Adel Hana/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.Next year will mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration as well as the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. With no sign of an active peace process between the parties, here in Britain we have a historic responsibility to seriously challenge the Israeli government’s conduct in the West Bank and Gaza. On a recent visit to the West Bank, I saw powerfully for myself the need for better legal protection for young Palestinians. Without this I fear that we will engender an entire lost generation of forgotten Palestinian children.
Yair Golan, the deputy head of the Israeli military, caused an uproar in April when he called for "national soul-searching" and warned that “there is nothing easier than to behave like an animal and to act sanctimoniously”. Earlier this year I understood better what he meant when I found myself sitting in disbelief whilst watching proceedings unfold in Ofer Israeli military court in the occupied West Bank.
Israel is a democracy that claims to practice the rule of law. But here were Palestinian children, shuffling into court with their hands tied and their feet manacled. Waiting to go into the court room, we spoke to families who often haven’t seen their children for weeks and only then after struggling on lengthy journeys through numerous checkpoints. They told us – a cross-Party group of UK Parliamentarians – their personal experiences in a defeated, world-weary way.
The courtroom itself was small, crowded and chaotic. A cast of actors jostled and moved around; prosecutors, defence counsels, ushers, warders, clerks, together with unidentifiable others who float in and out. Conspicuous by their absence were witnesses or indeed any process by which evidence is tested in court. Things became clearer when we learnt that after interrogation – sometimes when sleep-deprived and often without the presence of a lawyer – virtually every defendant pleads guilty in order to secure a shorter period in custody.
The proceedings were presided over by a uniformed military judge whose main preoccupation seems to be ensuring that the prisoners in the dock are those on his flow of dockets. A series of brief exchanges followed between the judge and the prosecution, another soldier, and the defence, a civilian lawyer who has not met the defendants before. The judge then announces his decision, but not necessarily facing the defendants. If a family is willing to pay a fine – often substantial – the prisoner may be released, but only after payment. A father rushes out of court after securing the paperwork to try to pay in time for his son’s release for a family wedding. We subsequently learn that according to the military court's annual report for 2011, $3.4 million a year in fines is raised, so Palestinians seem to be funding their own misery.
Palestinian children grow up in a culture of fear, intimidation, suspicion and sometimes death.
Over 160 children are now detained in Israeli prisons illegally outside the West Bank with a further 276 held near Ramallah. Military Court Watch say that the number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has risen by 156 per cent since September 2015 and that many of these children are beaten and held in unsafe and abusive conditions. A lawyer with Military Court Watch said: “Palestinian children are treated in ways that would terrify and traumatize an adult.”
Most of these children are arrested for throwing stones. Usually they will be in custody for about three months. If not detained at the scene of their alleged offence, they will have been picked up later, often during a terrifying raid on their family’s home by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night – a terrifying experience for the whole family. They may have been given up by a Palestinian informant, possibly under duress, to the network of local military intelligence officers. It makes little difference whether or not they are guilty – they will plead guilty anyway and a regime based on intimidation and fear will have been reinforced. All this happens under the regime operated by the Israeli Defence Force in the West Bank – occupied for nearly 50 years – and fully sanctioned by the Israeli government, despite it being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It appears that those rights apply only to children living in Israel itself and to the children of illegal Israeli settlers living on the West
Of course, viewed from the Israeli government’s perspective, this military system has been very effective in controlling the 2.7 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank while protecting over 400,000 Israelis who have settled there illegally since 1967 (this figure does not include 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem). There are now over 125 of these settlements, in reality towns, sanctioned by the Israeli government and over 100 so-called “outposts” which in turn will grow. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, this Israeli settler population is expanding at over three times the rate of the Israeli population as a whole.
Each day in Palestine brings new demolitions of Palestinian structures sometimes those funded by international aid. Since the beginning of 2016 alone, nearly 600 structures have been demolished and over 800 Palestinians displaced, half of whom were children. There are now over 11,000 approved demolition orders for these structures awaiting execution, usually with little notice and sometimes in the middle of the night. The state of unrest in the West Bank remains troubling, with increasing deaths and serious injuries of both Palestinians and Israelis, although the numbers for the former are much larger than those of the latter.
Palestinian children now grow up in a culture of fear, intimidation, suspicion and sometimes death. We saw this in sharp relief when we visited a house in Duma firebombed by settlers, killing the parents and their baby. For this generation of Palestinian children there is no horizon of hope that the misery will end. A divided and elderly Palestinian political cadre now seems powerless to halt the illegal annexation of their people’s land under the oversight of an occupying military force. The Israeli government allows the transfer of civilians into the West Bank to illegally occupy Palestinian land despite this being regarded by many legal experts as a war crime under Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Is it really any surprise that teenagers throw stones in protest?
Given our history in this part of the world, a responsible British Government should be considering now a more effective international challenge to stopping the Israeli government’s consequence-free ability to inflict illegal and inhumane treatment on the Palestinian children and their families. That is the least these forgotten children deserve.