Detention of Palestinian Children (West Bank)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:32 am on 7th December 2010.

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Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 11:32 am, 7th December 2010

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for the first time. I compliment my hon. Friend Sandra Osborne on securing this important debate. As has already been indicated, I was one of four Members of Parliament from the all-party group on Palestine who visited the west bank only last week. I do not have any long-standing commitment to the Palestinian cause as such, but as a new MP, I felt that it behoved me to look at the situation with my own eyes, to make my own objective judgment on what I saw, and to share my evidence with the House.

Last Monday, I was in an Israeli military court in Ofer with my colleagues and the non-governmental organisation Defence for Children International, which was mentioned earlier. I received a briefing from the NGO's solicitors but also had an opportunity, through an interpreter, to chat with some of the families of the children detainees. I would like to use this opportunity to record my thanks and those of the whole delegation for the excellent work that NGOs such as Defence for Children International perform. They do valuable work documenting what is actually happening, bearing witness and providing information that we in turn can bring to the attention of the Minister in the hope that some of the issues can be addressed.

The situation facing Palestinian child detainees-"Palestinian" is an important distinction to make-is serious in its own right, but as colleagues have said, it is also symptomatic of some of the other, interrelated issues in play in the occupied territories. The illegal settlements on the west bank and in East Jerusalem have already been mentioned; in many respects, they are becoming a kind of de facto annexation. Also mentioned were the seizure of water resources and Palestinian lands, which we also visited. We spoke with Palestinians, NGOs and various other organisations, including the United Nations.

The military court system plays an important part in those wider issues, and I want to concentrate my remarks on it and how it is applied to Palestinian children in detention. It is important to repeat something that has already been said: Israel's actions represent serious breaches of the fourth Geneva convention, the UN convention against torture and the UN convention on the rights of the child.

Frankly, the experience last week of seeing the treatment of Palestinian child detainees was shocking. I am the father of a 13-year-old child, and the image of children of 12 and 13 in prison fatigues with leg irons and manacles being marched into court was appalling. I found it difficult to come to terms with it. Although that was the first time I had witnessed such violations, they are not recent. They have been happening consistently over the past 43 years of the military occupation.

Israel signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1991. Does the Minister agree with UNICEF, which only last month stated that Israel was in tangible breach of that convention? Will he not only ask but insist that Israel applies the convention to its conduct, not only in its own territories but in the occupied territories?

It seems that arrest and detention are used by the Israeli authorities as their default position. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock referred to article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which states that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of children should be the last resort. However, for Palestinians, imprisonment without due process seems to be the measure of first resort. Under the convention, authorities should refrain from detaining juveniles who are undergoing trial, but Israel detains them in 87.5% of cases. Children are frequently taken into detention inside Israel, as, of course, are adults, but I want to concentrate on child detainees.

Israel has a clear obligation, and there is a clear violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention. Guto Bebb asked whether there should be some dispensation because Israel is in dispute about whether occupied territories or some annexation is involved. This is occurring in occupied territory, and Israel has a clear obligation in international law under article 76. By removing adults and, indeed, children from the occupied territories to detention centres and prisons in Israel, it is in clear breach of its obligations, just as it is in breach by moving settlers into the occupied territories.

I would like to share some of the conversations that I had with the families. The standard operating procedure is as follows. Palestinian children are often arrested at checkpoints. They are not arrested in situ for throwing stones at the army-the arrests happen afterwards. Children may be taken off the street or, most commonly, from the family home. During house arrests, large numbers of Israeli soldiers typically surround the family home, often in the early hours of the morning, between 2 am and 4 am, and, once a child has been identified for arrest, he or she is often roughed up-slapped or kicked-then blindfolded, and their hands are tied behind their back with a plastic tie. The child would then be placed in the back of a military vehicle, often on the floor, and, again, they would suffer further physical and psychological abuse on the way to interrogation and detention centres.

On arrest, children and their families are seldom informed of the charges against them. Often, the evidence is confessions from other children, who have been asked to identify their friends who have been involved in stone-throwing. The evidence used is questionable. Families are not informed of where their children are taken; most often they are taken out of the west bank to detention centres or prisons in Israel. On arrival at the detention or interrogation centre, the child is either placed in a cell or taken straight for interrogation. I am told that common interrogation practices include slapping, kicking-