UNICEF stifles its own report on Palestinian children in Israeli detention

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Cover of the UNICEF report “Children in Israeli Military Detention, Observations and Recommendations”

In March the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a damning report on the “widespread, systematic and institutionalized” abuse of Palestinian children held in Israeli custody. The report, titled Children in Israeli Military Detention, Observations and Recommendations (pdf), buttresses earlier reports that have garnered a lot of attention internationally.

After the report was released Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement claiming Israel would study the conclusions of the report and “work to implement them through ongoing co-operation with UNICEF” noting that Israel had joined UNICEF’s board this year.

The Australian reports on a bizarre press conference that took place in Jerusalem about the findings of UNICEF’s report. The press conference was greeted enthusiastically by journalists but the manner in which it was conducted indicates a fix was on to stifle the truth of the report. Unfortunately, it appears at least some of those engaged in this subterfuge were members of UNICEF, including Anthony Lake, executive director of the agency, and UNICEF’s Jerusalem chief Jean Gough.

The Australian:

Inquirer’s photographer had brought a video camera to film for The Australian’s website. But UNICEF’s Jerusalem chief Jean Gough made an announcement: only the first five minutes could be filmed and no officials could be quoted. A press conference where you couldn’t film? Or quote officials?

Gough began speaking. During the first five minutes she praised Israel for its dialogue about the system under which Palestinian children from the age of 12 are tried by Israeli soldiers, while Jewish children in neighbouring settlements are tried before civilian courts. “I want to thank them,” she said of the Israelis.

But once the cameras were off, a totally different story was told – one official said the ill-treatment of Palestinian children was “widespread, systematic and institutionalised”; another told how Palestinian children were “beaten, slapped and kicked” by Israeli soldiers.

He said children sometimes were told they would be killed or that they or members of their families would be sexually assaulted if they did not confess, usually to stone-throwing. Another said there was “a systemic pattern of abuse and torture”.

This was not just media management but a distortion of the truth. The version from the first five minutes was highly positive to Israel, but the later version was of a horrific system in which children were taken from their homes – usually at night – by heavily armed soldiers, blindfolded, denied water and toilets, and even placed in solitary confinement for up to a month. And while UNICEF found Israel had engaged in actions that fitted its definition of torture, the report avoided using that word in its findings.

An investigation by Inquirer suggested that UNICEF had caved in to pressure from Israel or self-censored. The more we questioned, the less UNICEF answered. Gough would not answer certain questions, referring us to UNICEF’s New York executive director, Anthony Lake.

But Lake would not answer a single question, even though he signed off on the report. In a circle of unaccountability, his office referred us back to Jerusalem because “it is a report about children there, not a global report”.

Lake’s office stated: “So we will close on this from HQ and you will receive your responses from the region”. But the Jerusalem office would not answer several questions – so for one of UNICEF’s major reports many questions went unanswered.

There were general references to torture, but when it came to specific findings the word was omitted. The report even deleted “torture” when it quoted relevant sections of international law and substituted it with “duress”.

(Hat tip Karen Platt)

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