By Arthur Brown
The throwing of stones at Israeli soldiers and military vehicles by Palestinian youth is something we’ve all become used to seeing on our TV screens and in our newspapers. This somewhat symbolic expression of resistance by these children/young people, began in the Jabaliya refugee camp [Northern Gaza] during the 1987-1993 uprising. Whilst risk taking behaviour among youth around the world if often understood as a rite of passage, the scale and the implications on families and society in general seems particularly significant within the Palestinian context. Whilst not seeking to condone violence in any of its forms – be that stone throwing or bullets and bulldozers – the systemic abuse of children by both Israel’s powerful military ‘judicial system’ or the leadership of Palestinian political parties is an issue that should disturb those of us who seek to walk in the way of Jesus.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child [CRC] defines a child as anyone under the age of 18, whereas Israeli Defense Force [IDF] security directive 1651 defines children as those under the age of 12, while referring to those aged 12-13 as juveniles and those aged 14-15 as young adults. The same directive identifies throwing stones as an offense that can result in a prison sentence for children as young as 14 years of age. The sentence can be up to 10 years if the stone was directed at a person with the intent to harm them, or 20 years if thrown at a vehicle.
A recent statement presented to the United Nations by the NGO Defense for Children International [DCI], highlighted the fact that approximately 500-700 Palestinian children [CRC definition] are prosecuted in Israeli military courts each year. DCI also reported in June this year that 221 Palestinian children were in military detention, with 35 of those aged between 12-15. Below are some comparisons between the Israeli civilian legal system and the military judicial system, pertaining to the detention of children. Between 2005-2010 there were 34 children under 14 imprisoned! Sentences range from a few days to 20 months!
|Israeli civilian legal system||Israeli military detention system|
|Minimal age for custodial sentences||14 years||12 years|
|Child’s legal right to have parents present during questioning||Generally yes||No|
|Child’s legal right to have a lawyer present during questioning||No||No|
|Maximum period of detention prior to being brought before a judge||12-24 hours||8 days|
|Maximum period of detention without charge||40 days||188 days|
|Maximum time between being charged and conclusion of trial||6 months||2 years|
|% of cases where bail is denied||20%||87.5%|
|% of cases where a custodial sentence is imposed||6.5%||83%|
Another shocking fact is that the majority of these children, once sentenced, are relocated to military prisons within Israel [outside of Palestinian Occupied Territories], a practice in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, designed to prevent the transfer of prisoners outside of occupied territories. The consequence of this is that many parents are unable to visit their children in prison for any number of specified or unspecified ‘security’ reasons. Phone calls and letters are also prohibited for these children.
Whilst it cannot be denied that systematic abuse of children takes place within the military judicial system, it would be unfair not to mention other forms of abuse from within the Palestinian community and its leaders. Some years ago I was visiting a community centre in one of Beirut’s Palestinian camps during the Nakba [catastrophe], when Palestinians remember the start of the occupation and Israeli’s celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, the establishment of the modern state of Israel. On stage were about fifteen 4-6 year olds, all dressed in traditional Palestinian dress, except for one who was dressed as an IDF officer. The ‘officer’ ran around using his fingers as an imaginary gun, as the others pelted him with ‘rocks’ made of paper, until the ‘enemy fell dead’ to the ground. Whilst not a surprising event, it was a shocking image of the perpetual hate and violence handed down through the generations to children, being brought up to continue a cycle of hate, hopelessness, desperation and despair. Is this not also a form of child abuse?
The reality is that violence and hatred begets violence and hatred in a continual cycle of de-humanizing views and practices. Words become stones, stones become petrol bombs, petrol bombs become bullets, which become grenades, which become bulldozers, helicopter gunships and jets… and the justification of violent responses is further fueled.
It strikes me that anonymity and the resultant fear it brings are significant contributing factors to the demonizing and dehumanizing of the ‘Other’. A team of eminent British lawyers who investigated the treatment of Palestinian Children by the IDF concluded that ‘a belief that every Palestinian child is a potential terrorist may be leading to a “spiral of injustice” and breaches of international law in Israel’s treatment of child detainees in military custody’. However, as Ralph Waldo Emerson says ‘Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding’. There seems to be little desire to grow in understanding by either side at present.
In her paper given at IMES’ annual Middle East Conference in June 2012, anthropologist and oral historian, Rosemary Sayigh suggested that the ‘American public at large has been predisposed to view Israel as not merely an ally but as fundamentally similar to the United States, a brother nation’. This may be due in part to Palestinian Muslims being excluded as a result of the widely articulated Judeo-Christian narrative, rather than that of the Abrahamic faith tradition. However the apparent ‘exceptionalism’ given to the unjust, inhumane and internationally viewed illegal Israeli state policies by an almost unquestioning US seems, to many, to uphold Sayigh’s view.
There is a well-known Arab proverb that states that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. I’m not sure if this is always the case. What seems more common, at least in some US naratives, is that ‘our friend’s enemy [the Palestinians] must necessarily also become our own enemy.’ As such it is possible to justify the evil actions from party towards the other, when the other does not share supposedly similar cultural or political values.
As followers of Christ, from whatever country, political persuasion or religious tradition, surely we should be those who stand against the tide of violence and hate, and speak and live hope into a situation that seems to be lacking these foundations for life in all its fullness. Maybe it is by acting on the wisdom of Proverbs 31:8-10 which implores us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” [NIV] we will begin to make a difference.
When it comes to the abuse of children, whoever they might be, it is not political stances that are required or justifiable. A rights based approach is what is needed, whereby the church not only stands up for the individual rights of people, but plays its role in challenging the structures that allow the abuse to continue.
 This table is adapted from both the DCI report ‘Bound, Blindfolded and Convicted: Children held in military detention, April 2012‘ and from the report ‘Children in Military Custody’, June 2012 by a delegation of British lawyers on the treatment of Palestinian children under Israeli military law.