Israel is weaponizing Palestinian children’s rights

Hedi Viterbo

Al-Jazeera  /  December 29, 2022

Instead of simply disregarding child rights and international law, Israel is increasingly using them to perfect and justify its violence.

This year has been the deadliest in the West Bank since the end of the second Intifada in 2005. On December 11, yet another Palestinian life was cut short: Israeli forces shot 16-year-old Jana Zakarneh in the head during a military raid, while she was standing on the roof of her home.

Following Zakarneh’s death, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, urged the UN to add Israel to its blacklist of countries committing grave violations against children in armed conflict. Israel has so far not been included in this annual blacklist. But the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said last year that “Israel should be listed” in 2022 if its child rights record did not sufficiently improve.

To assess the current situation in Palestine and Israel, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, has just completed an official visit there. She met top Israeli officials, including a Supreme Court justice and the military chief of staff. According to the media, Israeli authorities are “attributing great importance to her visit, with the aim of convincing her that Israel is abiding by international law.”

However, Israel openly admits to using the law in a strategic manner. For example, the Israeli military’s strategy document emphasizes the importance of “carrying out effective public diplomacy, perception-shaping, and legal efforts before, during, and after combat” in order to “generate legitimacy for military operation.”

Israel’s use of the law to launder its violence is far from new. But with time, it has developed new legal arguments and harnessed additional fields of law.

One area of law – international child rights norms – has been at the forefront of Israel’s recent efforts to entrench and legitimize its conduct. As my latest book reveals, Israel has been increasingly weaponizing such legal principles as “child protection” and “the best interests of the child” against Palestinians.

Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to Palestinian children in the West Bank. Every year, Israel prosecutes hundreds of them in its military courts, where the conviction rate is 99.76 percent. The most common charge is stone throwing, an act punishable by 10 years in prison, or even 20 if committed against a moving vehicle.

Under Israeli law, military judges are authorized (but not required) to hold hearings behind closed doors for Palestinians aged under 18. This procedure, presented as protecting Palestinian children’s interests, has actually been used by the military court system to prevent public and media scrutiny.

This is precisely what the military courts did four years ago, during the high-profile trial of Ahed Tamimi. Aged 17 at the time, Tamimi had been filmed slapping Israeli soldiers on her family’s property shortly after a soldier shot her cousin in the head at close range. Although Tamimi’s lawyer requested to allow media presence in the courtroom, the military judges – citing the legal principle of “the child’s best interests” – closed the hearings and ejected the journalists.

The following year, an amendment to Israeli law gave military judges a new power: to order evaluations of Palestinian children’s rehabilitation chances, supposedly to assist the court in considering alternatives to remand. This reform was pushed not only by the Israeli legal system but also by some human rights organizations, which even petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court on the matter.

Only after the fact did the petitioners realize that Israel was once again weapon sing legal principles of child rights against Palestinians. The Israeli officers tasked with preparing such rehabilitation reports conduct interviews with Palestinian youths, but these sessions are not fully recorded. And according to some youngsters who underwent such evaluations during their detention, the Israeli interviewers tried to coerce them into confessing, without explaining to them the possible consequences of a guilty plea.

Israel has made quite a few similar reforms in recent years, all of which were couched in a rhetoric of child rights and international law. Possibly one of the most harmful reforms was the growing separation of Palestinian children and adults in Israeli prisons, who in the past had mostly been detained together.

This reform, too, had long been advocated by human rights organizations in the name of international law. The Israeli legal system also came to support such separation, and it did so for another reason: to prevent Palestinians from passing political knowledge from one generation to another in prison, including through their self-organized study groups.

Needless to say, the usual justification for separating children behind bars does not apply to these political prisoners, who are in Israeli custody for ideologically motivated actions rather than, say, sexual offences.

In fact, before they were separated, Palestinian adults provided their juniors with crucial material, mental, and educational support, which is not provided by the Israeli authorities. These imprisoned adults were also the closest substitute for parental care, especially since Palestinian youngsters are held in prisons inside Israel and thus often denied contact with their families in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

No less alarmingly, being separated from their older counterparts has made Palestinian children more vulnerable to abuse by the Israeli prison and security forces, whose commonly reported abuse includes physical violence, threats, protracted handcuffing, and binding in stress positions.

According to Israel, its reforms “strengthen the protection of the rights of [Palestinian] minors,” guarantee “adequate and professional care for juveniles,” and recognize “their welfare and best interests as a factor in the proceedings.”

Some in the international community seem to have taken Israel’s statements at face value. For example, the British Foreign Office, when asked on the matter, mentioned these reforms as examples, supposedly, of “some improvements/progress by Israel.” Similarly, the US State Department has cited Israel’s claim that recent “reforms [have] … improved the treatment of Palestinian minors.”

To the unsuspecting eye, separation from adults, rehabilitation evaluations, and closed hearings all appear to follow international child rights norms. But part of the problem with “the child’s best interests” and similar legal principles is that they are open to competing interpretations, often context-insensitive, and therefore easily coopted by violent states.

Israel’s weaponization of child rights and international law is part of its attempt to claim the mantle of morality. Indeed, following the recent killing of 16-year-old Jana Zakarneh, a senior Israeli military official publicly expressed his “unwavering and unreserved support for the combatants” who had shot her, saying they had “acted morally and ethically.”

Is it possible, therefore, that law and rights are not simply part of the solution, but also part of the problem? In light of the growing complicity of child rights and international law in Israeli state violence, this seems ever more possible.

Hedi Viterbo is Associate Professor of Law at Queen Mary University of London