Is this what democracy looks like?
‘THERE CAN BE NO KEENER REVELATION OF A SOCIETY’S SOUL than the way in which it treats its children.’ These are the words of Nelson Mandela, a titan to millions fighting for justice and equality across the world. Some may try to argue that Palestinian children are not ‘its’ children; but as an occupying military power, Israel does have responsibilities under international humanitarian law. These include provisions intended to protect civilians during an armed conflict, regardless of the status of the territory in which they live.
Additionally, the laws of occupation – incorporated in the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention – specifically impose responsibility on the occupying power for the safety and welfare of civilians living in the occupied territory. As Israel is determined to present itself to the world as a democracy, it is therefore entirely proper to scrutinise the actions of Israel’s military and hold the Israeli government accountable, especially in relation to its treatment of Palestinian children.
Defence for Children International Palestine published figures on 3 March which showed that, since October 2015, 41 Palestinian children from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, have been killed as a direct result of intensified violence. All except one were killed by Israeli forces. Some of those killed were participating in demonstrations, others were accused of attacking Israelis – soldiers, mostly – and some were doing nothing more than going about their daily activities.
But serious questions have been raised by countless Palestinian witnesses, particularly in relation to official versions of events. Seasoned Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, wrote an article entitled ‘Does the Israeli army plant knives on Palestinians?’ She and others have questioned the military’s deadly response, criticising the way in which alleged attackers are fatally shot rather than apprehended, indicating a formalised ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Thanks to social media, mobile phones and, in some instances, security camera footage, there is evidence that supports Palestinians’ claims that ‘attackers’ posed little or no threat and, in some cases, evidence was subsequently planted to back up the military’s account of what happened.
When asked why young Palestinians are risking their lives, Anwar, a student at Bethlehem University, said: ‘Newton says every action has a reaction – what happened in Jerusalem [an alleged Palestinian stabbing attack] is a reaction. Palestinians have reached a point where they do not have anything to lose. We cannot live in this situation any more.’
That ‘situation’ has led to a rise in student-led demonstrations across occupied Palestine, the extent of which has not been seen since the second Intifada. However, these demonstrations have been targeted by undercover Israeli forces known as Mista’arvim. Playing on the anger of Palestinian youth, Mista’arvim infiltrate and agitate an already volatile situation.
At a demonstration last October, shocking footage showed Mista’arvim attacking three youths, two of them from Birzeit University, the ‘Oxbridge’ of Palestine. Abdul Rahman, Abu Dahab and Ahmed Walid Hamid were detained and brutally beaten, then dragged to military vehicles. At one point an undercover police officer is filmed shooting Hamid in his leg at close range before continuing to beat him. Since October, arrests and detentions of Palestinians have risen sharply.
During 2015, the numbers of Palestinian children detained and imprisoned by Israel increased. According to B’tselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, there were 422 Palestinian children being held in Israeli prisons at the end of December. This included six children held under ‘administrative detention’, a throwback to British Mandate laws. These allow Israel to hold a prisoner indefinitely on the basis of secret information, which is not shared with the prisoner’s legal representative, without charge or trial.
No other country in the world automatically prosecutes children in military courts – courts which are notorious for failing to ensure fundamental rights. Of course, this only applies to Palestinians. Israelis living on the West Bank are only ever subject to Israeli civilian and criminal law. So while Israel may like to believe it is a democracy, try asking the millions of Palestinians – children and adults – what that ‘democracy’ feels like.