The young prisoners of the West Bank

Amid continuing violence, Israel has jailed more than 5,000 Palestinian youths

Sun Special report

November 18, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

OFER MILITARY BASE, West Bank -- It is just after 9 a.m., and an Israeli military court, deep inside this remote West Bank army base, is being called into session.

A soldier slams his palm on a table, bringing the courtroom to order for the case of a Palestinian charged with attempted murder. A pair of Israeli security guards enters with the defendant between them. A slight figure with large almond eyes and her hair wrapped in a headscarf, she shuffles in, her sneaker-covered feet bound in rattling leg chains.

Her name is Ayat Dababsa.

She is 15 years old.

In January, Ayat was arrested at a checkpoint in Hebron after Israeli soldiers discovered a kitchen knife in her school bag. She had no history of violence or trouble, and did not injure, or threaten, anyone. But interrogators took her into custody and hours later -- outside the presence of a parent or lawyer -- she signed a confession stating she had planned to use the knife to kill an Israeli soldier. The confession was written in Hebrew, a language she doesn't read.

Since then, she has been held without bail. If convicted, the ninth-grader will likely receive a prison sentence of five years or longer.

To Israeli authorities, Ayat's case typifies a generation of Palestinian youth more radical than their parents, less optimistic about chances for peace, and more ready to use force to achieve a Palestinian state. Since violence broke out in 2000, children as young as 11 have helped fill the ranks of Palestinian militant groups, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, transporting explosives and weapons, and carrying out suicide bombings, according to a recent report by Israel's Shin Bet security service.

But to human rights organizations, Ayat is one of an alarming number of Palestinian youths being jailed under a largely concealed military justice system. During the last seven years of violence in the Middle East, Israel has put more than 5,000 Palestinian children behind bars, human rights groups and Palestinian officials estimate.

Little is known about these young prisoners. Israeli military, security and prison officials could not provide figures on the number of Palestinians younger than age 18 who have been detained since 2000. Nor would they allow visits with those behind bars. Advocacy groups and Palestinian officials acknowledge that their estimates of Palestinian child detainees are often incomplete, and they complain that access to court records and hearings is severely limited.

Still, international and Israeli human rights groups -- such as Defense for Children International, Machsom Watch and Yesh Din -- have grown deeply concerned by what they have observed of Israel's system of justice for Palestinian juveniles, a system that they say often denies minors their most basic rights.

Juveniles are protected by international agreements -- of which Israel is a signatory -- according them the rights of due process, protection from torture and mistreatment, and timely access to legal counsel. Detention is considered a punishment of last resort.

But the Israeli military justice system -- where only Palestinians are tried -- impedes meetings between young defendants and their families and attorneys, keeps minors behind bars for excessive periods, and routinely denies them bail, according to recent studies by Israeli and international human rights groups.

Palestinian juveniles facing charges in Israel's military courts -- unlike juveniles in most of the developed world, including the U.S. and Israel -- are handled by judges, police and probation officers with no training in juvenile justice. From arrest to sentencing to often lengthy prison terms, minors are effectively treated as adults, in violation of such agreements as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions, critics say.

In fact, in the military court, a Palestinian child is even defined differently. The court considers any Palestinian 16 or older an adult -- a departure from the international standard of 18 that Israel applies to its own citizens -- subjecting them to more severe sentences. Those under 16 can be eligible for lighter sentences, the only concession the system accords minors.

Israel, however, says these international laws don't apply in the occupied territories.

Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights attorney, says the system's treatment of minors amounts to a "gross violation of the rights of the child" as outlined by international conventions of the United Nations. The fact that an accused is a minor is seldom mentioned in these courts, he says. "These children are being tried as adults, for all practical purposes."

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