Detention of Palestinian Children (West Bank)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:14 pm on 7th December 2010.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:14 pm, 7th December 2010

It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gale. I echo the congratulations to Sandra Osborne on initiating the debate. It is an object lesson in why MPs go to places-to see things at first hand and report back. A number of hon. Members mentioned that and I shall come to it later.

The human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories continues to cause concern and was high on the agenda of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs during his recent visit to Israel and the occupied territories. I hope to explain in the course of my remarks what action we are taking to raise these issues with the Israeli Government.

Before I do so, I welcome Stephen Twigg to the Opposition Front Bench. It is a pleasure to see him in that position. I think that we understand each other very well and understand where we are coming from on a matter about which there is a large measure of cross-party agreement. That will be particularly useful as we work through the next few months, which will be important for the middle east peace process.

The other hon. Members who made contributions deserve to be mentioned. Richard Burden has a long-standing commitment to the region that we are discussing and spoke, as always, with both passion and knowledge. Grahame M. Morris made the case for an early visit by new Members of Parliament to areas of concern that have, alas, occupied the time of the House for all the years that I have been here. He spoke movingly of his own experiences. I do not necessarily support all the allegations with which he concluded his remarks, but plainly he will make a number of serious contributions on this issue in the future.

Ian Lavery spoke with understandable emotion about what he had observed. He was right to raise the issues relating to human shields, which are unacceptable. It is as unacceptable for Israeli soldiers to use them as it is for members of Hamas to use them when they position their gun emplacements and their weapons against Israel in crowded civilian areas because they know exactly what the response of the world community will be if Israel seeks to take action against them. Both are wrong, and it is correct of the Israeli authorities to recognise that and make the determination that they do, although there has been widespread concern about the punishment meted out when these injustices were overturned.

My hon. Friend Guto Bebb, who has not been able to stay for the conclusion of the debate, made a series of interventions that, while never condoning ill treatment, reminded us, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby also did, that this is far from a straightforward situation. We would be naive not to recognise some of the pressures placed on children by those who seek to use them for ulterior motives. My hon. Friend was right to raise that. His remarks and those of other hon. Members emphasised again the sharp divisions on Israel and related issues in the House. The answer to that, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby made clear, is that we have to get a solution and we have to support the middle east peace process that is under way.

The only thing that will end what we have spent so much of our time discussing over the years is a settlement that is agreed on both sides. I believe that that would be very much according to the terms that the hon. Gentleman set out. It has to be a two-state solution-a secure and recognised Israel side by side with a viable Palestine; Jerusalem as a shared capital; and answers to the issues relating to refugees and resources. We are looking for that, and we urge all parties involved in negotiations to stay at it. Ultimately, it is only the removal of the sense of injustice, which lingers because there has not been a solution, that will deal with the root issues, many of which are at the heart of what we have debated today.

The hon. Gentleman, in his measured remarks, also raised issues on the Palestinian side in relation to human rights. For completeness, I should like to mention them as well. Hon. Members should be under no illusion: I shall devote the bulk of my remarks to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and her report. However, for the sake of completeness, it is important to place these points on the record as well. The UK Government have very serious concerns about the human rights record of Hamas in Gaza. That includes arbitrary detention, repression of dissent, curtailment of free speech and the suppression of women's rights, as well as the ongoing threat to Israel's civilian population from indiscriminate rocket fire and the continued detention of Gilad Shalit without access to the Red Cross or contact with his family.

We continue to raise our concerns with the Palestinian Authority over allegations of the ill treatment of detainees by Palestinian security services. These rights are indivisible, and although, quite properly, we are spending the bulk of our time dealing with the matters raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, it is right to recognise that, as a Government and as a Parliament, our commitment to human rights is across the board.

Turning to the subject of the debate, it is important to set the issue of human rights in the west bank in context. As I mentioned, there is no doubt about the universality of human rights principles, but it important to recognise that Israel has real security concerns that need to be addressed. Following the second intifada of 2000, the number of terrorist attacks against civilian targets in Israel rose to unprecedented levels. Israel's response increased accordingly: many arrests were made, thousands were remanded in administrative detention, movement and access in the west bank were severely restricted and construction of the barrier began. Israel has a right to impose security restrictions to protect its population. There is an argument that the barrier, for example, might be a reasonable way of doing so. However, restricting access to schools and work does nothing to improve the security situation. The barrier should be constructed on the Israeli side of the green line, and should not confiscate Palestinian land. Some of these measures may have helped to improve the security situation.

It is important to acknowledge the role played by the Palestinian Authority, with help from the international community, including the British support team and its work with General Dayton, to improve the overall security situation. Reform of the Palestinian security sector has gone a long way towards halting the ability of armed groups to act from the west bank. We welcome Israel's corresponding improvements to movement and access in the west bank and the growth of the Palestinian economy, as seen by a successful investment conference a few months ago.

