As many as 400 minors are in Israeli custody facing harsh prison sentences for crimes like 'stone-throwing' or being in Israel illegally. The Israeli practice of punishing minors and their families compounds the intractable nature of the conflict.

The highly publicised arrest of Ahed Tamimi, the young activist from Nabi Saleh, in late 2017, has brought to the fore the plight that many young Palestinians face inside, and as a result of, Israeli prisons.

I met one such young Palestinian (who prefers not to be named) who faced these conditions in the suburbs of Paris, France in the country on political asylum. The 26-year-old was born and raised in the Arroub camp in Bethlehem. He says that area was particularly complex as in addition to the camp, there are surrounding settlements, some of the oldest in the area. This means that there is constant raised tensions between Palestinians and settlers in the area and violence is a common occurrence.

His first words to me conveyed how so many Palestinian children with similar experiences are losing their youth in frightening ways. 

He said to me, “I was 16 when I was arrested, I saw both prisons, the new and the old, the old were only tents in a big space, the new were cells.” His dark eyes turned down, “When I first went in I was so afraid, but I met a man who was friends with my uncle who protected me.”  I asked, “But, how old is your uncle?” To which he replied, “Mid-forties, I think.”

Why is a 16-year-old in the same prison as someone in their mid-forties? Why are children serving their unreasonable sentences with adults who are capable of harming or corrupting their young minds? And why is this so commonplace?

This maltreatment of young Palestinians is not breaking news and it is a frequent occurrence when Palestinians come into contact with Israeli forces – the recent march in Gaza made this painfully obvious.

Defence for Children international estimates that in 2016, 375 children were sentenced to prison for ‘stone throwing.’ Another source estimates that the total number of children in Israeli prisons touched 400 in 2018. 

The crimes range from stone throwing, to being inside Israel illegally, and the average age of the arrestee is between 16 to 18. Many 14-16 year olds are in Israeli prisons and a small number of the detainees are under 14.

These children suffer greatly at the hands of the legal system. Delayed trials and administrative detention are considered regular occurrences when dealing with such cases and as a result, the numbers represented may not reflect the full picture.

Administrative detention is but one of the numerous exacting practices implemented by Israel. 

In 2015, the Israeli Knesset passed an amendment to the civil code stipulating a minimum three year sentence for those convicted of ‘stone throwing.’ However, this is only applicable to Palestinians in East Jerusalem. In the West Bank, the land is governed by Israeli military law – this means there is little regulating the sentencing aside from the judge passing the ruling and almost certainly ensures even harsher sentencing.

In addition, this amendment enabled collective punishment through by calling for measures such as stripping the family of the ‘stone thrower’ of their national health insurance (East Jerusalem). 

This form of collective punishment also applies, likely more austerely, in the West Bank. Collective punishment is also practiced on what are considered more serious crimes. For example, in August 2017, the Shin Bet confiscated close to $30,000 from the families of Palestinian martyrs; this April, near Bethlehem, Israel seized 42,000 sqaure meters of land for ‘security reasons.’

In addition to collective punishment, it has become common practice, according to multiple sources, that children are often coerced into signing confessions in Hebrew – a language they do not speak or understand.

My friend smiles as he tells me that this happened to him as well. He continues to explain how he served over one year for ‘stone throwing’ after which he was released. However, upon his release he was informed that he was yet to be sentenced for other crimes such as threatening security and this time, sentencing would be harsher as he would no longer be tried as a juvenile.

His family quickly arranged for his transport to Jordan and shortly after to France where he has been for the last 7 years as a political refugee. He adds that most of his friends have been released since, but some are still serving time.

What is the most striking in all this is that he is admittedly guilty of ‘stone throwing’ and destruction of property with no remorse – and this is not the issue. Many children in Palestine resort to such methods as a form of self-defense against settlers and soldiers. One doesn’t need to spell out the balance of power in a battle of bullets versus rocks.

He has seen only his brother during his time in France. Living in Europe, while obviously not a prison sentence, has cost this young man years away from his family in a country where he does not speak the language nor understand its freedoms after a life under occupation. His time here ironically serves as a form of bureaucratic solitary confinement.

Children are the most vulnerable of any society, and to harass them in such a brutish manner is a violation of international law. 

Abusive state practices have many unseen costs and many unseen repercussions. Collective punishment, in the long-term, builds widespread resentment and hinders any possibility for a peaceful future.

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