In August 2012, an organization of Israeli soldiers called “Breaking the Silence” published testimonies by more than 30 troops describing a reign of terror against Palestinian youths, with beatings, intimidation, humiliation, verbal abuse, night-time arrests and injuries at the hands of Israeli forces. One soldier, while justifying arrests of children, marveled at a “kid who actually lay there on the ground, begging for his life, was actually nine years old... A loaded gun is pointed at him and he has to plead for mercy? This is something that scars him for life.”
Meanwhile, according to a UNICEF study published in February 2013, “Ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” Approximately 7,000 Palestinian juveniles, including some as young as 12, have been detained by Israeli forces in the last 10 years, and 236 are in Israeli prisons today. Many are convicted of throwing stones – an offense punishable under Israeli military law by up to 20 years imprisonment.
The military court system established by Israel soon after seizing the West Bank in 1967 was found in recent years to have a conviction rate of 99.74 percent. A special military juvenile court established in 2009 has failed to quell concerns over mistreatment of Palestinian youths. Few juveniles receive timely representation, and most admit guilt under coercive interrogation, often involving beatings or threats of sexual assault against them or other family members. Physical abuse of detainees of any age – torture – is absolutely barred under international law.
Ironically, the Jewish settlers commonly targeted by Palestinian stone-throwing youths inhabit settlements that, outside of Israel itself, are almost universally regarded as illegal. Jewish settler violence – including, per a 2013 U.N. report, 383 attacks causing injury to 169 Palestinians and damage to more than 8,000 olive trees – is rarely investigated. When charges are filed against Israelis, they are tried with the full protections of domestic Israeli law.
Sentences have often been lenient. None of this justifies Palestinian stone-throwing, which can be lethal. But a justice system that overlooks violence by Jews while crushing Palestinian defendants, including vulnerable and impressionable youths, will never command legitimacy. Instead it ensures a future generation of Palestinians who will know Israelis primarily through their cruelty.
Mohammad was atypical as a U.S. citizen caught up in Israel’s military detention grinder. Yet his case should be a wake-up call for U.S. citizens. As Israel’s principal military and diplomatic protector in the world today, we neglect our ally’s misdeeds at the peril of being tarnished by association. Abusing children is a hard one to live down.
Bisharat is a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, and writes frequently on the Middle East.