Detention of Palestinian Children (West Bank)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 7th December 2010.

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Photo of Sandra Osborne Sandra Osborne Labour, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock 11:00 am, 7th December 2010

Certainly. As I said, a number of NGOs took us around, and they have done research on the issue. However, most of the information comes from Defence for Children International, which has taken the testimonies of many children. I refer the hon. Gentleman to its report, if he wants to see more information.

Israel operates a dual legal system for Israelis and Palestinians, with different ages of responsibility and different levels of protection for Israeli and Palestinian children. In 2009, two thirds of Palestinian children detained reported being physically abused during their time in custody. Allegations of torture remain widespread. The Palestinian section of Defence for Children International reports that more than 700 children a year are prosecuted in Israel's two west bank military courts. Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli jails. As of 1 November 2010, 251 Palestinian children were being detained in three Israeli prisons. Two of those children are currently being held by Israel without trial or charge, under administrative detention orders.

The Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association reports that most Palestinian children are detained on the charge of throwing stones; 62% of those arrested in 2009 were detained on that charge. Children are taken away from their home, generally at night, and they are blindfolded, often humiliated, and regularly abused. While we were at the military court, we spoke to a family who had been woken during the night and told to stand outside their home because their son had been identified as a boy who was going to be arrested. He was taken off, and the parents had no idea where he was going to. Children are taken to unknown military detention centres that are generally outside the occupied territories. The family is rarely informed of the location of their child, and may only find out that information via contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross or legal NGOs.

Once in detention, a child is rarely told why they have been arrested, and they are held for up to eight days without access to their family or a lawyer. Interviews take the form of military-style interrogations, and are conducted without video recording, despite demands to end that practice. Forms of abuse that are frequently reported include sleep deprivation, beatings, slapping and kicking, denial of food and water, prolonged periods in uncomfortable conditions, exposure to extreme heat or cold, and denial of access to toilets and washing facilities. In total, 81% of Palestinian children confess during interrogation. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel reports that abuse is widespread:

"Out of a sample of 100 sworn affidavits collected by lawyers from these children in 2009, 69% of the children reported being beaten and kicked, 49% reported being threatened, 14% were held in solitary confinement, 12% were threatened with sexual abuse including rape and 32% were forced to sign confessions in Hebrew."

At the end of our all-party group's four-day tour of the occupied west bank, we arrived at the military court of Ofer. We were there to witness just how the Israeli military courts treated Palestinian children. The courtroom procedures were witnessed by our delegation in a tense and distressing atmosphere. There was a jangle of chains outside the door of the courtroom. All the visitors froze. Army officers led child detainees into the military courtroom. The children's legs were shackled, they were handcuffed and they were all kitted out in brown jumpsuits. One had to wonder if the soldiers felt threatened by 13 and 14-year-old boys.

We waited in the basic concrete courtrooms, looking at the uniformed judge and prosecutors. Two parallel processes happened. The judge, the prosecuting team and the defence lawyer discussed the case in Hebrew, with an interpreter translating into Arabic. No witnesses were called and no testimony was challenged. The judge never once looked at the children or spoke to them. Some children only met their lawyers for the first time in the courtroom. Each child's case lasted barely a few minutes. I think that I am correct in saying that there was no outcome reached in any case that we saw, although my colleagues will correct me if I am wrong. The cases were all continued. I do not know if that had anything to do with our presence, but that was the situation.

For all the children we saw that morning, the only thing that mattered was seeing their families, perhaps for the first time in months. They showed no faith in the proceedings, neither caring what the judge was saying nor expecting to be released. One child had to shout out to his parents the name of the prison inside Israel where he was being held. His parents had had no idea where he was being kept. Nearly all the children were there on stone-throwing offences. One was being tried on the basis of a confession from another minor, which was later withdrawn.

Lawyers advise children and their families to plead guilty, not because the children might be guilty, but because if they plead guilty, they might be released after three months, whereas if they plead innocent, they are likely to be detained for about a year, which for a child of that age is unthinkable. In 2006, acquittals were granted in just 0.26% of child cases, which shows a presumption of guilt, not innocence. All prosecuted children get a security record that prevents them from entering Israel or Jerusalem, which affects them, as do the other aspects of growing up under occupation.

For decades, our Government have said that Israel must adhere to international law, including the fourth Geneva convention, including by ending illegal settlements, home demolitions, collective punishments, the use of human shields and the theft of resources and artefacts. It also means addressing the treatment of Palestinian children in military courts and detention centres. Is it not time for the British Government to show that they are serious about their responsibilities to hold Israel and its leaders to account? Israel cannot remain above international law.