Thinking of the Children

Thoughts from an EA after Omar, a 12 year old boy, was detained by the Israeli military.

by Jenn, Jayyus team

Omar’s story

On Monday the 10th of March, in Azzun, a town located in the north of the West Bank, over 10 military jeeps and over 20 soldiers came to detain and arrest a 12 year old boy.

After dark, in his own home, the soldiers came and took Omar’s 29 year old brother. However, the soldiers soon realised that they had the wrong family member and instead they re-entered the home. This time looking for Omar. The soldiers started asking and shouting for Omar, shouting at the women and children present, telling them that they would not leave the home until they had Omar. It took awhile to convince them that the 12 year old who had at first opened the door was the person they were looking for.

After accepting that the young boy was who they sought they told his mother to grab a jumper for him and he was led outside of his home in his slippers to were the soldiers still held his brother.

Here, Omar was asked to try on some shoes they had taken from the home. The shoes fit Omar. After this Omar’s brother was released and Omar was led away. Only his father was allowed to accompany him as he was escorted on foot to a road 10 minutes away just beyond the town of Azzun. Here, in the dark, Omar was asked to climb over the roadside barrier and down a roadside embankment and into an olive grove in order to match his footprint against a footprint in the soil of the olive grove. Escorted at this point by only three soldiers, into the dark field, myself and my colleague followed.

During our interview with Omar, he demonstrates how he was blindfolded by the Israeli soldiers en route to his interrogation. Photo EAPPI/R. Ribeiro.

During our interview with Omar, he demonstrates how he was blindfolded by the Israeli soldiers en route to his interrogation. Photo EAPPI/R. Ribeiro.

Omar’s footprint, belonging to a pair of Vans and displaying the common diamond pattern of the brand, matched one of numerous footprints criss-crossing the olive grove. This olive grove was to the side of a road leading to the settlement of Ma’ale Shomeron. His charge, throwing stones at the cars of settlers. Stone throwing is a dangerous action and also one hard to prove and a footprint in a local olive grove is hardly damning evidence. It is a serious charge but most definitely not a charge necessitating the intimidating presence and inquiry of over 20 military personnel and vehicles.

Omar was arrested by the Israeli Army in a night operation that unfortunately is far from uncommon, the large number of military present and the timing after dark adds to the already traumatic experience of child arrests. Unusually the Israeli Army allowed Omar’s father to accompany him and gladly we learned that Omar was allowed to return home in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

For security?

It is not unreasonable to ask how the presence of 10 Jeeps and a couple of dozen soldiers, arriving and shouting at a family home at night while armed with automatic weapons and tear gas might contribute to the security of Israel.

I asked a soldier at the start what was going on, he replied in one word “Terrorist”. Israel has a duty to defend its citizens against terrorism. However, there is no one standard and accepted international definition of terrorism and the question should be raised if it is appropriate to label possible stone throwing by a 12 year old boy as a terrorist act? A report by the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin recommended that ” the detention or imprisonment of a child be used as a measure of last resort” and raised concerns about Israel’s vague definitions in counter-terrorism legislation.

When I later challenged the legality of their actions and the importance of child protection another soldier replied “We are the law in this area”. In this they identify their role as the occupying force that has the responsibility to ensure law and order in occupied territory. Israel has signed the International Convention on the Rights of the Child and a 2013 UNICEF report made 38 recommendations about the Israeli contravention of the rights of minors when arrested and detained.

In October 2013 Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that progress towards the ending of these contraventions had been limited. This eyewitness account from Azzun backs up this assertion.

According to local contacts, in Azzun alone in 2013, 175 people were arrested. In 2014 so far the number has reached 35, 13 of these have been under 18 years of age. This is one village and this example is a mild version of something that happens frequently in villages in the West Bank. As a tactic to ensure law and order aimed at enhancing the security of Israeli civilians, arresting and imprisoning boys and the creation of a climate of  hostility does seem to work against prospects for future peace.

According to Defence for Children International every year between 500-700 hundred Palestinian children between the ages of 12-17 years are detained or arrested and prosecuted in military courts, most accused of the same crime as Omar – stone throwing.

The emotional effects of child detention

We visited Omar at his home two days after his arrest. He spoke quietly and in few words as he told us his story. Omar told us that following his arrest he was blindfolded and his hands were bound by the Israeli authorities. He is withdrawn in his speech and and it is only with encouragement from his older brother that he continues his story. He tells us that he was interrogated in a small room, that the door was open and that he could see his father. He also tells us about how while he was interrogated he was screamed at and that he felt intimidated and scared. He is still scared. Omar was lucky, he was released without charge in the early hours of Tuesday morning and will spend no time in prison. However, hundreds of other Palestinian children may face the same trauma and the possibility of incarceration unless the Israeli authorities take the necessary steps  to implement all of UNICEF’s 38 recommendations to ensure the welfare and protection of children in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international laws, norms and standards.

*This blog was first published on one of our EAs blogs: Operation Observation: A Pacifist in Palestine.

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