Recent studies allege a system of abuse targeting children detained by Israel's military court system.
Israeli military courts imprison about 500-700 Palestinian children per year, according to a new study [AFP]
Ramallah, occupied Palestinian territories - A dirty mattress fills up a space barely two metres long and one metre wide. A suffocating stench emanating from the toilet hovers over the windowless room, and a light turned on 24/7 means sleep is a distant dream. This is the infamous Cell 36 in Al Jalameh Prison in Israel. It's one of the cells that many Palestinian children have either heard of or, worse, been inside when placed in solitary confinement.
These vivid details emerged recently in a report based on the testimonies of more than 300 Palestinian children, which were collected over four years. The study by Defence for Children International, Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted: Children Held in Military Detention highlights a pattern of abuse towards children detained under the Israeli military court system. In the past 11 years, DCI estimates that around 7,500 children, some as young as 12, have been detained, interrogated and imprisoned within this system. This is about 500-700 children per year, or nearly two children every day.
Mohammad S, from the northern West Bank town of Tulkarem, was 16 when he was arrested, according to the report. It was 2:30am when Israeli soldiers dragged him out of bed. He was blindfolded and verbally abused and taken to an unknown destination, where he says he was forced to lay down in the cold for an hour. He was later taken to an interrogation centre near Nablus at around 11am, and only then was he allowed to drink some water and use the bathroom, after he underwent a strip search. Tied and blindfolded still, he was then taken to Al Jalameh, near Haifa in Israel. There he was taken to Cell 36, where he was forced to spend his first night sleeping on the floor because there was no mattress or blanket.
Mohammad says he spent 17 days in solitary confinement in Cell 36 and Cell 37, interrupted only by interrogations. Mohammad was reportedly interrogated for two to three hours every day, while sitting on a low seat with his hands tied to the chair.
The most crucial hours
"The first 48 hours after a child is taken are the most important because that's when the most abuse happens," DCI's lawyer Gerard Horton said. Children taken from their homes in the night are blindfolded and bound and made to lie face down or up on the floors of military vehicles, according to the centre's report.
Very rarely are parents told where their child is being taken, and, unlike Israeli children from within either Israel or the settlements in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian minors are reportedly not allowed to have a parent present before or during initial interrogation, and generally do not see a lawyer until after their interrogation is over.
Specifically, Israeli children have access to a lawyer within 48 hours and those under the age of 14 cannot be imprisoned. Palestinian children, however, can be jailed even if they are as young as 12 and, like adults, can be held in jail without having formal charges against them for up to 188 days.
"The key issue is one of equality. If two children, a Palestinian and an Israeli, are caught throwing stones at each other, then one will be processed in a juvenile justice system and one in a military court," Horton said.
"They have completely different rights. It's hard to justify this after 45 years of occupation. It's not a question of whether offences are committed. What we are saying is children should not be treated completely differently."
As soon as children are taken from their homes, and placed inside an Israeli military vehicle, they are often kicked or slapped, according to testimonies obtained by DCI. Some said they were laughed at and others said they heard cameras clicking.
Because children are often taken late at night, they are driven to the nearest settlement to wait until Israeli police interrogators open up shop in the morning. This means children are sometimes placed out in the cold or rain for many hours. Requests for water or using the bathroom are most often denied, and children are taken straight to interrogation after a night of little sleep.
That's what Ahmad F said happened to him. A 15-year-old from 'Iraq Burin village, just outside Nablus, he was arrested in July 2011. He was taken to the nearby Huwwara interrogation centre, where he was left outside from 5am until 3pm. At one point, soldiers brought a dog. "They brought the dog's food and put it on my head," Ahmad told DCI. "Then they put another piece of bread on my trousers near my genitals, so I tried to move away but [the dog] started barking. I was terrified."
During interrogation, many children reported being facing with slurs and threatened with physical violence. In a small number of cases, interrogators have reportedly threatened minors with rape.
In 29 per cent of cases studied by DCI, Arabic-speaking children were either shown or given documentation written in Hebrew to sign. An Israeli spokesperson denied this to Al Jazeera, saying "the norm is that interrogations in Arabic should be either recorded or written in Arabic". Israeli officials did say, however, they had identified 13 cases from the report where children had signed a confession written in Hebrew. Yet the spokesperson maintained that video recordings of those interrogations had been available, should the lawyers acting for the children doubt the accuracy of the written Hebrew statements.
