Torture, trauma and intimidation: How Israel treats Palestinian child prisoners

Israeli soldiers detain 16-year-old Fawzi al-Juneidi in Al-Khalil-Hebron - the boy, who was beaten by soldiers during his arrest (Wisam Hashlamoun - APA Images)

Tamara Nassar

The Electronic Intifada  /  December 16, 2020

Imagine waking up in the dead of the night to heavily armed soldiers pounding on your door.

They barge in, wreak havoc in your home, abduct your teenage child or sibling from their bed without telling you what they’re charging them with or where they’re taking them.

This is how the journey often begins for hundreds of Palestinian children who are detained by Israeli occupation forces and tried in military courts – or held without charge or trial – every year.

That journey is detailed in two recent reports by human rights groups that lay bare the experience of Palestinian children when they are imprisoned by Israel.

“A measure of first resort”

In an October report, HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization that campaigns against Israel’s abuses of Palestinians living under occupation, details Israel’s arrest of Palestinian children from the moment the Israeli military seizes them from their homes to the moment the captured children arrive at an interrogation facility.

The group collected affidavits from 81 Palestinian boys arrested between August 2018 and December 2019, a small sample of the 500 to 700 children Israel detains every year.

HaMoked found that the vast majority of the boys were arrested between 11 pm and 5 am. Furthermore, it found that almost all pre-planned arrests were done at night.

Night arrests, which HaMoked says the Israeli military conducts mostly as a “measure of first resort,” do not offer children the option to come into custody on their own.

When it comes to Palestinian children, Israel “routinely uses the harshest and most injurious measure at its disposal,” according to the Israeli human rights organization.

What happens during night arrests?

The experience of a night arrest is particularly traumatic for children and their families.

First, it involves an invasion of the home.

Children reported soldiers pounding loudly at the door in large numbers, sometimes barging in and dragging them out of bed.

The rest of the family is often placed in one room or area in the house and the child in another. Younger siblings are reported to be terrified by the whole experience.

The timing makes it a “traumatic experience for the whole family.”

The detained children are then blindfolded and handcuffed – “usually with their hands painfully tied behind their backs” – and are taken to a military vehicle.

“During the ride, they are often beaten, humiliated and sworn at by the soldiers,” HaMoked reports.

“About ten border police officers came at me, threw me to the ground and started beating me all over my body, with rifle butts, shoes and hands,” a boy who was 17 at the time of his arrest told HaMoked.

Another boy who was arrested at 16, described soldiers hitting him with rifle butts and feet as they led him on foot to the occupied West Bank settlement of Beit El.

“I didn’t know where all the punches were coming from,” he told HaMoked.

When he told a doctor of the source of the beatings, he said a soldier tried to attack him, so he changed his testimony about the bruises.

“The doctor just watched and didn’t protect me,” he recalled.

In one recent case, Israeli forces broke one boy’s jaw while he was in custody by striking his face with a rifle stock, according to Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP).

On another occasion, soldiers physically and verbally abused a child detainee to pressure him into collaborating with the military. This blatantly violates international law, according to HaMoked.

On the way to the interrogation center, soldiers often make stops at military bases or open areas, where they subject children to “exposure to extreme cold, denial of access to the bathroom, no food or drink, sleeping without a proper bed or blanket and remaining blindfolded and handcuffed for long periods of time.”

HaMoked pointed out that a 2014 pilot program to collaborate with the Israeli police to summon children for questioning rather than apprehend them in raids on their homes was not being followed and such a practice was “rarely done.”

In response to an inquiry by the Israeli rights group, the Israeli police said that “implementation of the pilot is problematic” due to the “sensitive security situation” in the occupied West Bank.

The Israeli military responded to a similar inquiry by HaMoked earlier this year saying criteria for requiring night arrests also depend on “the gravity of the offense that the minor is suspected of committing, the minor’s age, the minorˈs criminal record.”

HaMoked was told “most” of the minors captured were 16 to 18 years old.

The Israeli military said it differentiates between children aged 12 to 16 and those 16 to 18 years old. Under international law, however, all people under the age of 18 are considered children and are “entitled to the same legal protection,” HaMoked told the military.

The Israeli human rights group filed a petition with Israel’s high court demanding all children be summoned to interrogation “as an alternative to night arrests.”

It must be noted, however, that whether Palestinian children are summoned to interrogation or detained from their homes at night, they are systematically subjected to military tribunals by Israel.

Israeli children, meanwhile, are tried in civilian courts.

Israel is the only country in the world to systematically subject hundreds of children – and only Palestinian children – to military tribunals.

Solitary confinement

Another report, this one from this month, by Defense for Children International Palestine (DCIP) examines the use of solitary confinement as a tool to torture children during detention.

It does so by analyzing 108 cases of Palestinian children being held in solitary confinement for two days or more from 2016 to 2019.

It found that the average duration of solitary confinement was around 14 days, and the longest to have been a month.

DCIP concluded that evidence “overwhelmingly indicates” that the Israeli military uses solitary confinement against children for the sole purposes of obtaining confessions or gathering information.

In other words, solitary confinement is not used on children already serving a sentence, but rather before a child is sentenced.

The conditions of confinement include “inadequate ventilation, 24-hour yellow lighting, no windows, unsanitary bedding and toilet facilities and hostile architectural features such as wall protrusions,” according to DCIP.

Throughout interrogation, Israeli authorities deny children any meaningful human contact with anyone other than their interrogators and captors.

Interrogators subject children to a variety of physically and emotionally abusive methods, including intimidating and threatening children, forcing them to remain in stressful positions.

In 100 percent of the cases examined by DCIP, no lawyer or parents were present for the child during interrogation. Except in about six percent of cases, no one received any legal consultation prior to interrogation, DCIP found.

The vast majority were also exposed to informants, Palestinian collaborators who attempt to befriend other prisoners to gain their confidence, extract recorded confessions and report back to the prison authorities.

They are also referred to as asafeer, Arabic for “birds.”

Occasionally, Israeli forces try to recruit children as informants by intimidating them or by offering early release or financial rewards, attempts that “violate international law,” DCIP said.

The human rights group determined that the Israeli military’s use of solitary confinement for the purpose of interrogation amounts to “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

DCIP found zero evidence that Israel uses solitary confinement for disciplinary, protective or medical reasons.

International law prohibits the use of solitary confinement against children, “and yet Israeli authorities frequently detain children in this manner,” general director of DCIP, Khaled Quzmar, said.

The practice against children “must end immediately, and the prohibition must be enshrined in law.”

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada