The majority of children are detained from their West Bank homes during the middle of the night by heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Several hours after their arrest, children arrive at an interrogation and detention center alone, sleep deprived and often bruised and scared. Interrogations tend to be coercive, including a variety of verbal abuse, threats and physical violence that ultimately result in a confession.
Unlike Israeli children living in illegal settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian children are not accompanied by a parent and are generally interrogated without the benefit of legal advice, or being informed of their right to silence. They are overwhelmingly accused of throwing stones, an offense that can potentially lead to a sentence of up to 20 years depending on a child’s age.
Post-arrest, a child’s initial appearance in the military court is usually when he first sees a lawyer and his family. Although many children maintain their innocence, most plead guilty because this is the quickest way out of a system that rarely grants bail.
After sentencing, nearly 60 percent of Palestinian child detainees are transferred from occupied territory to prisons inside Israel in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The practical consequence of this is that many of them receive either limited or no family visits due to freedom of movement restrictions and the time it takes to issue a permit to visit the prisons.
While detaining children for criminal offenses may be justified in certain circumstances, universal international juvenile justice standards should not be ignored. The best interests of the child must be the primary consideration and detention should be used only as a measure of last resort.
President Obama must make firm demands that will lessen the impact of the seemingly interminable, 45-year-old military occupation on Palestinian children. He has declared that both Israelis and Palestinians need to make “a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.” For Palestinian children, the shackles are very much still an ever-present reality.
Kassis is executive director of Defense for Children International Palestine.