Half a year after the lower chamber of the British Parliament, the House of Commons, discussed the Israeli military court at Ofer, it was taken up by the upper chamber, the House of Lords. In both sessions, on December 7, 2010 and May 4, 2011, respectively, the court was specifically mentioned with regard to the detention and sentencing conditions for Palestinian minors by the Israeli military. In both sessions, the debates followed visits by members of Parliament.
Lord Alf Dubs made the following statement to the House of Lords on May 4: "My Lords, I recently visited the West Bank; it was my first time there. Of course any solution must acquire security for Israel, but also dignity, self-respect and justice for the Palestinians.
"As part of the visit I went to see the Israeli military courts in Ofer. I believe that the way in which these courts operate is an obstacle to achieving a just peace in the region. We went to see how children are treated by this system of military justice. Approximately 700 Palestinian children are prosecuted every year in these courts, and at the end of January this year some 222 were in jail. In the court we visited we saw a 14 year-old and a 15-year-old, one of them in tears, both looking absolutely bewildered. What shocked me as much as anything was to see that these young persons – children – had chains or shackles around their ankles while sitting in court. They were also handcuffed as they went into court. Although the handcuffs were taken off while they were in court, they were put on again as they left the court.
"When being interrogated these young people do not have the security of video recordings, lawyers or parents present. In fact, if parents want to visit, their permission might take 60 days to come through, by which time the young person might have served his or her sentence.
"The court proceedings are in Hebrew, with translations of a doubtful quality. The verdicts are mostly based on uncorroborated confession evidence. The evidence against one young person that we saw was of throwing stones at an Israeli armoured vehicle, for which he is likely to get 60 days in custody.
"I do not believe that this process of humiliation represents justice. I believe that the way in which these young people are treated is in itself an obstacle to the achievement by Israel of a peaceful relationship with the Palestinian people. I think that the Israelis should apply proper standards of human rights to the way in which they treat them."
Dubs was not entirely precise. We recently learned of the interrogation of a minor that was recorded on video, that of a 14-year-old from the village of Nabi Salah, near Ramallah, identified by his initials, A.D. The video indeed made it easier for the defense attorneys (Gaby Lasky and Neri Ramati) to prove that the interrogation of this minor, just a few hours after being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, was filled with faults. A.D. was detained for 10 weeks. Had the defense not insisted on holding a trial within a trial (about the inappropriate interrogation) and merely agreed to a plea bargain, including an admission of guilt (for throwing rocks at security vehicles 20 times "during a period unknown to the prosecution") without calling witnesses, A.D. would have been released sooner. That has been the case for many minors whose attorneys choose an earlier release over challenging the military judges using standard legal procedures. But in keeping with Nabi Salah's rebellious spirit, principle was chosen instead.
A.D. was released to house arrest. The prosecution refused to withdraw charges. Last Monday, attorney Lymor Goldstein testified as to how he was prevented from meeting with his young client before his interrogation. (If the honorable lord expects the Israeli military judicial system to grant minors the right to have a lawyer present during their interrogation, then he is mistaken.) The trial of a 14-year-old has to do with more than guilt or innocence. It is also a discussion about the legality of arresting children in nighttime raids and interrogating them in deliberately stressful conditions, while taking advantage of their childishness and wringing from them confessions that incriminate the leaders of the popular uprising.
The issues that are of interest to British MPs are not those that occupy Israeli Knesset members. But perhaps Lord Dubs himself, of Britain's Labor Party, would interest our legislators. At the age of six he was one of 669 mostly Jewish children that British citizens evacuated from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.
With him on his visit to Israel was Lord Mohammed Sheikh, a businessman and philanthropist who was born in Kenya to parents from the Indian subcontinent. Unlike Lord Dub the Holocaust survivor, Lord Sheikh had visited Israel before, and also went to Gaza "with the consent of those on my Front Bench and the Conservative Party," as he told the House of Lords.
He also told the upper chamber that during their April visit, "We also spent the best part of a day with an Israeli army officer and high officials in the Israeli Foreign Office to hear the Israelis' point of view."
If not for this column's reticence about futuristic speculations and idle promises, the following sentence by Lord Sheikh might have become a headline: "[Palestinian] Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that, if and when the Palestinians get full independence, the half a million Israelis [in the settlements] would be welcome to stay in the West Bank."
Lord Sheikh failed to mention that Palestinian leaders such as the late Faisal Husseini, former PA minister for Jerusalem, have said that settlers who agree to be citizens of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and who do not have a record of violent attacks against Palestinians, will be allowed to remain there. The settlements will not remain deluxe ghettos for Jews only, but will be open to all. And Jewish citizens of the Palestinian state will not retain the special privileges and separate legal status that characterize their present, illegal sojourn in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem).