Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children. Catherine Cook, Adam Hanieh, and Adah Kay. Pluto Press, London, 2004. 197 pages.
Three more people in masks came into the room. They blindfolded me, put a hood over my headâ€¦ they kicked and slapped me. They beat me with a plastic pipe and whatever they could get their hands on. I couldn’t see anything because I was blindfolded. I just felt the blows. That lasted ten to fifteen minutesâ€¦ Later they stood me on a chair and told me to grab a pipe that was fixed to the wall. They removed the chair from under me and left me hanging in the air, with my handcuffed hands holding onto the pipe and the weight of my body, hanging in the air, drawing my hands downwards. They left the room. - Ismail Sabatin, 17 years old.
So begins Stolen Youth, a book about Israel’s detention of Palestinian children that will be released in March 2004. Isma’il Sabatin’s story, the authors of the book remind us, is paralleled by the stories of the “nearly 2,000 Palestinian children from the Occupied Palestinian Territories whom the Israeli authorities have arrested over the last three years.” Some spend a few days in detention – detained, beaten, and released. Others spend years there.
At any given time there are probably hundreds of Palestinian children in detention, with some 350 in detention at the beginning of 2003. In 2002 one-fifth were between 13-14, the rest between 15-17. The military and police tend to target children between 12-17, but have arrested children as young as nine.
Children are arrested “at checkpoints, on the street, or at their homes by heavily armed Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night. The soldiers take them to detention centres in Israeli settlements or military campsâ€¦ the children are interrogated. This almost always involves some form of torture or abuse, including sleep and food deprivation, threatening language, beatings with heavy batons, being punched and kicked, as well as being tied in painful and contorted positions for long periods of timeâ€¦”
After interrogation, children are brought before a military ‘court’ that operates under a different set of laws than those that apply for Israelis. Where Israelis come under Israeli civil law, Palestinians fall under military orders. Whereas Israeli children, including Israeli children in settlements in the occupied territories, get child-specific courts and procedures, Palestinian children are tried by the same Israeli military courts and judges as try Palestinian adults. The rules of evidence and procedure are such that it does not make sense to call the institutions that decide where to incarcerate Palestinian children ‘courts’ at all. When these ‘courts’ have made their decisions, most Palestinian children are incarcerated in Israel itself, with children of 16-17 treated as adults by Israel’s military laws (according to these laws, Israeli children are children if they are under 18, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but Palestinian children are adults if they 16 or over). Visiting the children in prison is impossible for family members, given the permanent closure of the Occupied Territories that existed long before the territories were physically walled in as they are now, with the Gaza Strip being surrounded by electric fence and the West Bank nearly surrounded by the apartheid wall. But not content to simply wall and fence Palestinians in on all sides, Israel proceeds to round them up and take them off to prisons inside Israel.
Indeed, prison is “a central feature of Palestinian life”, with over 600,000 Palestinians having spent time in prison since 1967 (the population in the Occupied Territories is around 3 million). Prison, Cook, Hanieh, and Kay argue, including the detention of children, is part of Israel’s system of control, “permeating every aspect of Palestinian life. It is a system backed by legal, political, economic, cultural and psychological structures, and designed to keep more than 3 million people under submission.”
The authors of Stolen Youth worked for Defense for Children International/Palestine Section (DCI/PS) between 1999-2003. Their work is based on the human rights reports of Bt’selem, The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Physicians for Human Rights, the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, on the DCI/PS case files, the Israeli press, and their own research, the interviews and testimonies of children, lawyers, advocates, and families. Meticulously documented and carefully researched, it is a crystal-clear and truly damning indictment of an abominable practice. But it is far more than that: it is an indictment of the entire system of control and domination that leads directly to the moral degradation, the racism, and the inhumanity that makes the detention and torture of children acceptable and justifiable not only to Israel, but to its ‘supporters’ in the ‘international community’ as well.
Readers of Stolen Youth will be struck by the near-complete absence of rhetoric, opinion, or even adjectives. Given the appalling nature of the subject matter, the authors’ ability to retain rationality and analytical clarity is an achievement in itself. Indeed, most of the exceptional writers in English on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including Amira Hass, Tanya Reinhart, Hanan Ashrawi, Gideon Levy (frequently quoted in the book), Baruch Kimmerling, Noam Chomsky, Ali Abunimah, and the late Edward Said (to name a few), often exude passion and anger in their writing. Cook, Hanieh, and Kay instead marshall the evidence and let it speak for itself.
