On October 2, footage of a captive Israeli soldier was broadcast around the world. The sergeant, 23-year-old Gilad Shalit, was captured by Palestinian militants three years ago and has been held in the blockaded and bomb-struck Gaza Strip. The video–which showed a healthy but sallow Shalit–reached Israeli hands in exchange for the release of twenty female Palestinian prisoners. Tucked tightly away between the lines of the news was the story of another, even more youthful captive, Bara’a Malki: a naïve 15-year-old runaway, improbably convicted of attempted murder and now one of the twenty discharged.
Last year, Bara’a and her classmate Samah decided to run away from home to escape overbearing parents and, in Samah’s case, the prospect of a forced marriage to a man two decades her senior. But the West Bank, carved up as it is by 613 army-imposed obstacles–checkpoints, roadblocks, trenches–and overlaid with a web of community connections, did not present the two girls with many hiding places. So on December 2 they left the Al Jalazun Refugee Camp with a desperate plan to get arrested and imprisoned.
Packing kitchen knives in their school bags, they entered the Qalandya checkpoint outside Ramallah. At the ID check, Bara’a pulled out her knife and placed it in front of a female soldier standing behind bulletproof glass. Security officers quickly marshaled her into a room. When an officer shouted, “Why do you have a knife? Do you want to kill one of us?” Bara’a replied, “I have problems with my family, and I came to the checkpoint to get arrested.”
Bara’a was then taken to a detention center in Jerusalem, where an Israeli interrogator, refusing to believe her story about an unhappy home life, repeatedly insisted that she had come to the checkpoint to kill a soldier. Finally, Bara’a echoed the interrogator’s words back to him. On the basis of this confession, an Israeli military court sentenced Bara’a to eleven months’ imprisonment for attempted murder.
Bara’a and Samah are just two of the 700 Palestinian children Israel detains and prosecutes annually. Every year there are a handful of cases like theirs, in which Palestinian girls with difficulties at home deliberately take knives through checkpoints in order to be arrested. But the most common charge brought against Palestinian children is stone- throwing–often at the concrete mass of the separation wall–an offense punishable by up to twenty years’ imprisonment under Israeli Military Order 378, one of 1,500-plus orders that have dictated Palestinian life under occupation for more than four decades.
In 95 percent of the 700 annual child cases, convictions result from false or improperly obtained confessions, including many that are wrung out of unaccompanied children through coercive interrogation methods or even torture. According to a recent report by Defense for Children International (DCI), “The ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities is widespread, systematic and institutionalised.” During interrogation children as young as 12 are often subject to solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and painful shackling for long periods of time. One boy was told, “I will shoot you in the head if you don’t confess and stick your head in a bucket full of water until you choke and die.” Another yielded after a knife was held to his neck. One 15-year-old, after being shot and arrested, was deceived into signing a confession written in Hebrew while still in the hospital, after officers convinced him it was an approval form for his operation.
Khaled Quzmar, the DCI lawyer who represented Bara’a, describes the timing and manner of most arrests as being sufficient grounds to invalidate a confession. “Tens of soldiers surround the house at 1 or 2 in the morning and in most cases throw a sound bomb inside the house in order to wake up everybody, and then they ask everybody to get out of the house. This is the beginning of putting the child in the frightening atmosphere of the interrogation. They tie his hands, blindfold him and push him into the military jeep, where he sits between soldiers who beat and kick him. He is sent directly to an interrogation center without a lawyer or family member. He can wait up to three months before seeing a lawyer. What they want the child to feel is that nobody else in the world can help except their confession.”
Like the vast majority of Palestinian child prisoners, Bara’a and Samah were detained in Israel, a practice in breach of the Geneva Convention that requires occupying powers to detain residents within occupied territories. As a consequence, many Palestinian children are unable to be visited by family while in prison, because their relatives are denied permits to enter Israel. The prisons are overcrowded, have poor ventilation and poor access to natural light, inadequate food and provide only meager medical and dental care. Educational provision is close to nonexistent: a few hours of teaching a week in a limited range of subjects, usually Arabic, English, Hebrew and math. Geography, history, physics, chemistry and religion are all banned for “security reasons.”
The treatment of Palestinian children differs dramatically from that of children on the other side of the separation wall. According to Israeli law, the very definition of a child diverges across the divide: until age 16 for a Palestinian but 18 for an Israeli, in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, of which Israel is a signatory. “They never arrest an Israeli child in the middle of the night; they wait until the day. And then they ask the father by phone to bring the child, and they interrogate the child with the father there,” says Quzmar. Israeli domestic law also requires that the interrogation be video recorded.
The DCI report concludes, “Unless and until there is some level of accountability for what amounts to serious breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, both at the domestic and international level, the ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian children at the hands of Israeli authorities will continue unchecked.”
But while Israel has devastated Gazan society with an ongoing siege since 2007, in part to pressure for Shalit’s release, it has not launched a single criminal investigation into interrogator abuse, despite receiving more than 600 complaints of ill-treatment and torture from 2001 to 2008. And while the Shalit video–the result of concerted international diplomatic efforts–made headlines around the world, Palestinian child prisoners like Bara’a remain nameless terrorists, their stories too often left untold and their rights repeatedly disregarded.