In an Israeli military detention centre in January 2011, an interrogator addressed a boy. Blindfolded and bound, 16-year-old Malek would later remember the words: ‘My name’s Abu Ahmad and I’ll give you five minutes to think and then confess to throwing stones.’
In the West Bank, stones are everywhere. They litter the pale, rocky slopes on which Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements perch, side by side. Children, too, are everywhere. They make up over half of Palestine’s population and suffer the same realities and frustrations of conflict as the adults.
During the first intifada, the image of a child throwing a stone at a tank became an icon of the Palestinian struggle. Today, as the Separation Wall and settlements expand across the West Bank, the children still reach for rocks to sling at military vehicles as they roll by.
But two human rights groups have this week published reports that uncover the price Palestinian children pay for their actions. Israeli organization B’Tselem has released ‘No Minor Matter’, a study of children like Malek – arrested on suspicion of throwing stones between 2005 and 2010.
Of the 853 children arrested, all were prosecuted, and 852 were jailed.
In response, the Israeli military have said that these are children exploited by extremist groups and the sentences act as a necessary deterrent. But lawyer Gerard Horton, who works for Defence for Children International (DCI), reminds us that these are the actions of children, not terrorists. ‘Boys worldwide throw stones. In Palestine, when the Israeli military come into these children’s villages, some boys do throw stones out of anger and frustration in an act of spontaneous resistance.’
Each year, approximately 700 Palestinian children are arrested and prosecuted in military courts, the majority on charges of throwing stones. These courts can and do imprison children as young as 12, even though Israeli civilian law prohibits the imprisoning of a child under 14 years of age.
According to B’Tselem’s latest report, 60 per cent of the children jailed for stone throwing between 2005 and 2010 were aged 14 or under. Prison terms range from a few days to over a year. One 14-year-old boy was sentenced to 20 months, while nearly a third of minors aged 14-15 are locked up for four months or more.
The majority of children are imprisoned inside Israel – an act which violates Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In practical terms, this makes it difficult, and in some cases impossible for their parents to visit them. To add to their isolation, they are also barred from using a phone.
Reports of torture and mistreatment are common. A report submitted to the UN Special Reporteur on Torture by the DCI, a day after B’Tselem went public with its findings, outlines grave concerns about the systematic mistreatment of children held in Israeli military detention.
Child suspects are often taken by the military from the family home at night. Once arrested, the report states that they are often beaten before being blindfolded and their hands tied: ‘The child will then be placed into the back of a military vehicle where they usually suffer further physical and psychological abuse on the way the interrogation and detention centre.’
The interrogation of Yasser, 15, lasted for over an hour. ‘A policeman came into the room. He grabbed my neck and pushed so hard that it nearly choked me. He kept pushing down on my neck for about two minutes for no reason,’ he says. ‘The other interrogator didn’t interfere at all. He just kept laughing.’
Confessions tend to be drawn out after hours of questioning and without the presence of a parent or a lawyer. In 9 per cent of cases recorded by the DCI, the children spent between 24 hours to 20 days in solitary confinement. ‘This is the very kernel of this system – traumatizing children and forcing them to confess,’ says Horton. ‘And it’s a very efficient system. It traumatizes generation after generation.’
Underlining their report to the UN, the DCI has called for practical action to be taken to ensure that every child arrested is accompanied by a family member and a lawyer. They have also called for every interrogation to be audio-visually recorded.
‘Short of bringing the occupation to an end, there is little we can do to stop this,’ says Horton. ‘However, we can limit some of the damage by demanding independent oversight inside the interrogation room.’