Amnesty International Israel’s AGM Focuses on Childhood Behind Bars

photo credit: Flash90

The number of minors arrested in East Jerusalem has spiralled

On Friday February 19th, Amnesty International Israel hosted a conference entitled ‘Childhood Behind Bars – Detention of Minors in East Jerusalem’ as part of their Annual General Assembly.

Held at The Church of Scotland in Jerusalem, Yonatan Gher, Director of Amnesty International Israel, began proceedings with an address that made clear that the growing problem of child detention would be one of the NGO’s key priorities for the year ahead. Referring to the vastly different treatment experienced by Israeli and Palestinian minors at the hands of Israeli security forces, Mr Gher put forward the suggestion that his children in Tel Aviv would encounter an entirely different set of practices for a crime such as stone throwing than children of the same age in East Jerusalem. The key to this would be the fact that an Israeli minor would be subject to a very advanced system of youth protection laws concerning child detention and the treatment of children in custody. The different penalties and practices experienced by children of Israeli and Palestinian heritage are underpinned by differing legal frameworks that perpetuate inequality – a key focus for Amnesty International Israel.

“Arresting East Jerusalem’s Future”

A film screening followed Mr Gher’s illuminating introduction. Entitled “Arresting East Jerusalem’s Future”, the 15-minute video consisted of testimonies from children who had been detained in the previous eighteen months, as well as commentary by leading members of the Israeli legal world and academics. The patterns of abuse, detention and interrogation experienced by the children featured soon became clear, with night arrests, sleep deprivation and questioning without legal representatives forming an integral part of the Israeli security forces’ policies in East Jerusalem. A core underlying theme was the increasing inability to distinguish between the police and army, who appear to behave identically while implementing what were referred to as ‘intifada regulations’. The film featured prominent Amnesty Israeli supporters such as Judge Saviona Rotlevy and Professor Edy Kaufman, the latter suggesting that Israel needed to rediscover the Jewish value of mercy, whilst stating that the collective punishment and structural violence encountered by Palestinians were the key motivating factors for the growing wave of physical attacks carried out in recent months.

A Stimulating but Troubling Panel Discussion

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The Panel Discussion: (l to r) Professor Charles Greenbaum, Bashar Jamal, Rawan Nasser, Nisreen Alyan and Nir Hasson

A panel discussion followed, chaired by Nir Hasson of Haaretz. Attorney Nisreen Alyan from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) was the first to speak, referring to her organisation’s new position paper, entitled “Arrested Childhood”, focused on what they describe as “the ramifications of Israel’s new strict policy toward minors”. She began by attempting to debunk claims that harsh treatment of children stems from the current wave of violence, describing how new guidelines that imposed detention for all minors suspected of stone throwing were imposed on the day before three settlers were kidnapped and murdered near Hebron in June 2015 – seen by many as the beginning of this particular phase of conflict. Various punishments were described in these instructions. The absolute minimum punishment for children convicted of stone throwing was set at six months, despite youth laws that suggest child detention should be avoided due to its detrimental effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of minors.

Going on to describe those she had encountered whilst conducting research for the report, Ms Alyan explained that the trauma experienced by children from such policies is immeasurable. The majority of those detained during questioning for long periods are never charged, suggestive of the growing use of administrative detention when dealing with minors.

Doctoral student and researcher Rowan Nasser went on to discus her PhD research, which included interviews with 25 children from East Jerusalem who had recently been detained. Referring to a question she asked each child – “Please tell me about life after the arrest” – the majority felt as though they were constantly followed and under surveillance, whilst many others ran away from any police, military or municipality representatives they encountered. Another common practice she found occurred post-release, whereby police would enter family homes during the night to photograph minors that had previously been arrested and/or their identity documents. Ms Nasser also described how in some instances, children she interviewed slept in their daytime clothing such was the certainty in which they believed they would be rearrested.

Bashar Jamal of Defence for Children International discussed figures from a project with 65 recently detained children from East Jerusalem. Most were arrested from their homes or the streets directly adjacent, with 38% detained during the night. Handcuffs and restraints were used in the vast majority of cases, while 98% were interrogated without their parents present. 36% of children he interviewed suffered physical violence and beatings, 42% were shackled during interrogations and 93% signed documents in Hebrew – a practice that is allegedly widespread and inappropriate within a community with little or no grasp of the language. A worrying observation made by Mr Jamal was the effect that the growing detention of minors is having on the education of those affected, who are very likely to drop out of school after falling behind.

Seek the underlying reasons that lead to children’s violence

The final panellist was Professor Charles Greenbaum, who implored the audience to understand the underlying reasons that lead violence to be recognised by some, including children, as a response to Israeli occupation. He described work undertaken by organisations such as Ir Amim which focus on the experiences of minors growing up in East Jerusalem, as well as the wider West Bank, who spend their formative years seeing families evicted form their homes, property demolitions and settler takeovers. It should be of little surprise, he posited, that minors have been involved in recent violent incidents when these factors are taken into account. Professor Greenbaum encouraged those present to focus on wider issues such as growing suicide rates and school dropouts that arise from the experiences discussed. One answer, he suggested, to combat violence in this period as well as stop the oppressive tactics used by Israeli security forces, is to rediscover a psychological approach to human rights, whereby the treaties and laws that have been signed by the State of Israel move into the realm of day-today. He explained his opinion that Israeli society is not truly committed to remedying the ongoing situation and structural inequality, such as by building infrastructure and offering long-term solutions. The answers that seem to be put forward by the Israeli state, and largely supported by its people, is to hit the Palestinian population harder and harder in an attempt to quell dissent – a solution that misunderstands the underlying causes of violence and unlikely to offer any positive resolution in the future.

The Amnesty International Israel meeting must be commended for addressing a highly pertinent topic at a crucial time. On more than one occasion, members from NGOs across Israel and Palestine mentioned their delight that Amnesty would be placing this overlooked issue firmly on the agenda. The panellists offered a glimpse of the work that is being done to understand and combat the highly destructive policy of child detention, which is robbing a generation of East Jerusalem’s youngsters of their childhood, whilst simultaneously offering little to remedy the underlying causes that motivate the violence it aims to punish.

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