More than 400 children are being held in Israeli military jails, for crimes as minor as throwing rocks. Australia needs to speak out, writes Kristen Zornada.
In a parliament where the balance of power hangs by a thread, it is difficult to get bipartisan support on even the least controversial of motions. Imagine how desperate the situation must be for a member to move a motion on a traditionally divisive issue – Palestine – and get support from across the political spectrum.
But that’s exactly what happened recently when Maria Vamvakinou MP moved a motion calling on the Australian government to raise the issue of the treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli detention with the Israeli government.
Last month, 49 MPs signed a petition urging the Israeli government to end its cruel treatment of Palestinian children. The Australian government has known for years about the suffering of Palestinian children in Israeli detention, and has raised the issue with Israel on occasion. However, the situation has not improved, and through our silence we risk becoming complicit with generations of children being denied a future.
The daily lives of Palestinian children in the West Bank are shaped by a military occupation they may be too young to understand. They may not understand, but they see.
They see neighbourhood kids, taken from their homes in the middle of the night by Israeli soldiers, like 16-year-old Ahmad*, who was told he was taken to “teach the other boys a lesson”. Or like 14-year-old Yousef*, arrested and accused of “throwing stones”, which he denied. Scared after being verbally abused by his interrogator, and with no lawyer or parent present, he confessed. He was given a written version of his “confession” to sign, in Hebrew, a language he did not understand, and which was not translated for him.
Though it would seem confessions like these have little evidentiary value, they are often relied upon by Israeli military courts, who convict Palestinian children that appear before them 99 per cent of the time. Palestinian children who are convicted can then be jailed from as young as 12.
These stories are not unique. A 2013 UNICEF report found that, “the ill-treatment of [Palestinian] children who come into contact with the [Israeli] military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized”. Palestinian children are prosecuted in military courts, which deny them the fair trial protections otherwise afforded to Israeli children, who can only be prosecuted in civilian courts.
By creating a legal system in which Palestinian children receive worse treatment than Israeli children, Israel is violating its international law obligations to respect and ensure the rights of each child within its jurisdiction without discrimination.
An example of this discrimination is that Israeli children cannot be arrested without a parent present, while Palestinian children can. Arrested Palestinian children are then often transferred out of the West Bank into detention in Israel, without their parents’ knowledge. This practice rips Palestinian families apart, as mothers do not know where their children are detained and are often unable to reach them because of restrictions on movement of Palestinians within Israel.
It is also a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and illegal under international law.
Last year, Military Court Watch, an Israel/Palestine-based organisation run by Australian lawyer Gerard Horton, sent a letter to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, outlining evidence of this practice and asking the government to outline the steps it intends to take to ensure it ceases.
Nearly a year has passed with no reply. The lack of response is worrying, given the evidence of the systematic abuse of human rights.
Meanwhile, the situation has worsened. More than 400 Palestinian children are currently in detention, 91 per cent more than this time last year, according to Israeli Prison Service data.
The No Way To Treat A Child campaign, started in the US and duplicated in the UK, seeks to bring attention to the plight of Palestinian children in military detention. In the US last year, over 20 members of Congress wrote to President Obama, seeking the appointment of a Special Envoy on Palestinian children. Earlier this year, the UK government affirmed its view that “the UK considers Israel’s detention of Palestinian prisoners within Israel to be contrary to… the Fourth Geneva Convention”.
Whenever the Australian government talks about Palestine, it emphasises how Australian aid is helping the children. But aid can do little while those children are being detained and abused in Israeli military prisons.
The Australian government should raise this issue with the Israeli government at the highest level, and seek an undertaking on what Israel intends to do to cease its unlawful practices.
The Australian government should also condemn Israel’s ongoing violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which binds all countries.
Australia cannot remain silent when children are being subjected to such cruelty. This has to stop, if we are to preserve any hope for a just and peaceful future for all children.
*Pseudonyms have been used.