Detention of Palestinian Children (West Bank)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:15 am on 7th December 2010.

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Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield 11:15 am, 7th December 2010

I cannot envisage any situation in which a child, whatever they are alleged to have done, should be manacled, shackled and denied the right to see their parents. We cannot start discriminating against someone on the basis of the offence for which they are being tried. That does not excuse holding and treating children in ways that are contrary to the UN convention on the rights of the child and to the provisions of the Geneva convention. My views on the Israel-Palestine issue are well known-I do not claim to be impartial or always objective-but I would like to think that if I sat in a Palestinian court and saw an Israeli child being brought in shackled and manacled with their hands in front of them or behind their backs, I would not say, "Well, we have to remember that the Palestinians are actually living under occupation." I hope that the hon. Gentleman would see that the same thing works the other way around. Whatever a child is alleged to have done, such treatment is unacceptable.

The hon. Gentleman is right that those teenagers are often charged with a range of offences, but the most common charge by far is for stone throwing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock said, DCI reported in 2009 that of the 192 cases in which it represented such children, 117 were for a charge of stone throwing, which is 61%. I do not want to go over the ground of whether the charges brought against those children are questionable-I think that many of my colleagues will speak about that in due course-but I want to say something about stone throwing and the context in which it happens.

Stone-throwing incidents frequently take place in areas close to Israeli settlements in the west bank, which are, as we have heard, illegal under international law. Palestinians living there, in a very literal sense, see those settlements as a concrete manifestation of occupation, a manifestation that is increasing in size and population. The presence and expansion of settlements and the dispossession or eviction of Palestinians to make way for them creates a tinderbox for violent confrontation. The settlements all too often bring Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied territory close to Palestinian population centres, and Israeli soldiers have sometimes shot children close to settlements and the separation barrier.

We have also seen a worrying rise in settler violence, according to UN monitors and human rights groups in the area. In 2010, there were on average 35 incidents of settler violence a month, an increase from 15 in 2006. As my hon. Friend said, we saw at first hand the evidence of some of those attacks near the town of Nablus and spoke directly with some of the Palestinian victims. Not all of the allegations stand up, but all the indications from the UN and others show that settler violence is a growing and real problem. It is a matter of concern in the context of this debate that more than 90% of cases of alleged settler violence that are investigated by the Israeli authorities are closed without any charges being filed. It is a very different picture for charges brought against Palestinians, particularly in the way in which Palestinian children are arrested, detained and sentenced.

As we have heard, there is a dual system of law based on nationality. Few Israeli settlers are charged with offences committed in the occupied west bank, but when they are, they are prosecuted in regular civilian courts within the state of Israel. Palestinians who are arrested, however, have to go to military courts and are held in military prison. That applies to children as well as adults. Palestinian children in the west bank go to military courts, but Israeli children go to civilian juvenile courts. What counts as a child in such cases depends on whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. The minimum age for criminal responsibility is the same for Israelis and Palestinians; in both cases, it is 12. However, the minimum age for a full custodial sentence in the Israeli civil system is 14, and in the Israeli military system it is 12. The age of majority for Israelis is 18, but for Palestinians it is 16. On the legal right to have a parent present during questioning, there is a partial right for Israeli children, but no such right for Palestinian children. It has to be said that in neither case is there a legal right to have a lawyer present. Is there audio-visual recording for interrogations? For Israeli children the answer is yes, but for Palestinian children it is no. The maximum period of detention before being brought before a judge is 48 hours for Israeli children, but 8 days for Palestinian children.

The maximum period of detention without access to a lawyer is 48 hours for an Israeli child, but for Palestinian children it is 90 days. The maximum period for detention without charge for an Israeli child is 40 days, for a Palestinian child it is 188 days. The maximum period of detention between being charged and the conclusion of a trial is 6 months for an Israeli child, but two years for a Palestinian child. Bail is denied in 20% of cases for Israeli children, but in 87.5% of cases for Palestinian children. Custodial sentences are imposed in 6.5% of cases for Israeli children, but in 83% of cases for Palestinian children. If that is not a form of apartheid in the legal system, I do not know how else to describe it. When victims of such apartheid are children, it become even more distasteful.

As chair of the all-party Britain-Palestine group, I do not claim to be impartial on the political situation in the west bank, but as I said to Guto Bebb, I would like to think that if the boot was on the other foot I would take exactly the same view.