After children sign a "confession", they are brought before an Israeli military court. Since 2009, an Israeli spokesperson said, children have faced juvenile military courts. Most often, that's the first time the minor will see their lawyer. The confession is generally the primary evidence against the child, say DCI officials. Other evidence will often consist of a statement by an interrogator, and sometimes a soldier.
Because so few are granted bail, children face a legal dilemma: they can ask the lawyer to challenge the system - and by doing so potentially wait, locked up, for four to six months - or plead guilty and get a two or three month prison sentence for a "first offence".
"So, very rarely does anyone challenge the system," said DCI's Horton, as the quickest way to be released is to plead guilty. This goes some way to explain why, according to the military courts, the conviction rate for adults and children in 2010 was 99.74 per cent.
According to DCI, some fifty to sixty per cent of the time, children are taken to prisons inside Israel, making it difficult for parents to visit. "Some parents are denied permits on unspecified 'security grounds'. For the others, the bureaucracy can take up to two months to get a permit, which means if their children are sentenced to less time, they will not receive a visit," Horton said. "However, some permits are processed in less than two months, and those children sentenced to more time will also generally receive visits."
The allegations of what seems to be a deliberate system of abuse appear to be corroborated by another report published by a group of British jurists. The UK government-backed delegation of nine lawyers, with human rights, crime and child welfare backgrounds, concluded that Israel's soldiers regularly breach the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Fourth Geneva Convention, of which Israel is a signatory.
Their report, Children in Military Custody, attributed much of Israel's reluctance to treat Palestinian children in accordance with international norms to "a belief, which was advanced to us by a military prosecutor, that every Palestinian child is a 'potential terrorist'". The lawyers said this seemed to be "the starting point of a spiral of injustice, and one which only Israel, as the Occupying Power in the West Bank, can reverse".
Israel's practice of holding children "for substantial periods in solitary confinement would, if it occurred, be capable of amounting to torture", the report concluded. Of all the children represented by DCI, 12 per cent reported being held in solitary confinement for an average of 11 days.
The Israel Security Agency (ISA), also known as Shin Bet, denied that children were mistreated under the military court system, calling claims to the contrary "utterly baseless". The ISA also said that claims regarding the prevention of legal counsel were also completely groundless.
"No one questioned, including minors being questioned, is kept alone in a cell as a punitive measure or in order to obtain a confession," said the ISA in a statement when the Guardian first released a special report about the status of child detainees in Israel.
The ISA also said that it provides minors special protection because of their age and adheres to "international treaties of which the State of Israel is a signatory, and according to Israeli law, including the right to legal counsel and visits by the Red Cross".Speaking to Al Jazeera, an Israeli spokesperson accused the DCI report of bias, and refuted the group's finding that the majority of children prosecuted were charged with throwing stones: "This was the basis for only 40 per cent of the indictments filed against minors in the West Bank ... the young age of offenders is not relevant to the gravity of the act: it has been proven beyond doubt that a stone thrown by a 15-year-old child can be no less fatal than a stone thrown by an adult."
Stone-throwing can prove deadly, stressed the spokesperson, citing a case from September 2011, when an Israeli settler and his one-year-old son were killed after their car overturned as a result of stones hurled at them. "Two Palestinians from Halhul confessed to throwing the stone which caused the deaths of Asher and Yonatan. The stone was hurled from a driving car," the spokesperson said. The official said that children were also involved in grenade throwing, the use of explosives, shooting and assault
The spokesperson also denied that the ISA used isolation as an interrogation technique or as punishment to exert confessions out of minors. "There are certain cases in which an interrogee will be held alone for a few days at the most, in order to prevent information in his/her possession from leaking to other terrorist activists in the same detention facility, which could compromise the interrogation of the suspect. Note that even in these cases, the interrogee is not held in absolute confinement, but is entitled to meet with Red Cross representatives, medical staff etc."
Furthermore, the spokesperson rejected the idea that pleading guilty was the quickest way out of the system for a defendant, deeming the accusation "misleading, distorted, and premised upon incorrect information".
"Should a minor defendant choose to plead 'not guilty' and challenge the prosecutorial evidence by proceeding to a full trial and mounting a good-faith defence, military courts will, in the vast majority of the cases, conduct the hearings very efficiently, sometimes even in a few weeks."
Yet, since the DCI and UK reports came out, "there's no substantive change on the ground", Horton said. "The response by the military authorities has been to start talking about making some changes and amending the military orders. But when you look at the details, the changes are of little substance."
"In reality, what we are seeing is a de facto annexation of most of the West Bank; it's not a temporary military occupation," he concluded. "The military courts are an integral part of this process used to control the population."