"A Palestinian child is a potential terrorist," an IDF prosecutor candidly told a delegation of nine visiting British lawyers. The attorneys, who visited Israel for a week in September 2011, reviewed and analyzed Israeli law and practice regarding the detention and prosecution of Palestinian children. Britain's foreign ministry financed the delegation's visit, which appeared to raise the bar a notch; after both British houses of parliament debated the issue last year, after several British MPs paid visits to the military court next to Ofer prison. Such commitment far exceeded anything that has been done, or is currently being done, by Israeli MKs. Britain's media, which covered the jurists' report, noted that the country's foreign ministry intends to challenge Israel by bringing to its attention the document's findings, and exert pressure until they see improvement on this issue.
The delegation's report, 36 pages long, observes in terse, staggeringly polite understatement: "It may be that much of the reluctance to treat Palestinian children in conformity with international stems from a belief, which was advanced to us by a military prosecutor, that every Palestinian child is a potential terrorist. Such a stance seems to us to be the starting point of a spiral of injustice and one which only Israel, as the Occupying Power in the West Bank, can reverse."
The report, "Children in Military Custody," published last month, cites in an appendix the names of the esteemed, experienced jurists who took part in the delegation (which was headed by the Right Hon. Sir Stephen Sedley, who served on the Court of Appeal of England and Wales for over a decade, before retiring in 2011 ), along with the names of Israelis and Palestinians with whom the delegation met. The two military prosecutors interviewed by the delegation are Lt. Col. Robert Newfeld, chief military prosecutor, and his deputy, Maj. Ronen Shor. The report does not identify which of the pair articulated - with such an unconscious candor - the approach to Palestinian youths taken by the Israeli security establishment.
"Soldiers are soldiers"
The report notes that the delegation heard conflicting accounts regarding detention and trial procedures under military law and Israel's official court system. This conflicting testimony was provided by Palestinian and Israeli organizations and activists who monitor the detention of children, as well as by the children themselves. The visitors did not find it necessary to choose between the versions. For them, it sufficed to note, drily, that "the legal differentials between Palestinian and Israeli children are a matter or record."
Relying solely on documented facts which official Israeli spokesmen are unable to deny or refute, the delegation concluded that Israel violates six articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. These are articles 2: discrimination; 3: the child's best interests; 37 (b ): premature resort to detention; 37 (c ): non-separation from adults; 37 (d ): prompt access to lawyers; and 40: use of shackles.
Having chosen not to choose between conflicting accounts, the jurists conclude that should reports given by Israeli and Palestinian organizations regarding detention procedures prove to be true, then Israel is in breach of the provision about cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment conveyed by the United Nations convention's article 37A.
Since various Haaretz journalists, including this writer, have published dozens of reports on the detention of Palestinian children, we can allow ourselves to be a bit less tactful and restrained, and conclude that cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is the norm. Soldiers routinely detain Palestinian children in the middle of the night. As a matter of routine, they strike these children (slaps in the face, kicks here and there ) during arrests. Too often (in a third of the cases, according to a review carried out by the Defense for Children International organization ), soldiers force the children to lie on the floor of a jeep as they are transported to a detention center. Routinely, policemen interrogate children prior to the start of a formal investigation; such questioning involved intimidation tactics.
In virtually routine fashion, the interrogation begins before the child is allowed to sleep; routinely, parents are not present during interrogation. Questioned by members of the British delegation, representatives of the defense ministry and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT ) denied that placing a child on the floor of a jeep is standard practice. However, the report added, these officials noted that "soldiers are soldiers"; the comment, the British jurists observed, was a cause of "concern."
The British jurists were told by representatives of Israel's security and legal systems that Palestinian children can lodge complaints to the military police about ill treatment; usually, the Israeli officials insisted, such complaints are unfounded. "The ministry of defense reported that it was reassured by the fact that complaints are almost universally dismissed," the report's writers recalled, and then added: "In light of the nature and extent of the concerns raised, we are not so sanguine about this explanation and the apparent absence of recourse to law. There appears to us to be a significant number of allegations of physical and emotional abuse of child detainees by the military which neither the complaints system nor the justice system is addressing satisfactorily."
Or, in non-British, non-legalistic terms, the writers conclude: "You've got to be kidding," or, "Who are you trying to fool?"In a tone of very restrained amazement, the report notes that the military system does not allow attorneys to meet with detained Palestinian children prior to trial proceedings. In the same vein, the report observes that indictments are based on confessions wrested from children, and from incriminating evidence furnished by other children. Members of the delegation met with Lt. Col. Tzvi Lekach, president of the Military Courts, Col. Aharon Mishnayot, president of the Military Court of Appeals, Prof. (Lt. Col. ) Ariel Bendor, and Maj. Sharon Rivlin-Achai, judge of the Military Juvenile Court.
In the section dealing with trial procedures, the British jurists elaborate on how the military courts encourage detained youths to confess and reach plea bargain agreements with prosecutors, thereby bypassing appropriate trial proceedings where the prosecutor has to supply witnesses and evidence. This simply stems from the prevalence of remands in custody.
The report provides 40 recommendations for the military courts. One is that the prohibition in Israeli law banning the detention of children younger than 14 apply also to Palestinian children. Another is to limit instances in which children remain in custody until the completion of legal proceedings. Now there is nothing to wait for but the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to the military court of Ofer.