How the Israeli military detention system harms Palestinian children

Wayne David
© Ryan Rodrick Beiler/

Before I was elected as a Labour MP, I worked for the Youth Service in Wales. The Welsh Assembly had not long been established and there was a strong desire to define Youth Work in a positive way. It was agreed that there was no better way to do this than to fully embrace, and make central to good youth work practice, the four core principles of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC): non-discrimination; devotion to the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and respect for the views of the child.

The UNCRC seemed uncontentious in Wales in 1999, but when I was appointed the shadow minister for the Middle East and North Africa some years later, the importance of the Convention immediately became apparent. Soon after my appointment, I was struck by the way children and young people are so appallingly treated in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).

A few months after my appointment, I read a report entitled ‘Defenceless – the impact of the Israeli military detention system on Palestinian children’ by the charity Save the Children. Not only does the report objectively set out how the UNCRC is being largely ignored in the OPT by the occupying Israeli forces, the report also explains how the Israeli occupation has had a profoundly detrimental impact on so many aspects of the lives of Palestinian children.

In a hard-hitting foreword, Sir Stephen Sedley, a former Lord Justice of Appeal, describes in graphic terms the difference in the treatment that can be expected by an Israeli youth accused of committing a misdemeanour, and the treatment a Palestinian youth is likely to receive from the Israeli authorities in the OPT. 

The Save the Children report does not stand alone. Soon after this report, Defence for Children International published a hard-hitting report entitled ‘Isolated & Alone’. This report concluded that there was “overwhelming” evidence showing that the isolation of Palestinian child detainees was being used for interrogation purposes and that “the Israeli military detention and court system is not interested in justice”. 

More recently, the Palestinian Prisoner Society reported that in occupied Jerusalem, Palestinian children lacked “the most basic rights due to the Israeli occupation”. The report also stated that imprisoned Palestinian children are “subjected to various forms of abuse”. 

The Save the Children report itself is based on a survey of over 470 children drawn from across the occupied West Bank and it focuses on the effect that military detention has had on those children. Over half of the children who were interviewed had been denied access to, or support from, their families, and some of the children had suffered the psychological trauma of being told that their parents had abandoned them. 

Save the Children tells us that over half the children interviewed were arrested during night raids at home, usually at the dead of night. Often, children were hit during arrest or soon thereafter, and although the Israeli government has said that if detainees are handcuffed their hands should be tied at the front and not the back, the reality is that established practice has not changed. Alarmingly, the report states that 89% of children interviewed said that they had been blindfolded or hooded during their detention. 

We are told that the essential aim of the interrogation process is to obtain a confession from the child. When that confession is obtained, often in a coercive environment, it is frequently the basis for a conviction in a military court. 

Even though Israel is obliged to only arrest or detain as a last resort, of those children interviewed by Save the Children, only 1% were sentenced to home arrest, whilst 99% were imprisoned. Most children were held for less than ten months, but at least one of the children surveyed for the report was incarcerated for four years.

During their detention, most of the children interviewed experienced distress and poor treatment, sometimes being deprived of food and water, and many being beaten at least once. Half of the children, we are told, indicated that they had been held in isolation or solitary confinement at some point during their detention. 

Although the UNCRC gives clear rights to children, nearly half of the 470 children interviewed by the charity said that they had been denied contact with a lawyer on at least one occasion during their imprisonment. Nearly all the children interviewed did not have a lawyer present during their interrogation. While in detention, some 88% of children did not receive adequate healthcare.

War On Want have also expressed trenchant criticisms of the way Palestinian children are treated in Israeli military courts, stating that there is “no semblance of due process or impartiality in these courts”. The charity is also equally condemnatory of the ill treatment suffered by Palestinian children in detention. 

It is important to note that Save the Children has made strong criticism of the ill treatment Palestinian children have received in the Palestinian Authority’s detention system. They have called for children detained by the Palestinian Authority not to be intimidated, threatened, or to be subjected to any cruel or degrading treatment during their period of detention. 

It is beyond doubt that the ill treatment of children in detention has a harmful and long-lasting effect on the young people detained. With regard to Palestinian children detained under the Israeli system, Save the Children have documented that 80% of those children have said that they are unable to return to their normal life. When they do go back to their families, many have behavioural problems, mental health difficulties and frequently show physical signs of distress. These children also find it difficult to re-establish relationships with family and friends, and their education suffers hugely.

Worryingly, the overwhelming majority of children who have been detained see themselves as ‘heroes’ of the Palestinian cause. Although some of the children’s friends may distance themselves from ex-detainees because of concerns about association, there is what the report calls a “societal perception” of children who have been detained. This means that they are often seen as being in “the vanguard” of the Palestinian cause.

The result of ‘heroisation’ is three-fold. Firstly, it serves to conceal the underlying impact of detention on the child. Secondly, parents say that it leads to a range of behavioural problems in the children. Thirdly, the report cites the tendency of the media to focus on some detainees after their release, leading to resentment amongst those who do not receive that attention. 

There is, however, another consequence of detaining and abusing such large numbers of children linked to ‘heroisation’. There are few who believe that a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians will happen in the near future, and when it does, it will take a long time to heal the deep wounds that have been inflicted. 

A sustained healing process will be needed to initiate reconciliation and to take it forward. The involvement of young people – Palestinians and Israelis – will be crucial in the creation of new and lasting relationships based on mutual respect and a determination to create a lasting peace. This has to be central to the process of creating a two-state solution, in which a secure Israel can peaceably coexist with a viable Palestinian state. 

Save the Children have come forward with a number of recommendations for action to both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. These need to be considered and then acted upon, and their implementation needs to be made a political priority by the international community. It is important that this happens so that there is the possibility that young people can play a positive role in shaping the future of both Israel and Palestine. 

When I worked for the Youth Service in Wales, I firmly believed that the future of Wales lay with its young people. Today, I am still of that view, and I similarly believe that the future of Palestine and Israel lies with the younger generation. But this will not happen unless children and young people are given the opportunity to help create their futures. An important starting point has to be a recognition of the extremely harmful effect on Palestinian children of the Israeli military detention system. 

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