On Sunday, Israel released 550 Palestinian prisoners, the second and final phase of the prisoner swap which secured the release of Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in October.
Israel reserved the right to make the final decision on which Palestinian prisoners to release, and which should remain in jail. Not surprisingly then, it attracted widespread criticism when not one of the 164 Palestinians held by Israel under the age of 18 were released in the first round of the prisoner swap. This time it was different. On Sunday, 55 Palestinians aged between 14 and 17 were freed by Israel.
Whether or not it took place in response to the international pressure, Israel's change of heart is welcome. But it is no more than a start. Like many other countries, Israeli law defines under 18s as children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires member states to uphold standards of judicial behaviour in respect of children, including only using imprisonment as a last resort. According to Defence for Children International (DCI), however, even after Sunday, 106 Palestinian children still remain in Israeli detention.
Each year around 700 Palestinian children are held by Israel. Unlike Israeli children, they are subject to military, not civil jurisdiction. Widespread concerns about their treatment have been catalogued by DCI and a range of other Israeli and international human rights organisations.
Children are frequently taken from their homes in the middle of the night, without telling their parents why they are being arrested or where they are being taken. Painful hand ties and blindfolds are used for extended periods of time. Prior to interrogation, children are often not informed of their right to silence or allowed to meet with a lawyer. Rarely are they even allowed to speak to their parents.
Threats and physical and mental abuse during arrest, transfer and interrogation are widespread, making prosecutions based on evidence regularly extracted from confessions more than worrying.
It's shocking when you hear about these things. It's worse still when you see them for yourself and meet some of the young people who have been through it. I'll certainly never forget the sight of 13-year-old boys being led into Israel's military courtrooms at Ofer prison in leg shackles and handcuffs. The leg shackles stayed on throughout the hearing. Necessary to prevent them absconding? I don't think so; the courtroom was inside the walls of a high security prison.
Last month I met half a dozen young ex-prisoners from the Hebron area of the West Bank who are now receiving support from a psychological counselling centre run by the YMCA near Bethlehem. As their answers to my questions unfolded, the sheer extent of the Israeli military's practice of shackling child prisoners became clear.
I was told how some of them would be picked up from a jail near Haifa by prison vans at around 1.00am to take them to the court at Ofer. The journey should take just a couple of hours. In practice, prisoners are regularly kept in the prison vans for eight or nine hours at a time as they travel to different parts of Israel to pick up more prisoners before arriving at Ofer. By the time the vans get there, they are often overcrowded. The 14 to 17-year-olds inside are shackled throughout the journey. Sometimes they are hand cuffed together too.
When I asked the young people about food, water or even how they go to the toilet during the journey, they shrugged. If you are lucky, they told me, you may get a break outside the van during the journey. Often you do not.
When I raise this kind of treatment with representatives of the Israeli government, I am usually cautioned to remember Israel's security concerns, and its need to be vigilant to the threat of suicide bombs. In fact, most of the children are detained for offences such as throwing stones. But that is hardly the point. Mistreatment of prisoners - especially child prisoners - does not stop being mistreatment depending on the offence they are accused of.
That is why DCI calls for Palestinian children to have the same rights as Israeli children to recognised standards of juvenile justice rather than military courts. It is why they say all children should be accompanied by a lawyer and parent during questioning, and all interrogations of children should be audio-visually recorded as a means of independent oversight.
And it is why - as we approach a new year in the 21st Century - Israel's shackling of child prisoners must stop.
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