The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has released a report alleging "widespread, systematic and institutionalized" mistreatment of Palestinian children detained and imprisoned by Israel, abuse described as "cruel and inhuman."
The 22-page UNICEF report, "Children in Israeli Military Detention: Observations and Recommendations," offers advice on measures Israel can take to ensure that children detained during the ongoing 7-decade occupation of Palestine are treated in accordance with UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a legally binding agreement to which Israel is signatory, the UN Convention Against Torture, and other international standards.
The report found that more than 7,000 Palestinian children between ages 12 and 17 have been arrested, interrogated and prosecuted for resisting Israeli occupation and associated policies and actions over the past decade. An average of two children per day are detained by Israeli forces, usually for throwing rocks at occupation troops. For children aged 12 and 13, the maximum legal term of imprisonment is six months. But for older children, convictions can result in imprisonment for as long as 20 years, according to the report.
"In no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights," the report states.
The report detailed abuses commonly experienced by Palestinian children detained, imprisoned and interrogated by Israeli forces. Many children are "aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers" before "being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear."
Many children are physically and verbally abused while in transit to Israeli detention centers, with some subjected to painful restraints as well as exposure to the elements and deprivation of food, water and access to toilets.
As for the interrogation process, UNICEF found that it "mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess."
"Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member," the report states.
The report claims that many children do confess, and are often forced to sign forms in Hebrew that they cannot understand.
Children are also held in solitary confinement for periods as long as a month before appearing in court, a particularly cruel form of punishment that has been known to drive even adult prisoners insane.
In court, Palestinian children, broken by their experiences in Israeli custody, are judged by evidence consisting primarily of their own confessions, which were "in most cases extracted under duress during interrogation," the report states.
"Ultimately, almost all children plead guilty in order to reduce the length of their pretrial detention," the reports states. "Pleading guilty is the quickest way to be released. In short, the system does not allow children to defend themselves."
Speaking of defending themselves, critics of Israeli policies and actions assert that the vast majority of Palestinian children who do engage in stone-throwing and other largely symbolic acts of defiance are only doing what anyone would do if their homeland was occupied by foreign invaders. It is considered almost taboo in Israel to acknowledge the fact that the establishment of the state of Israel was accomplished by the expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and villages, an event that even many Israeli observers call ethnic cleansing, and the military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights since 1967.
This occupation, which is illegal under international law, has been characterized by extreme economic hardship and daily humiliation. Palestinian efforts to resist the occupation are usually met with an escalation of Israeli brutality. This January, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead by Israeli forces following a stone-throwing incident near the occupied West Bank town of Budrus.