The number of Palestinians held in Israeli detention, including administrative detainees, has fallen, but all that contrasts with the human rights situation. More can be done to match the improved security situation, otherwise Israel risks undermining its own interests and increasingly drawing the attention of the spotlight of international concern. Perhaps this debate, at its simplest, suggests that Israel might protect itself differently in relation to children and to rather greater effect.

We continue to monitor the human rights situation in the west bank, including the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. Where we have concerns, we raise them with the Israeli Government. We would encourage Israel to take those concerns seriously; too often we do not receive formal responses to our lobbying. When we do, the responses often fail to address our concerns in detail, pointing to the prevailing security situation-for example, demonstrations in the west bank that turn violent-and stressing that Israel strives to follow due process. We understand, but we still want answers.

On the specific issue of Palestinians in the Israeli court system, we have a number of concerns about the application of due process and the treatment of Palestinian detainees, in particular where Palestinian children are involved. Many of those concerns relate to the issues raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock and Members who accompanied her on her recent visit. We are concerned about the widespread use of administrative detention which, according to international law, should be used only in the most exceptional security cases rather than as routine practice. Administrative detention should be used as a last-ditch preventive measure, not as a punitive measure and an alternative to due process.

We are concerned that Palestinian detainees are dealt with by the Israeli military court system, irrespective of the charges, whereas Israeli settlers who commit violence against Palestinians and their land are dealt with by Israel's civil justice system. Cases heard before the military court system are frequently based on secret evidence not made available to detainees and their lawyers. As we have heard, many convictions are based on confessions, either from the defendants themselves seeking a shorter sentence under plea bargaining or from the evidence of minors facing detention. Access to lawyers is often restricted, with many lawyers unable to meet their clients until they see them in the courtroom. All prisoners should have access to a fair trial.

Palestinians from the west bank are routinely detained in prisons inside Israel or on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, meaning limited, if any, access for family members. The policy of holding Palestinian detainees and prisoners in Israel contravenes the Geneva convention's ban on the forcible transfer and deportation of protected civilians from the occupied territory to the territory of an occupying power. Although the Geneva convention allows the evacuation of populations in circumstances where the safety of the population is under immediate threat, or for imperative military considerations, the evacuation should, if possible, be to a different location in the occupied territory and be temporary until the danger subsides or the military operation ends. We call on Israel to hold court proceedings and use prison facilities for Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and with reasonable access for lawyers and family members.

Those concerns apply to child detainees as much as they do to Palestinian adults. Under international law and Israeli civilian law, a child is recognised as anyone under the age of 18. Under Israeli military law however, it is under 16. The figures that we have show that since September 2000, over 2,500 children have been arrested. At least 256 Palestinian children are being held in Israeli prisons, including 34 children under the age of 16. As is the case with adult prisoners, child detainees are often transferred to prisons located within Israel, and Palestinian child administrative detainees are held with adult administrative detainees. In most cases, their families are not informed of their arrest. We welcomed Israel's announcement of a new juvenile court within its military judicial system. It is important that Israel has acknowledged that child detainees need to be treated differently from adults, and perhaps the consistent and persistent work of NGOs and parliamentarians is having some impact. We believe that it is even more important that that announcement now translates into changes on the ground in the treatment of minors.

We are aware of the recent reports by the Palestinian section of Defence for Children International documenting alleged abuse of Palestinian children by Israeli security forces. The Israeli human rights NGO, B'Tselem, has just produced a report detailing its investigations into the arrests of at least 81 minors in the Silwan area of occupied East Jerusalem over the past year. The Government pay tribute to those NGOs with whom we work in close co-operation on many issues. B'Tselem's concerns include arresting children at night from their home; preventing parents from being present at interrogations; allegations of violent treatment; and the detention of four minors under the age of 12-many of the issues raised by hon. Members this morning. We are urgently investigating and will take whatever action we judge to be appropriate.

I am sure hon. Members will be pleased to hear that the middle east and north Africa conflict prevention pool has recently approved funding of £12,500 for a project run by Defence for Children International. That project aims to defend, promote and protect the rights of Palestinian children to reduce the number directly and indirectly affected by the conflict through focused themed advocacy initiatives, in accordance with the convention on the rights of the child.

Over the years, the House has resolutely defended Israel, and Israel's right to security, and sought to understand the pressures on it. I began by putting that in context in relation to the issues raised today. That support will continue from this Government and, I have no doubt, from the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby and his colleagues. However, Israel needs to recognise, rather more often than it does, that criticism of its activities from friends-like the hon. Gentleman, I count myself as a long-standing friend of Israel-based on observation and evidence is designed to assist Israel with security and world opinion, which has slipped alarmingly over the years.