NEW YORK — The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is among the strongest armies in the world. According to Israeli Defense Minister Ehuda Barak, it is also one the most moral ones. One wouldn't know that for its treatment of Palestinian children.
On Dec. 13, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) stated that the Israeli military and police were violating Israeli law by detaining Palestinian children, some as young as 7, and interrogating them. This last denunciation follows serious accusations of Palestinian children being sexually abused by Israeli police officers.
"They [the police] hit me and dragged along the floor. They handcuffed me with these plastic handcuffs which are very tight. I was very scared. Only when my father came they stopped," Muslim Odeh, an 11-year-old Palestinian, told the BBC. His accusations were denied by Israeli police.
According to the Geneva-based Defense for Children International (DCI) they have 100 sworn affidavits from Palestinian children who said that they were mistreated by their Israeli captors in 2009. Fourteen among them say that they were sexually abused or threatened with sexual assault to pressure them into confession.
Defense of Children International (DCI) reviewed those affidavits which showed 81 percent of them were coerced into confessions, 14 percent were kept in solitary confinement and 4 percent were sexually assaulted. DCI believes that these figures may understate the extent of the problem. Many parents don't complain to the authorities, since they feel that they cannot rely on the same system that is accused of abusing their children.
There are currently 340 children in Israeli jails, most of them convicted of throwing stones at the Israeli soldiers and police. Children's complaints of violence are disregarded, and no proceedings are taken against those responsible. However, IDF spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich dismissed the reports on Israeli abuse of Palestinian children and stated that in her view the real tragedy is the exploitation of Palestinian children, who are sent to confront Israeli troops.
Amnesty International has condemned using Palestinian children in armed attacks and has also stated that, "Children are susceptible to recruitment by manipulation or may be driven to join armed groups for a variety of reasons, including a desire to avenge relatives or friends killed by the Israeli army."
Israel's policy toward children detainees has been sharply criticized by human rights organizations since it denies them access to their families, although their families' presence during some of the proceedings is allowed by Israeli law. In addition, children can only see their lawyers when they are in court.
"The ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child prisoners appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized, suggesting complicity at all levels of the political and military chain of command," according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.
Inside the occupied territories the Israeli military considers any Palestinian who is 16 years old or older as an adult, while inside Israel and in most other countries adulthood is reached at 18. Mistreatment of children is against the tenets of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Israel in 1991.
In Israel, the rules related to rights of minors in criminal proceedings are contained in Amendment 14 to the Youth Law, enacted in July of 2008, which took effect one year later. This amendment's goal is meant to incorporate the rules of international law into Israeli legislation, particularly those related to the treatment of juveniles in criminal matters and the obligations derived from them.
At the same time that these abuses are taking place, Palestinian children's education has been sharply affected by the situation in the occupied territories. Thousands of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem are unable to attend school since there is no room for them in the state school system, while the drop-out rate is the highest in the Israeli school system. There is a shortage of approximately 1,500 classrooms in East Jerusalem. This means that only about half of all Palestinian children in the city attend state schools, according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
As the abuse of Palestinian children by the IDF continues, so does the construction of settlements in Israeli-occupied Palestinian land.
Cesar Chelala is an award-winning writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.