First Published: 2008-04-12

 
Injustice for West Bank children in Israeli military courts
 

324 Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons, half of whom jailed for throwing rocks.

 

Middle East Online

Born and raised under brutal Israeli occupation

OFER MILITARY CAMP, West Bank - Mohammed, 14, barely glanced at the Israeli military judge as he was led shuffling into the cramped courtroom, his legs in shackles.

The Palestinian boy had eyes only for his father, and mouthed the traditional Arabic greeting "Salaam Aleikum" -- peace be upon you.

Seven minutes later he was sentenced to four months in prison.

The prosecutor claimed the boy had hurled rocks at a watchtower and at Israel's separation barrier in the occupied West Bank. Upon his attorney's advice, the boy pleaded guilty to avoid spending even more time behind bars.

Human rights groups say Mohammed's case is typical for child ‘offenders’ under the military law Israel imposes on the Palestinian territory it illegally occupies.

As of March 31, 324 Palestinian children were held in Israeli prisons, according to the Geneva-based Defence for Children International (DCI), an international rights group.

With conviction rates above 95 percent, Mohammed didn't stand much of a chance, said his lawyer, Iyad Misk.

"The military trials are a sham. As a lawyer, I'd prefer not to take part in this charade, but I still try to help the children. For a lawyer, it's a moral dilemma," Misk said outside the trailer at the Ofer military camp where his young client was sentenced.

The trials, conducted in Hebrew and translated into Arabic, generally last just a few minutes. Lawyers are at times denied access to documents, when military officials classify the evidence as secret.

Some of the children never get a trial, but are held without charges under "administrative orders" that can run up to six months and be renewed indefinitely.

"Everything in military courts is designed in favor of the occupation," says Khaled Quzmar, who coordinates DCI's legal unit in the West Bank.

Lawyers say as many as 50 percent of jailed Palestinian children are held for throwing rocks. The favorite targets are security forces in watchtowers or armoured vehicles, and the walls, barbed wire and fences that prevent free travel to Israel and within the West Bank.

After an apparent stone-throwing incident earlier this month near the Al-Arub refugee camp several Israeli soldiers brandished their assault rifles and yelled at passers-by but eventually drove off without finding the culprit.



'They broke several of my teeth and nose'



Shehab, 15, watched the troops nervously from a distance. "Since my release, I try to avoid any contact with Israelis, with the soldiers," he says.

He was sentenced to four-and-a-half months in jail last year, accused of hurling a petrol bomb at a huge concrete watchtower from which Israeli forces keep an eye on Al-Arub, near the West Bank town of Hebron.

Shehab says security forces showed up at his house at two o'clock in the morning, handcuffed, blindfolded and beat him before taking him to a military camp for interrogation.

"They broke several of my teeth and my nose. They put a heater beside my face. They pinched me on the stomach and chest with pliers. They kicked me."

He finally broke down and signed a confession. He insists he is innocent, but says he sees nothing wrong with hurling stones at soldiers "if they aggress us."

Shehab recounts that while serving his sentence, he only had a few hours of classes a week at most. Of the 30 children in his cell 14 to 18 were picked at random to attend the twice-weekly 90-minute class of basic reading, writing and mathematics.

Watchdogs say the arrest and detention process of Palestinian children violates the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is signatory.

"A central aspect of the interrogation phase, is the use of particular forms of torture and ill treatment," says DCI.

The army claims that "minors are only arrested for serious offenses."

"In most cases, the charges relate to attempts to injure or kill," the army said, citing a teenage girl who attempted to stab a soldier and two instances in which minors were caught with pipe bombs.

Arrests of Palestinian children must be authorised by the military advocate general for the West Bank. "In this way, the arrest of minors is supervised," the army says.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the detention of a child must be used "only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."

Unlike Israelis who reach legal adulthood at 18, Palestinians are considered adults at 16 under Israeli military law. Military judges are trained lawyers but are not qualified to preside over civilian courts in Israel.

"It is discriminatory," Roni Hammermann, a member of the Israeli Women for Human Rights group, said outside the Ofer military court, where anxious relatives of detainees waited for their cases to be called up.

In courtroom five, where a picture of the symbolic scales of justice hangs in a corner, Mohammed respectfully asked his father to "greet everyone in the family" before a soldier led him out to serve his sentence.

 

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