 2014 and 2015, Israel prosecuted more than a thousand Palestinian children. Although the majority of these are 16 or 17, 30 were only 12 or 13 when they were charged.
Because of the ongoing military occupation of Palestine, all indictments filed by Israel against Palestinians take place in a military court – including for children. Under international law, Israel is entitled to set up military courts in occupied territory, but it’s the only country that systematically sends children to them.
Since his arrest, the only time Mona has seen her son was during his court hearing. It was very difficult for her, she told us, and the hardest thing was not being able to speak to him. All visiting families are separated from children during the court hearing and they are not allowed to get close enough to speak. As is standard practice in a military court, he was in handcuffs and leg shackles.
Military court is a scary and bewildering situation for many children, and almost all minors enter plea bargains in an attempt to return to their families as soon as possible. Children who plead not guilty may spend longer waiting for trial than their sentence would have been (in a previous Eyewitness Blog, we highlighted the story of Yasin, who spent 34 months in pre-trial detention). Whether they choose to fight the charges or not, the outlook is not promising. According to B’TSelem , the only sentences a military court can hand down are a prison sentence or a fine, and with a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent, prison is almost certain.
It’s likely now that Mona will have no contact with Asem at all until he comes home. Asem is held in a prison in Israel, despite the transfer of people out of occupied Palestine into Israel being illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. This also means that Mona would need a permit from Israel to visit her son – a bureaucratic process that can take months. Mona tells us that by the time her permit arrives, if it arrives, it is likely that Asem will already have been released.
As a mother she worries that Asem is treated badly. He has asthma, and she’s worried by how tired he looked in court. Physical abuse of children by soldiers during detention is alarmingly common. In a study by B’TSelem, about 70 per cent of minors who had been detained said that they had been subjected to physical violence during arrest, interrogation, detention or transit. During my first week as an Ecumenical Accompanier, I interviewed a 14 year old boy who had been detained by the Israeli military. He was released after a few hours, but not before one of the soldiers had hit him in the face with the butt of his gun.
Mona is also worried about the impact of this prison sentence on her son’s education – Asem has lost the first semester of term already, and may need to resit the year. Although some prisons provide classes for juveniles, these are not to the same standard you would find in a school. Megiddo Prison, for example, only provides classes in Arabic and Maths and children only attend an average of two or three times a week. Israeli minors held in juvenile detention, by contrast, are provided with academic classes and a specially crafted curriculum.
His mother describes Asem as a quiet boy. Sometimes he talks about wanting to be a mechanic when he grows up, other times a carpenter. He’s never been in any trouble with the military before – in fact, no one in the family has. Mona tells us that ‘Insha’allah (God willing)’ he will be released in January, she says. He will have been in military detention for two months.
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), detention of any kind for children should be a measure of last resort, but routinely detaining children like Asem with no access to alternative forms of justice breaches this law. The UNCRC also calls for children in detention to be treated “in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age”, but Asem will be kept in military prison without adequate access to education and alongside adult prisoners. The same treaty states that restraint, such as handcuffs, should only be used when a child “poses an imminent threat of injury to him or herself or others”, and not routinely in court proceedings. All detainees should be allowed regular family contact, though the occupation and the movement restrictions it creates has made this near impossible.
There is little awareness of the use of these practices in Israel, but some Israeli campaigners and parents are raising awareness of how Palestinian children are arrested and treated. Their aim is to show the Knesset and the public that Palestinian children are entitled to be safe and treated fairly – just like their Israeli counterparts.
*Names have been changed to safeguard the individual
Support DCI’s campaign against child detention in Israel – www.dci-palestine.org
In 2012, a delegation of UK lawyers reviewed the treatment of Palestinian children under Israeli military law, publishing their findings in a report called Children in Military Custody. Last year, Military Court Watch found that just 2.5 per cent of these recommendations have been implemented, despite the issues being raised repeatedly by UK government officials.
If you’re in the UK, write to your MP and ask them to raise the issue of children in Israeli military custody with the Foreign Office.