I don't think I will ever forget sitting beside the mother of a Palestinian boy in an Israeli military court room. She silently wept as she saw her disheveled son in handcuffs being remanded back to prison for more interrogation, after he had been held for three weeks in an Israeli military detention center. Like so many other Palestinian parents whose children are detained by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank, interrogated without legal counsel, and denied basic due process rights, this mother sat in a room where proceedings are held in a language she couldn't understand, watching her son from a distance and unable to do anything but weep.
Palestinian children in the occupied West Bank live under military law, whereas Israeli settler children living in the same territory are subject to Israel's civil and criminal legal system. In the West Bank, at least 500-700 Palestinian children are held in Israeli military detention every year. Many of these children experience physical abuse following arrest. This is a violation of children's rights and a moral outrage -- no child belongs in military detention. We have a responsibility in the US to ask for accountability for human rights abuses, since we provide billions of dollars in military aid to Israel every year.
In the late 1980s I worked in the West Bank at an NGO documenting the impact of military occupation on kids. All sorts of pressures are placed on children living under prolonged Israeli military occupation that affect their health, education and future livelihood. In particular, we must challenge the systematic and widespread ill treatment of children, some as young as 12 years old, in a military court system where children are taken away from their families.
Some international agencies are speaking out about this abuse, including UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations.
The "Israeli Military Detention: No Way to Treat a Child" campaign, coordinated by the American Friends Service Committee and Defense for Children International - Palestine, is calling on the US Congress to pressure Israeli authorities to end the detention and ill treatment of Palestinian children by Israeli forces.
The US has a key role to play and can begin to take action to end military detention of children. This summer 20 members of the US Congress signed a letter to President Obama urging the appointment of a Special Envoy for Palestinian Children to ensure the US government prioritizes Palestinian children's rights.
I agree with members of Congress who stated in their letter to the president that, "ignoring the trauma being inflicted on millions of Palestinian children undermines our American values and will ensure the perpetuation of a conflict and occupation we all want to see end peacefully." The first step is knowing about these abuses. The next step is calling for accountability.
I made a promise to myself not to forget what I witnessed in an Israeli military court room: not the frightened looks of young Palestinians held in military detention, or the tears of a helpless mother as her son was denied the rights that all children, regardless of their ethnicity, should receive. Military detention is no way to treat a child.
Note: Jennifer Bing will be speaking about the human rights violations that Palestinian children face during the "No Way to Treat a Child" conference this Saturday, September 17, in Seattle, and again at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 19, in Portland.