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Israel's Detention of Palestinian Minors Criticized

Rights activists decry a dual system that accords Jewish offenders more favorable treatment.

August 17, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

DEIR ABU MISHAL, West Bank — Sleep can be fleeting in this dusty Palestinian hamlet. The families here know that they might be jolted awake in the dead of night by a pounding at the door, the prelude to a search or the arrest of someone in the household by Israeli soldiers.

But Hakmeh Barghouti, who had seen three of her five sons hauled off on prior occasions, wasn't prepared when the army came for her youngest. Blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back, 14-year-old Mohammed was led away in the wee hours this spring after his mother frantically helped him get dressed.

"I never thought they would come for him," she said. "I thought they would take one of the older ones."

Thus began a frightening experience for Mohammed, marked by what he described as interrogations, beatings and squalid conditions inside an Israeli detention center for Palestinians accused of security offenses. In Mohammed's case, that meant throwing rocks at soldiers and armored vehicles that rumbled through his village.

The teenager appeared before a military judge and spent two weeks in custody -- without a visit from his parents or a lawyer -- before being released.

His situation is not unique. Human rights activists are alarmed by the number of Palestinians younger than 18 who are being locked up by the Israeli government as part of its crackdown on the nearly 3-year-old Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

The issue was highlighted this month by the Israeli government's release of a few hundred Palestinian prisoners, who were set free in an effort to prevent the peace process from breaking down. Among those freed were about a dozen minors.

On Friday, the Israelis released 73 more prisoners, almost all of them adults and common criminals.

Even during a temporary cease-fire declared by the main Palestinian militant groups, the Israeli government has continued to detain suspected members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including juveniles. Many of these incarcerated youths are treated the same as adults -- from questioning to sentencing -- in violation of international agreements such as the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, critics say.

Some youths are held with adult men and women in detention wards. Others are in prisons that their families cannot visit because of restrictions that Israel places on the movement of Palestinian residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel defends its policies, saying the lives of its people are at stake. Today's stone-thrower could be tomorrow's terrorist, the government says, and should be dealt with sternly to deter future attacks.

Underscoring Israel's security concerns, two suicide bombings that rocked the country and the West Bank last week were committed by 17-year-old boys.

Israel defines a minor as someone younger than 16, not younger than 18 as most Western countries do. Yet this standard applies only to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israeli youths -- including the sons and daughters of Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank and Gaza -- are considered minors until they turn 18. Two 16-year-olds living a short walk apart, on the same rocky West Bank hillside, are thus treated differently by the legal system because one is Israeli and the other Palestinian.

"We believe a state cannot have two definitions of minors," said Yael Stein of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which has been highly critical of the treatment of young Palestinians. "If the definition of a minor is 18 inside of Israel, it should be the same inside the occupied territories. It is a huge problem that the same country has two standards."

Israeli military officials acknowledge that the detention of juveniles is a sensitive issue, but the officials contend that the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child allows Israel to choose the age at which it deems fit to try youths for criminal offenses.

Israeli officials also maintain that Palestinian youngsters are better treated now than before the 1967 Middle East War, when the West Bank was held by Jordan and children were considered minors only until age 12.

An Israeli military officer who requested anonymity defended the dual system for defining the age of majority. "The problem is, the number of terrorists between the ages of 16 and 18 is huge.... That's the age when people who want to join the fighting do."

As with so many things in this polarized land, the exact number of youths in detention is in dispute. Nonprofit groups such as Defense for Children International and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate that up to 360 Palestinians younger than 18 are in Israeli custody for security offenses -- mostly for hurling stones, but sometimes for more violent acts.

The Israeli military puts the number of under-18 Palestinians in lockups at a "few dozen." But army officials acknowledged this year that their soldiers arrest, on average, five youths under age 16 every week, usually for stone-throwing.

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