The hunting of Palestinian children and re-education at the Ofer prison
(Ofra Ben Artzi) On 15 November 2010 the IDF spokesman issued the following news flash: “During the night IDF forces in the Judea and Samaria area and in the Jordan Valley arrested 11 wanted persons.” A routine announcement that is published nearly every morning, but it does not receive much attention, because whom does it interest? And if among those 11 wanted persons there were some children who were pulled from their beds in the middle of their dreams at midnight, seized by soldiers of an elite brigade in front of their terrified parents; handcuffed, blindfolded and then put into a military vehicle that took them to an ISA (Shin Bet) interrogation facility, does anybody really care?
I set out with members of Machsom Watch to the “Ofer” military court to which those children are taken after they have been interrogated without any adult accompaniment. Two weeks ago two defendants’ benches looked like a primary school class, but here the women are not mothers or teachers, but the judge and the prosecutor. They sit in groups to the right of the judge, wearing the brown uniforms of adult security prisoners, their legs shackled. It is impossible to get used to the sight of child prisoners. The heart skips a beat and shame comes flooding in, because they are sitting there in my name and my tax money pays for their uniforms,finances the diligent judge and prosecutor, and even the air conditioning in the courtroom.
In recent weeks the number of children arrested has increased dramatically. One defense attorney estimated that on the morning of 25 October 2010, two school classes appeared on the defendants’ bench – about fifty children and youths. Statistics from Palestinian and Israeli organizations show that at any given time the Ofer prison is populated by at least 300 Palestinian minors. This week a lawyer told us that recently most of the cases heard at the Ofer military court have been of minors. After hundreds of hours of observing judicial proceedings and conversations with families and lawyers I believe that what we are confronted with here is the terrible phenomenon of a hunt – there is no other word – a mass hunt of Palestinian children.
This is how it works: army jeeps enter a village and station themselves beside a school. They create deliberate and planned friction with the pupils. Stones are thrown, and then, in the dead of night, several children receive visits from soldiers of the elite unit and are arrested. Their detention ends with a plea-bargain in which the minor confesses to a small infraction in order to save himself time in jail and his family money, because as a Palestinian his chances of getting bail are virtually zero even if the accusation is of throwing stones. Therefore he will not undergo a trial to prove his innocence. The system takes full advantage of that. The personal consequence is a criminal record. The cumulative general consequence is thousands of Palestinian children and youths with criminal backgrounds. In contrast, Jewish minors who were convicted of crimes related to the anti-Disengagement protests received a blanket amnesty about a year ago under a special law that was passed for them in the Knesset. About 400 files were closed and their criminal records were erased.
Since the West Bank was occupied in 1967, Palestinian minors have been put on trial in military courts. Only recently has an order been issued to establish a military court for youth, and new orders have been issued relating to the procedures for putting minors on trial in that court. This is a cosmetic measure that does not give them the special protections that Israeli children – including those who live in the West Bank – receive. In 1991 Israel ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to which “a child is defined as a human being under the age of eighteen.” Apparently Palestinian children are super-human beings, maybe Supermen, because according to Israeli security legislation they reach adulthood at age sixteen. This is a violation of an international convention, an ongoing injustice and racial discrimination. And in fact, last June the Civil Rights Association and the Yesh Din organization asked the Military Advocate-General to take action to modify the law.
When I sit like this in the court of the military judge Sharon Rivlin-Ahai who has been appointed to rule on the cases of minors at the “Ofer” military court on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to the pain and the shame, I am troubled by the question: why does the strongest army in the Middle East preoccupy itself with Palestinian children and youth to such a degree and with such devotion? Why do they dedicate so many resources and so much thought to them? What do they gain from this?
My conclusion from the accumulated experience of my group is clear and very distressing. As I see it, those who so preoccupy themselves with the young generation of Palestinians do not believe in a political solution. We have here a well-planned measure that constitutes a stage in a general Israeli policy that has the objective of continuing to rule over the Palestinians for the foreseeable future. The policy of criminalizing thousands of minors and turning some of them into collaborators and incriminators fragments and destroys the next generation. This preliminary treatment “sears the consciousness” of the young generation and conditions them to face adult life under Occupation, not with dignity in their own state.
I assume that this policy is competently managed by teams of experts and consultants from various fields who are probably aided by professional literature that is rich in reference notes and bibliographies.
Will one of the senior learned figures who implement this criminal policy break the silence one day?
The author is a member of the Machsom Watch organization