Rights groups say Israel has escalated targeting and arresting children in occupied East Jerusalem [File: AFP]
Mohammed, 14, was with his friends riding horses in a park in Jerusalem’s Old City when the Yassam, a special patrol unit of the Israeli police, arrived at the scene.
Sound grenades were fired at the teenagers. One landed near Mohammed’s feet. He picked up a rock and threw it in the direction of the notorious riot police, whose excessive force against Palestinians has been well documented.
Unbeknownst to Mohammed, Yassam had been surveilling him and had also taken photos. Later, on his way back home, the boy was arrested by Israeli security forces on Saladin Street. He was handcuffed, taken to an interrogation centre, and was questioned without the presence of a lawyer or his parents.
Little did he know then, in mid-September 2016, that his ordeal through the Israeli military court system had just begun.
“They called me after he was interrogated,” Salwa, Mohammed’s mother, told Al Jazeera.
“He spent the night in jail and was due in court the next day. He was imprisoned for a further two weeks and in that period, he had another court appearance that was postponed four or five times.”
More than a year later, Mohammed is still under house arrest.
He is one of the hundreds of Palestinian minors in the occupied territories that are arrested by Israel on a yearly basis. The most common charge levelled against them is stone-throwing, which under Israeli military law can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in jail.
‘Plain and clear policy’
A new report published on Wednesday by Israeli rights groups HaMoked and B’tselem details the alleged violations committed by Israeli forces against Palestinian minors.
The study, titled Unprotected: The detention of Palestinian Teenagers in East Jerusalem, includes 60 affidavits collected from Palestinian teenagers who were arrested by Israel between May 2015 and October 2016.
“What we are dealing with is not a few individual rogue interrogators or prison guards who defy regulations,” says the report.
“Rather it is a case of a plain and clear policy followed by the various authorities: the police who carry out the arrests; the IPS (Israel Prison Service) which keeps the boys incarcerated in harsh conditions; and finally, the courts, where judges virtually automatically extend the boys’ custodial remand.”
According to the report, such behaviour is the “primary mode of conduct adopted by the State of Israel for dealing with boys who are suspected of stone throwing”.
It says the abuse includes the unlawful interrogation of a minor without the presence of their guardian or lawyer, not being told of their right to stay silent, and not being informed of their rights to counsel.
Furthermore, Israeli law prohibits night interrogations, but 91 percent of the minors who were interviewed for the report said that they were arrested at night, when most of them were already asleep or in bed.
The report also says that despite the fact that physical restraints on minors should be used only in exceptional cases and for as short a time as possible, eight out of 10 of those interviewed told the rights groups said they had been handcuffed upon their arrest. A further 70 percent were kept in restraints during interrogation sessions.
Israeli authorities, however, have managed to escape accountability because of their caution to make sure the practices remain technically within legal provisions, the groups said.
For example, taking advantage of loopholes in Israeli law that allow using violence during interrogation, officers can physically and emotionally harm minors, which more often than not – 83 percent, according to the joint study – results in the minors signing confessions.
Eighty percent of these confessions were in Hebrew, a language the minors did not understand, according to the groups.
Israel’s policy, the report states, allows authorities to “continue this maltreatment of Palestinian minors while shrouding in a cloak of legality a systematic and well-documented abuse of the fundamental human rights of hundreds of minors … for decades”.
International organisations, including UNICEF, have also in the past highlighted the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli military detention, which they termed as being “widespread, systematic and institutionalised”.
‘They have suffocated him’
At the beginning of Mohammed’s house arrest, his mother says Israeli forces would storm his home several times a day to check whether he was inside or not. On one occasion, they arrested him because he was standing on the house’s threshold, and his family had to pay 10,000 shekels ($2,850) to release him from prison.
After being confined to his home for one year, Mohammed was last month granted permission by Israeli authorities to attend school again.
However, he has since been arrested six times and taken to an interrogation centre. Sometimes, he was forced to spend the night there.
“He is depressed and does not want to go to school any more,” said Salwa. “His next court appearance is on November 15, and he is afraid his house arrest will be extended once again.”
But with his 12-month punishment already protracted, Salwa says her son wishes he could serve time in jail so he could be free of his sentence.
“He begs the lawyer to be taken to prison just so the entire ordeal would be over and not have his house arrest extended every time,” she said. “They have suffocated him inside the house.”
Escalation in child arrests
According to the Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer, more than 12,000 Palestinian children have been arrested by Israel since 2000. As of August 2017, there are331 Palestinian minors in Israeli prisons.
Radi Darwish, a lawyer with Addameer, told Al Jazeera that the number of child arrests fluctuates according to the political reality in Jerusalem.
“For example, during last summer’s al-Aqsa Mosque protests, there was a significant increase in the number of children being arrested by Israeli forces,” he said. “In general, this year has seen a rise in child arrests.”
Zakaria Odeh, from the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, agreed.
“There has been an escalation in targeting children and arresting them in most of Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighbourhoods, especially in Silwan, Ras al-Amoud, Issawiyeh and Shuafat,” he said.
“The arrest of the children is a form of pressuring families which in turn is part of the Israeli policy to make life unbearable for Jerusalemites,” added Odeh.
He said that in places like Silwan and Ras al-Amoud, where minors are arrested on an almost daily basis, awareness campaigns are imperative for families to know how to conduct themselves in the case their children get arrested.
“Rights and legal organisations such as Save the Children conduct workshops for parents and children alike on their rights, briefing them of what they can do in case of arrest and interrogation,” he said.
Darwish said that Addameer has a Know Your Rights campaign that goes around schools to inform students and parents of what their rights are under interrogation.
“The campaign also includes attempts to continue education for children who are under house arrest so that they won’t miss out on a school year,” he said.
The real names of Mohammed and Salwa have been changed to protect their identities.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS