Sussman: Military Tribunals for Kids

You are sleeping soundly at 2:00 a.m. on a calm summer night when there is suddenly loud pounding at your door. Armed soldiers rush into your home, yelling in a foreign tongue. Blindfolded, with hands tied behind your back, you are transported to a military detention center where interrogators threaten to torture you with electric shocks if you do not confess to a crime you have not committed. Without ever being formally charged, you are transported to a foreign country and held for twenty-two days, six in solitary confinement. A military tribunal approves your detainment on the basis of secret evidence unavailable to your attorney. Interrogators shine a merciless light into your lonely, windowless cell, robbing you of sleep and your rights as a human being in accord with the Third Geneva Convention.

You’ll be forgiven if you think this is the story of a suspected al-Qaeda operative. It is not.

Tragically, it is the story of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, M.M, tormented at the hands of the U.S.’s stalwart ally, Israel. I met M.M. this January at his family’s home in Asira al Qibliya, a 2,800 person Arab village deep in the hills of the West Bank, some seventy minutes north of Ramallah. Sitting legs crossed, on pillows laid out around a neat Persian rug in the family’s living room, I listened with amazement to his story.

M.M. is just one of 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as twelve, who are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted in Israeli-run military tribunals in the West Bank every year. Obscured by the broader geopolitical questions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-Israeli alliance, the grotesquely undemocratic military tribunal system has been depriving Palestinian children of their human right to due process since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank subsequent to the Six Day War of 1967. Now, in the past two years, alarming investigatory studies conducted by the Palestinian division of the Defense for Children International have shed light on a system that perpetuates unacceptable and systematic abuses of detained children. In light of these findings, Israel must immediately cease prosecuting children in its failed and unjust military tribunal system.

As in M.M.’s case, children –ranging in age from twelve to seventeen – are typically arrested in sudden midnight raids by armed Israeli Defense Forces personnel. In most cases, neither the arrested Palestinian children nor their shocked families are informed of any charges. This is often because no evidence permissible in an ordinary court of law exists. Instead, arrests are made in response to stone-throwing at IDF soldiers by unidentifiable Palestinian youth. In a distorted and medieval form of collective punishment, suspected children are tied to crimes by hearsay at best and their home village at worst.

Yet the human rights violations implicit in arbitrary arrest are nothing compared to post-arrest treatment. DCI-Palestine’s latest report found an alarming pattern of institutional abuse of detained children. Brimming with horror stories of strip searches, aggressive interrogations, and forced signatures of Hebrew language documents indecipherable to Palestinian children, the report’s most disquieting discovery is that 87% of detained children report subjection to physical violence. Sickeningly, this includes the torture with which M.M. was threatened – electric shocks. Add these horrific interrogation methods to the use of secret evidence and forced confessions, and it is easy to understand how an astounding 99.7% of Palestinian children tried before the military tribunal are convicted.

Luckily, M.M. never faced trial. After their brutal interrogation techniques failed to elicit confession, M.M.’s captors released him. Now, a year and a half after his gruesome ordeal at the hands of the IDF, M.M. is living a near to normal life. Despite several initial months of isolation, in which he exhibited depression-like syndromes, M.M. is now attending school full-time and has resumed a functional social life. Oh, and we’re friends on Facebook.

Nonetheless, the arbitrary nature of the senseless suffering he endured at the hands of the Israeli military tribunal system still bothers him. Nothing short of the abolition of the military tribunals, in favor of a democratic court of law – where secret evidence and forced confessions are inadmissible and charges and rights read at arrest – can ensure that Palestinian children will not continually be unfairly arrested, tried, and jailed. Yet, disturbingly, not one of the 645 complaints of ill-treatment filed with the Israeli Security Agency has sparked criminal investigation, let alone reconsideration of the military tribunal system.

This is unacceptable conduct for a country whose advocates bill it as the only democracy in the Middle East. Whatever one’s views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or even of the disputed occupation of the West Bank, reasonable people of all views can unequivocally agree that a ‘justice’ system that systematically violates the human rights of children is intolerable. When Americans speak of Israel, it is as a steadfast ally that shares American values and projects them throughout the Middle East. For these talking points to have meaning, Israel must immediately cease unjustly prosecuting Palestinian children in its anti-democratic military tribunal system.