The evidence does speak, and it, presented in an unadorned fashion, evokes more emotion than any rhetorical questions, understatement, sarcasm, or metaphor could. Readers learn that “Israeli settlers areâ€¦ empowered to arrest any Palestinian, with no warrant required.” They hear about Riham Musa, a 15-year old girl who “was shot several times by Israeli soldiers who accused her of trying to stab one of them with a knife.” They hear her testimony: “When the soldiers saw me, they opened fire on me and I was hit in the stomach, although I didn’t fall to the ground. I kept standing in the same spot, not moving, so that they would stop shooting. However, another soldier shot me in the leg and then I fell to the ground. Many soldiers appeared and started to cordon off the area, but none of them came near me. They asked me – from a distance – to take all my clothes off except my underwear, so that they could examine themâ€¦ They took them, even though I was wounded and bleeding.” They learn how Riham, in hospital, was “shackled to her hospital bed,” provoking Physicians for Human Rights Israel to note that “It is unreasonable to think that a 15-year old girl, who was hit in the kidney, had part of her intestine surgically removed, is attached to an intravenous solution, and two bullets are still in her body, will escape from the hospital by overcoming the IDF guards” and how, despite this, “20 days after her arrest, she remained handcuffed to the bed.”
Readers learn about the detention centres, like Ofer Detention Centre, which a lawyer visiting in May 2002 described as having “over 900 detainees, including 40 of 50 children”, in tents “erected over an asphalt surface”, “filled with dust and insects”, “each tent holding between 25 and 35 prisoners”, each detainee given “four dirty blankets”. For food, they “were given frozen schnitzels, which they had to place in the sun to defrostâ€¦ A couple of cucumbers and pieces of fruit are provided for every ten detainees. A small container of yogurt is also given to every ten prisoners,” who are not given plates “and instead every eight prisoners are forced to eat collectively from a large bowl”, hygenic conditions are abysmal so “in two sections, open sewage runs from the pipes into the tentsâ€¦ At night, soldiers harrass the detainees by firing bullets into the air, throwing gravel at the tents and yelling at the prisoners.”
Readers learn about “position abuse”, which “involves forcing detainees into contorted positions for very long periods,” about sleep deprivation, threats, and pressures applied to children to try to get them to become collaborators with Israeli security services – a practice whose intent is to undermine and create discord in Palestinian society as much as to justify the existence of the ‘security’ services themselves.
The book describes the military court system, a farce for a wide variety of reasons exposed by the authors by simply pointing out the divergence between Israeli civil law and the military orders that apply to Palestinians. A few examples described in the book:
-As mentioned above, Israeli children are defined as people under 18 years old, Palestinians under 16.
-Israeli children must be brought before juvenile court. Palestinian children do not, and have no special provisions made for them.
-Police can only detain Israeli children without warrant in “eight specific circumstances”, while Palestinian children can be arrested “merely on the suspicion that the child has violated a military order.”
-Israeli children can only be detained for ten days before sentencing, extensible to a maximum of 75 days by order of the Attorney General. Palestinian children can be imprisoned for up to six months without indictment.
-Israelis have the right to see a lawyer as soon as possible, while Palestinians’ rights to representation are subject to military orders, which change frequently. In 2002, Palestinians could automatically denied their right to see a lawyer for 18 days, extensible for up to 90 days, under military order 1500.
The book describes much more.
The logic of atrocity
The evidence marshaled on the Israeli prison system is supplemented by a chapter on the international legal protections of the rights of the child, cruelly mocked by Israel’s prison system, and a chapter on the psychological and social impacts of imprisonment and torture on children and on society more generally. These chapters sharpen the points made by the presentation of the prison system itself: that Israel is engaged in a completely illegal, immoral attempt to destroy Palestinian society.
