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The Children’s Court

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Camp Ofer near Ramallah is an Israeli ‘incarceration facility’ for detaining and processing Palestinian prisoners, including children (there are currently more than 200 Palestinian children in Israeli detention; a fifth of them are under 16). A delegation of three British Labour MPs who visited Camp Ofer last December told Amira Hass in Haaretz what they saw. More than two-thirds of detained children said they had been beaten. They were all ‘better off pleading guilty regardless of whether they had done something, because if they were detained until the end of proceedings, this could be three times longer than their punishment’. One of the MPs was disturbed to hear from his escort that this was a relatively good day: the children’s hands were cuffed in front of them rather than behind their backs.

A report on the prison in Haaretz last month included the case of a 14-year-old boy who had been in custody for six days before being brought before the judge (in Israel suspects have to be brought before a judge within 24 hours; in the Occupied Territories they can be held for up to eight days). His lawyer told the court that the child had been ‘interrogated in a cruel, undignified fashion’. As is common in such cases, the defendant and his lawyer didn’t know what the charges were. The boy was remanded in custody for another ten days, after which ‘he will be sentenced to another few months in prison’ for a crime he has no idea of.

Aya Kaniuk and Tamar Goldschmidt of Machsom Watch have described a typical Monday in the ‘children’s court’ at Camp Ofer. The judge works efficiently and quickly, sending one child after another to jail, processing 23 boys in one day. Twenty-one of them were rounded up in the middle of the night from Kalandia refugee camp. ‘Some boy gave their names in,’ Kaniuk and Goldschmidt explain.

That is how it usually happens. A child is arrested for one reason or another. And he is told, give us fifteen names and we’ll let you go. First he says, no way. Eventually he gives them names. Usually they are the names of boys he knows, his age, sometimes of boys he’d never met, in order to supply the required number.

The children are dressed in brown or orange prisoners’ uniforms. ‘Chained feet. Shackled hands, one hand shackled to that of another boy,’ Kaniuk and Goldschmidt write. ‘Some of them are so small that their feet wave in the air when they are seated on the bench.’

The Israeli treatment of Palestinian children in detention violates both international and Israeli law. In his powerful documentary Arna’s Children, filmed over more than ten years, Juliano Mar-Hamis followed the Palestinian children who belonged to a theatre group set up by his mother in Jenin. Three of the children were killed by the IDF; one became a suicide bomber; two were imprisoned by Israel. Juliano was murdered last month by masked gunmen. The slow infanticide of Palestine continues.

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