Israel’s chief military prosecutor for the West Bank, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hirsch, declared in February that a new pilot programme would soon be implemented to provide an alternative to arresting Palestinian children from their homes at night. The pilot programme will rely on written summonses demanding Palestinian children appear for questioning at Israeli interrogation centres in the occupied West Bank.
A summons process, if implemented throughout the occupied West Bank, could potentially reduce the number of Palestinian child detainees that experience violence during their arrest, transfer and interrogation. While this could lead to practical improvements to the Israeli military detention system, recent evidence suggests that it may do little to stem violence and abuse of Palestinian child detainees by Israeli forces.
In February 2014, several Palestinian children living near the West Bank city of Nablus were summoned via mobile phone to report for questioning at an Israeli interrogation and detention centre located closeby.
Upon arrival, the teens were taken into Israeli military custody, interrogated without access to a lawyer, bound and blindfolded. Though not arrested during a night raid, they were strip-searched, subjected to physical violence, and verbal abuse during transfer and interrogation. Their parents were not informed where they were being taken.
International juvenile justice standards, which Israel has obliged itself to implement by signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, demand that children should only be deprived of their liberty as a measure of last resort. Yet over half of Palestinian children were arrested during night raids in 2013. Once arrested, parents rarely know where their child is taken and pre-trial detention is the norm in Israeli military courts.
Ill-treatment begins during night arrests. Palestinian children describe waking to the sound of heavily armed Israeli soldiers banging on their front door between midnight and 5am. Soldiers enter, often ransacking the home as they conduct a search and demand identification. Children are promptly blindfolded and have their hands painfully tied with plastic cords before being placed in the back of an Israeli military vehicle. Several hours after their arrest, children arrive at an interrogation centre alone, sleep-deprived and often bruised and scared.
Last year, three in four Palestinian children detained by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank endured physical violence during arrest, transfer or interrogation, according to documentation collected by Defence for Children International Palestine .
Despite repeated calls to end night arrests and ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention, Israel has persistently failed to implement practical changes to stop violence against child detainees.
Up until now the Israeli military’s resistance to implementing a summons process for Palestinian minors, or other practical changes to address violence and abuse, must be attributed to an inherent conflict within the military court system and not solely to ” operational ” concerns.
Night arrests frighten, threaten and intimidate Palestinian families and communities throughout the occupied West Bank, particularly ones that organise weekly protests or are located near illegal Jewish settlements.
Arresting children from their homes in the middle of the night, ill-treating them during arrest, transfer and interrogation, and prosecuting them in military courts that lack basic fair trial guarantees, works to stifle dissent and control an occupied population.
A summons process, while it presents an alternative to night arrests, undoubtedly falls short in achieving certain “control” objectives. Indeed, eliminating night raids as the default process for arresting Palestinian children can potentially reduce vulnerability to violence, but further operational changes must be implemented and the current regime of impunity for violence against children must be challenged.
Does the military court system exist to administer justice or is it a tool of the occupation that acts to legitimise control of the Palestinian population?
There has never been much of a case for the former, as Israeli military law only applies to the Palestinian population even though Israeli settlers live in the same territory.
The pilot summons process may force Israeli officials to address the competing objectives inherent in this question. If night arrests of Palestinian children continue, it will all but confirm the military courts are intended to plainly masquerade as a justice system that perpetuates injustice.
Brad Parker is a staff attorney and international advocacy officer with Defence for Children International Palestine , an independent child-rights organisation dedicated to defending and promoting the rights of children living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. DCI-Palestine provides free legal assistance to children, collects evidence and conducts advocacy targeting various duty bearers.