Several other chapters present the authors’ analysis of the historical context in which Israel’s detention of Palestinian children evolved. In chapter 2, the authors show how: “Israel’s strategy towards the OPT forms a continuum from 1967 to the present day. The essential goal has always been to control the land, the economy, and the resources without assuming direct responsibility for the resident Palestinian population.” Following Raja Shehadeh, they present an analysis in terms of ‘phases of control’: From 1967-71, a system of military orders controlled movement, expropriated land, and took over administration. 1971-79 saw the beginning of Israeli settlements. 1979-81 created a dual system of laws: one for settlers in the territories, the other for Palestinians in the territories. 1981-1993 consolidated Israel’s control over the West Bank and, in particular, its economy. 1993-2000 were the Oslo years, in which “Israel ostensibly gave up direct responsibility for the Palestinian populationâ€¦ but retained absolute control through a military, economic, political and legal framework”, which created “an illusion of sovereignty” while “the actual occupationâ€¦ intensified.” For 2000 to the present, in the second intifada, the authors quote Ariel Sharon in March 2002, who said that Palestinians “have to be hit hard, and it has to hurt themâ€¦ Israel must cause them losses, victims, so that they will feel it.” This current phase has seen a marked increase in the incarceration of children, killings of children and adults in military incursions, the destruction of residential areas with military bulldozers, curfews, checkpoints, and an encroaching humanitarian disaster, with chronic malnutrition among children around 20% in the Gaza Strip.
The authors present this analysis to dispel the idea that the problem of incarceration of children could be solved by changing the Israeli prison system so that it conforms to international humanitarian standards. Instead, the authors encourage readers to understand that the prison system is component of a system of control that is illegal and immoral to begin with, a system of military occupation that is based on dispossessing and destroying Palestinian society: “The policies of incarceration exist to stifle resistance against occupation and will be brought to bear when neededâ€¦. Israel’s policies of detention will be halted only when the occupation which they are designed to support is also ended.”
How Israel gets away with it
In a chapter on “the foundations of Israel’s impunity”, the authors describe the ‘security discourse’ that Israel deploys to silence critics of its human rights violations. Some might be familiar with the philosophy seminar trick deployed to try to win agreement for moral relativism and torture. This trick was utilized by a justice of the Israeli High Court, whose advocacy of a one-year delay in preventing the use of torture by Israel’s security services is quoted in Stolen Youth: “Deriving from the will to prevent a situation where the ‘time bomb will tick’ before our eyes and the State’s hand will be shortened to help, I suggest that the judgment be suspended from coming into force for a period of one year. During that year, the GSS [Shabak, Israeli security] could employ exceptional methods in those rare cases of ‘ticking time bombs’, on the condition that explicit authorization is given by the Attorney General.”
Given that all Palestinians, including children, are presented (and seen) as ‘ticking time bombs’ in Israel’s (and North America’s) media, the door is wide open to torture and other inhumane practices. Israel deploys the ‘security discourse’ to justify everything, from imprisonment to the apartheid wall, from checkpoints and incursions to closures and starvation, to great effect. Israel’s use of the ‘security discourse’ is helped by a tendency in human rights forums to “reduce struggles for equality to a checklist of ‘violations’ in which the record of the oppressed is compared with that of the oppressor. This is clearly demonstrated in the Palestinian case, where the just cause of national liberation has been elided into the nebulous and apparently neutral term ‘the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. In other words, a struggle against oppression has been reduced to a dispute where both sides are equally at fault, and some kind of power equality is assumed.”
Meanwhile the Palestinians “have not had powerful sponsors, nor has the systematic violation of their rights posed a threat to international equilibrium, or to political economic interests, sufficiently compelling for states to actively intervene.” Instead, external powers, notably the United States (but not only the US), support Israel militarily, economically, and diplomatically. This “sends a very strong message to Palestinian civilians: international law does not apply to you; it does not protect you.”
The authors argue that this situation will not change unless change is “sought on the streets and not simply in the parliaments and halls of government. Activists must move beyond information dissemination confined largely to like-minded groups and build strategic alliances that will create an environment where governmental support for criminal regimes becomes impossible to sustain.” Part of building these alliances, they say, is understanding “the common links between the Palestinian struggle and other struggles against oppression around the globe.”
These links ought to be dramatically obvious in North America, and especially in the United States, with its prison-industry complex, whose incarcerated population is 2 million and growing, where violations are also routine and systematic, and whose root causes are equally infrequently examined. By shining a bright light on both the brutality and the root of Israel’s prison system through the eyes of its most vulnerable victims, the authors of Stolen Youth have provided information that will help people understand those “common links” and make the “strategic alliances” that are so necessary.