OSSIM SHALOM – ANNUAL CONFERENCE
21 May 2013
If tonight, is anything like most nights, then military vehicles will begin leaving their bases after midnight, and start fanning out across the West Bank. Their destination will, in all probability, be a village or refugee camp situated close to a settlement or by-pass road. Frequently their objective will be to arrest children and young adults from locations where incidents of stone throwing have been reported.
If tonight, is anything like most nights, soldiers will enter the village or refugee camp and surround a house. The house will be stormed and the occupants forced from their beds. ID’s will be checked and a child will often be selected. In most cases, parents will not be told why the child is being arrested, or where he is being taken. The child’s hands will be tied tightly behind his back with plastic ties, sometimes cutting his wrists and causing swelling due to the restriction in blood flow. A blindfold will also be placed over the child’s eyes.
If tonight, is anything like most nights, the child will be force marched to a waiting military vehicle and in many cases, thrown, bound and blindfolded onto the cold metal floor ready for transfer to an interrogation centre. Some of the soldiers who conducted the arrest will also be inside the vehicle, sitting on benches either side of the child. Based on over 300 sworn testimonies collected during the past four years, the child is likely to be kicked, slapped and verbally insulted or humiliated during his journey to interrogation, which may last anywhere from 20 minutes, up to several hours or more.
If tonight, is anything like previous nights, then the child will arrive at the interrogation centre before the sun is up tomorrow – bruised, thirsty, scared and sleep deprived. If the interrogation is anything like previous interrogations, a mixture of techniques will be employed to extract a confession. He will first be led into the interrogation room still blindfolded and tied. His blindfold will be removed but his hands will remain painfully tied behind his back. In front of him will be seated the interrogator. The interrogator will say to the child: ‘Why do you throw stones at Israelis,’ to which the child will invariably respond: ‘I don’t.’ The interrogator will then approach the bound child until their faces are close, and he will begin shouting, typically a mixture of threats and obscenities, aimed at breaking the child’s spirit. Documented threats include:
· Threats of further physical violence;
· Threats of long term imprisonment; and
· Threats directed towards the child’s family.
If the interrogation is anything like previous interrogations, the child is frequently slapped across the face and sometimes knocked off his chair. In some cases the treatment is worse. Recent reports indicate that children were subjected to physical violence in 75% of cases; threatened in 57% of cases; and verbally abused in 54% of cases.
In 12% of cases children also report being held in solitary confinement, usually in small, dirty, windowless cells where the light is left on 24 hours a day. This practice continues to occur in spite of demands by a number of UN agencies calling for its total prohibition in the case of children. The reason the UN has called for a total prohibition on the use of solitary confinement for children, is because the psychological impact can be severe, and in some cases catastrophic.
The result of all this, is that most children confess to whatever they are accused of, and in almost one third of cases the children are either shown, or forced to sign, documentation written in Hebrew.
From the interrogation centres the children are brought before Ofer or Salem military court within a few days of their arrest. It is in the military court where most children meet their lawyers for the first time, long after their interrogation is over. The lawyer will almost certainly advise the child to plead guilty, whether or not the offence was committed, as this is the quickest way out of a system which denies children bail in 87% of cases. According to figures released by the military courts, the conviction rate in 2010 was a staggering 99.74%, of which around 98% receive custodial sentences.
Once convicted, a child accused of throwing stones can expect to be imprisoned for around three months inside Israel, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits their transfer out of the West Bank. The process for obtaining a permit to visit a child in prison can take a month or more, and in some cases is denied for unspecified “security” reasons. Once inside prison, only some children receive an education which is generally limited to two subjects, maths and Arabic. History, geography and the sciences are not taught for reasons of “security”.
What will, in all probability happen again tonight, is something that is experienced by approximately 500-700 Palestinian children each year. Some of these children are no more than 12 years old. It also bears mentioning that according to UN figures, 750,000 Palestinian men, women and children have been through this system since 1967.
Several years ago Psychiatric Expert Opinion was commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel to consider the impact of this treatment on children. The opinion states that:
“In traumatic conditions of interrogation and detention, like those described above, children lose control of the situation and become particularly vulnerable ... they feel helpless and unprotected. They become apathetic and indifferent, lose their trust in adults, suffer from episodes of extreme anxiety, experience learning difficulties, and suffer from sleeping problems and nightmares. In addition, they may display severe behavioural disorders, such as aggression, over-dependence, avoidance, difficulty in returning to routine, isolationist tendencies, and weeping. This is in addition to physical effects, including eating disorders and bedwetting.
Moreover, following the extreme humiliation and the physical and emotional stress the children endure throughout the interrogation, they experience a profound loss of self-esteem, leading to harm to their sense of dignity and identity.
[The interrogations] also have negative effects on the family structure, since the family is left in a state of disintegration and helplessness. The adults in the family do not feel that they can provide adequate support to the children, as they were unable to prevent their arrest and the hardships of their interrogation. The entire family structure is disrupted as a result of the undermining of adults as a source of support and authority.”
In recent years there have been a number of amendments to the military law in regards to children:
· In September 2009, Military Order 1644 came into effect establishing a military juvenile court.
· In September 2011, Military Order 1676 came into effect introducing requirements that parents be notified promptly of their child’s arrest; the child be informed that he can consult with a lawyer; and giving the juvenile court jurisdiction over 16 and 17 year olds.
· In April 2013, Military Order 1711 came into effect reducing the time period in which a child must be brought before a judge for the first time following arrest from 4 days, down to 24 hours for children aged 12-13, and 48 hour for older children.
Unfortunately, these changes have had little impact, and virtually no impact whatsoever on the first 24 hours after arrest – the critical period of time where most reports of abuse occur.
In conclusion, the evidence indicates that most children are arrested from villages located close to friction points, namely settlements and roads used by the army and settlers. Whilst I can make a number of recommendations that might reduce the level of abuse, such as:
· Guaranteed access to a lawyer prior to interrogation;
· Parents being present throughout the interrogation; and
· All interrogations being audio-visually recorded.
No-one should be under any illusion that the treatment will stop so long as the friction points remain, and Palestinian children are treated as second class individuals.