Courting Conflict in the West Bank

The Baltimore Sun has a long and comprehensive investigation in today’s paper about the “alarming number of Palestinian youths being jailed under a largely concealed military justice system.” In the past seven years, reporter John Murphy reveals, Israel has sent more than 5,000 Palestinian juveniles to prison, according to estimates from human rights groups and Palestinian officials.

According to the Israeli military, a Palestinian juvenile includes any alleged offender under 16, even though international and Israeli law set the age of majority at 18. But the classification seems nominal anyway. “These children are being tried as adults, for all practical purposes,” says Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights attorney.

And they are frequently hauled in on trivial charges, the sentences for which are growing increasingly stiff. According to the Geneva-based human rights organization Defense for Children, Murphy reports, “one-third to three-quarters of all juveniles are detained for throwing stones and lesser offenses such as membership in [a] banned organization–a charge that can stem from such nonviolent actions as setting up chairs for meetings or putting up posters for militant groups such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad.”

Once these youths are detained, their rights are routinely curtailed: due process is denied, confessions are coerced, hearings are closed, visitation is limited. Fifteen-year-old Ayat Dababsa, for example, was arrested at a checkpoint in Hebron for carrying a kitchen knife; she ultimately signed a confession written in Hebrew, which she can’t read, stating that she had planned to use the knife to kill an Israeli soldier. Or consider the case of 17-year-old Obaidah Assidah:

At 4 a.m. on May 23, the family of Muhammad Assidah in Tell Village outside Nablus was stirred awake by the sound of approaching military jeeps.

After surrounding the house, soldiers stormed inside, seizing a computer and Assidah’s 17-year old son, Obaidah.

He was handcuffed, blindfolded and whisked away to an interrogation center, according to his family.

In a statement given to Defense for Children, Obaidah says he was beaten and spent nine days in solitary confinement, unable to see his family or an attorney. Two months later, he appeared in court for the first time, charged with assisting a person suspected of being a member of Islamic Jihad.

The judge ruled that the prosecution’s evidence–a confession made by another juvenile accusing Obaidah, and the statements of an interrogator–was insufficient and ordered Obaidah freed on $250 bail. Prosecutors appealed the decision, but the judge again decided he should be released.

At Obaidah’s home near Nablus, his family laid out a banquet for his arrival, grilling meats and baking sweet cakes. But evening came, and he never arrived.

When the family phoned his attorney, they discovered that the military had ordered Obaidah back to prison. He was being held under administrative detention, a holdover from the period of British Mandate that allows the military to detain someone for a six-month period without charge. It is renewable indefinitely, giving the military the authority to jail someone for years.

The judicial process, as you could imagine, has formalized a double standard for meting out punishment to young Israelis and Palestinians; young settlers (so-called “hilltop youth”) who violate the law are hardly ever adjudicated, and when they are, they are treated with kid gloves. In 2005 Shimshon Cytryn, an 18-year-old West Bank settler, was caught on video bludgeoning a Palestinian boy and threatening the Israeli medic who arrived to tend to the boy’s head trauma. Cytryn was “released on house arrest after six months in prison,” Murphy writes. “Citing a lack of evidence, Israeli judges acquitted Cytryn of the attempted murder charge and convicted him of a lesser charge of aggravated assault. During his sentencing, defense attorneys argued that even though he was an adult, his behavior ‘was the result of a flare-up of emotions, which are typical of his age.'”

This double standard extends to Palestinian lawyers, too, who must navigate a system that is becoming more and more opaque and inaccessible. As Murhpy explains, “Defense attorneys–most of them Palestinians working for nonprofit organizations–frequently complain that they’re not allowed access to defendants or their court files. Many defendants meet their attorney for the first time only once they’re in court, according to a yearlong study of the military courts by the Israeli human rights group Machsom Watch.”

In my opinion, it is impossible to separate the Israeli military’s approach to juvenile justice in the West Bank from the broader issue of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The former is a product of the latter; likewise, the solution to the systemic problems Murphy has identified can only be found through a comprehensive peace agreement that, for starters, brings Israel back to the 1967 Green Line and guarantees self-determination for all Palestinians. As long as Palestinian society is governed by Israeli military law, there can be no justice–juvenile or otherwise. Certainly, security is a primary concern for Israel, and yes, it is well documented that radical Islamist groups actively recruit young Palestinians to carry out suicide missions inside Israel. But security is where this conversation begins, not where it should end. Why, we must ask, are these youths so ready to be recruited?

In the name of security, Israel has put substantive peace negotiations on hold indefinitely (I predict the upcoming summit at Annapolis will be a spectacle of glad-handing and nonpolitics). And the Israeli military’s suffocating grip on the occupied territories continues to sow hatred among Palestinians, not hope. If Palestinian aspirations for a peace agreement are dashed, and if the conditions of daily life show no signs of improving, at some point the children weaned on the second intifada may very well launch a third. The Israeli approach to juvenile justice in the West Bank helps to make this grim scenario more likely.


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