Children in Military Custody in Israel – our responsibility?

Defence for Children International – Palestine Section has long been monitoring the situation of Palestinian Children detained by the Israeli Authorities. Their statistics make grim reading but are also a source of reliable information about what is going on. There is thus no possibility for the international community to say ‘we didn’t know’. Nor do any individuals have the luxury of turning a blind eye on the pretext that the information was not available to them.

To their credit, the UK Foreign Office went a step further and funded a report on the issue. Nine eminent lawyers visited Israel and the West Bank in September 2011 and interviewed a number of people and undertook a detailed review of the situation. Their report, Children in Military Custody, has just been published in June 2012. This too makes grim reading.

This is not the place to go into all the details it reports. But what may be particularly interesting is the summary of the different treatment given to Israeli and Palestinian youngsters in the criminal justice system in Israel and the occupied territories:

On page 7, the report compares the treatment in a very straightforward table:



Israeli child (subject to Israeli civilian legal system)

Palestinian child (subject to Israeli military detention system)

Minimum age of criminal responsibility



Minimum age for custodial sentences



Age of majority


18 (but children of 16 and 17 are subject to adult sentencing provisions)

Legal right to have parents present during questioning

Generally yes


Legal right to have a lawyer present during questioning



Audio-visual recording of interrogations

Partial (there is no requirement for the audiovisual recording of interrogations in security offences)


Maximum period of detention before being brought before a judge

12-24 hours

8 days

Maximum period of detention without access to a lawyer

48 hours

90 days

Maximum period of detention without charge

40 days

188 days

Maximum period of detention between being charged and the conclusion of the trial

6 months

2 years

This shows that Palestinian children face a much tougher response and have far less access to assistance in a situation which for any child, anywhere, is stressful. The fact that Palestinian children are treated more harshly is likely to be viewed as unjust by Palestinians (and in objective terms, it is unjust) and this in itself can only lead to more conflict. So, not only does such treatment breach internationally recognised standards of treatment of children (specifically the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child), it actually contributes to the conflict which so urgently needs to be resolved.

Another very interesting issue raised by the report is the question of whether or not the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child binds Israel in its capacity as the Occupying Power in the West Bank. The report sets out clearly why it does, despite the fact that the Israeli government takes the view that the Convention has no application beyond Israel’s own borders. The report says (page 10):

‘In our judgment it is factually and legally unreal to suggest that children who are arrested by the Israeli Defence Force, interrogated by either the Israeli police or the Israeli Security Agency, held in Israeli prisons and judged by Israeli military courts, are not within the jurisdiction of the State of Israel.’

The report goes on to make a number of detailed recommendations about the treatment of Palestinian children in detention in Israel/detained by the Israeli authorities. Some of these recommendations are such that they beg the question as to why they have to be made to the government of a country which describes itself (and is accepted at least by some) as the only democracy in the Middle East.

To quote only a few:

Page 32: Recommendation 4: ‘Children should never be blindfolded or hooded’.

Page 33: Recommendation 8: ‘Children should be conveyed to a place of interrogation or detention without delay and provided with food and water.’

Page 33: Recommendation 11: ‘Children should have a parent or guardian present prior to and during their interrogation.’

Page 33: Recommendation 15: ‘Children should not be required to sign confessions and statements written in a language other than their own.’

Page 34: Recommendation 28: ‘Solitary confinement should never be used as a standard mode of detention or imprisonment.’

Page 35: Recommendation 35: ‘Parents or guardians should be granted regular access and visiting rights to children in detention.’

These recommendations are only a selection of the complete set of 40 recommendations. They seem to me to be the least controversial and the easiest to accept as completely obvious requirements for justice.

Palestinian children have been detained in Israel and by the Israeli authorities for years. Statistics published by B’Tselem go back to 2001; recent statistics show that after a number of years of a decline in the numbers of children in the custody of the Israeli security forces,  the numbers have been going up again since 2011. That is a worrying trend.

The international community has been aware of this for a long time too. As with so many other human rights concerns regarding the treatment of Palestinians (adults and children alike), the international community keeps wringing its hands about them and saying that they strongly condemn them. But there is no effective action to ensure that changes are brought about. How long are we prepared to wait? How many more children are going to be allowed to have their lives ruined through such dubious and discriminatory judicial practices? Will there be a time when people the world over will say: enough is enough loudly enough for their (our) governments and with them the European Union to take action. And by action we mean targeted, specific, smart sanctions against the Government of Israel which is inflicting these practices on children.

About Liz Scurfield

Liz worked for Quaker Council for European Affairs as one of two Joint Representatives from 2002 until 2012. Her main areas of work were on the EU role in Palestine/Israel, and Human Rights including criminal justice and conscientious objection to military service.
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