(Jerusalem) – Israeli security forces are abusing Palestinian children detained in the West Bank. The number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has more than doubled since October 2015.
Interviews with children who have been detained, video footage, and reports from lawyers reveal that Israeli security forces are using unnecessary force in arresting and detaining children, in some cases beating them, and holding them in unsafe and abusive conditions.
“Palestinian children are treated in ways that would terrify and traumatize an adult,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine country director. “Screams, threats, and beatings are no way for the police to treat a child or to get accurate information from them.”
Lawyers and human rights groups told Human Rights Watch that Israeli security forces routinely interrogate children without a parent present, violating international and domestic Israeli laws that provide special protections for detained children. The protections include requirements to arrest or detain a child only as a last resort and to take precautions to ensure that children are not compelled to confess guilt. The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires security forces to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration in all aspects of the juvenile justice system.
In July 2015, Human Rights Watch documented six cases of abuse of children whom Israeli security forces had detained in East Jerusalem and other parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. In response, the Israeli police and military denied that the abuses had taken place and told Human Rights Watch that their forces conduct arrests and detention in accordance with the law.
Since then, Human Rights Watch has documented three new cases of physical abuse of children in custody and interrogation practices that violate these norms. Criminal defense lawyers report that such abuse is endemic. The failure to abide by international norms and protections under Israeli law concerning child detainees is particularly worrying given the spike in the number of children arrested during the recent violence involving children.
Since October, protests in the West Bank and Gaza have escalated, as has the use of live fire against demonstrators by Israeli forces. There has also been a wave of stabbings and attempted stabbings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians and security forces both in the West Bank and in Israel. As of February 29, 2016, 172 Palestinians and 24 Israelis had been killed, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Of 21 Palestinians suspected of carrying out attacks and killed in 2016, nine were children, according to the UN.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three Palestinians, ages 14, 15, and 16, two of whom were arrested in East Jerusalem and a third in the West Bank city of Hebron, in October and November 2015. Each reported being subjected to unnecessary force during arrest or detention or both. Human Rights Watch also interviewed witnesses to all three of these arrests and viewed a security camera video in which police officers can be seen using what appears to be unnecessary force to arrest the 15-year-old boy. Human Rights Watch also interviewed criminal defense lawyers working in East Jerusalem, submitted a list of questions to the Israeli police minister through a Knesset (parliament) member, and submitted questions to the Israeli military spokesperson’s office and the Israeli police.
In two of the three cases, the police interrogated the children without a parent or guardian present; in the third, a parent was able to be present only after the interrogation had begun. All three children reported that police officers hit and kicked them after they were in custody. They said were made to spend hours outside in the cold in the early morning and at night, handcuffed in chairs in police compounds.
A video from a store security camera documenting the arrest of the one of the children, Fayez B., 15, appears to show at least seven police officers in riot gear participating in the arrest, including slapping and dragging the 53-kilogram boy and placing him in a chokehold. “It was a terrifying night,” Fayez told Human Rights Watch. The boy’s father arrived during the arrest and said a police officer punched him in the face when he asked what was happening.
According to the Palestinian children’s rights group DCI-Palestine and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, which rely on information from the Israeli Prisons Authority, the number of Palestinian children arrested in the West Bank since October, when the violence increased, has risen by 150 percent relative to a year ago. In addition to attacks on Israeli civilians and security forces by Palestinian children, the instances of Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli vehicles has increased.
In response to allegations of abuse in the arrest of one of the boys, Ahmed A., the Hebron District of the Israeli police force sent a written response to the questions from Human Rights Watch. It said that Ahmed’s interrogation was conducted according to law but did not specifically address allegations that police officers physically abused him. The police minister has yet to respond to a parliamentary inquiry submitted in February 2016, requesting general information about treatment of Palestinian children in detention. The police chief’s office declined a request by Human Rights Watch to meet in order to address concerns.
Human Rights Watch did not request a response to the cases of the other two boys, to protect them and their families. It is withholding the last names of the children to protect their privacy.
“The increasing number of attacks by Palestinian children is troubling,” said Bashi. “But security forces should obey the law and treat child detainees with the humanity and dignity that all children deserve.”
Legal Requirements for Interrogations
Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991, requires court procedures to take into account the age of child defendants. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Israel also ratified in 1991, elaborates on this requirement and directs states to ensure that children are “not compelled … to confess guilt.” The committee charged with interpreting the convention has stated that this includes a right to request the presence of a parent during questioning and to avoid interrogation practices that, given the age of the child and their development, might lead or coerce the child to acknowledge guilt.
The committee says the term “compelled” should be interpreted broadly and not be limited to physical force or other clear violations of human rights. The age of the child, the child’s development, the length of the interrogation, the child’s lack of understanding, the fear of unknown consequences or of a suggested possibility of imprisonment may lead them to a confession that is not true. The committee has also called on Israel to open an independent inquiry into all alleged cases of torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian children, in light of reports that security forces “systematically subject [them] to physical and verbal violence.”
UNICEF reported that in 168 of 208 Palestinian children’s affidavits collected in 2013 and 2014, children said they were not informed of their rights to a lawyer or to remain silent during interrogation. Children said they were “subjected to physical violence” in 171 cases.
The Youth Law applicable in Israel and military orders applicable in the West Bank all require police to notify parents of their child’s arrest and to allow the child to consult with a lawyer before the interrogation. The Youth Law entitles children to have a parent present during their interrogations, except in cases of alleged “security offenses.” The Youth Law also requires officials to conduct interrogations during the day, to conduct proceedings in a language the child understands, and to take into consideration the well-being of the child in determining whether arrest is absolutely necessary. Although the Youth Law does not formally apply to the West Bank, except East Jerusalem, the Israeli military has told Human Rights Watch that it implements the provisions of the Youth Law, including the right to have a parent present during interrogation, to law enforcement in the West Bank.
As the number of arrests of children has grown amid the escalation of violence in recent months, so has the number of cases in which international norms protecting children are violated, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations have reported. Mohammed Mahmoud, a lawyer for the Palestinian prisoner organization Adameer, has represented hundreds of children in the last few months, most of whom were arrested for throwing stones at settlers and security forces. He told Human Rights Watch:
The main problem in the Israeli legal system in dealing with minors is that a senior police officer can grant the interrogators an order permitting them not to allow the parents of a child to be present during his interrogation. This order, as far as we see, is used against Palestinian children in political cases only, and it gives the interrogators the freedom to harass, scream, threaten the children and push them to confess to crimes they have not committed out of fear.
Although denying the right to have a parent present during an interrogation is supposed to be exceptional, such practice threatens to become the rule for Palestinian children, for whom acts such as throwing stones are defined as security crimes. According to a 2015 study by Military Court Watch, a nongovernmental group, just 3 percent of Palestinian children arrested in the West Bank reported that their parents were present throughout their interrogation by security forces.
In November 2015, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that authorizes longer prison sentences for children convicted of throwing stones and that allows the government to suspend social welfare payments to their families while the children serve their sentences.