Earlier this week, Israeli soldiers dragged 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi out of bed and arrested her. Last week, soldiers had shot her cousin, 14-year-old Mohammad, in the face with a rubber bullet, and Ahed tried to remove two soldiers from her family property after the incident. Mohammad was put in a medically induced coma to dislodge the bullet and reconstruct his jaw. A video of Ahed confronting the soldiers was used as the pretext for her arrest. These children hail from Nabi Saleh, a West Bank village under constant threat by the Israeli army for its weekly protests against land seized for the illegal settlement of Halamish. This is only one of many instances that demonstrate the excessive force used against Palestinian children by Israeli occupation forces.
Now, more than ever, it is urgent for Congress to pass Betty McCollum’s proposed bill, which would prevent the use of US tax dollars for the Israeli military’s detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children.
As an observer at Israeli military courts, I regularly witness harrowing scenes of injustice and a lack of due process. One particular case haunts me – that of Jamil,* a short, skinny 14-year-old, also accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, escorted into military court with his ankles shackled. Jamil first appeared before the court during his interrogation, with the military prosecutor requesting an extension. I sat with his father, who was still disoriented from the night their home was raided and his son dragged out of bed and whisked away by Israeli soldiers without warning or reason. Jamil’s father was worried about the young boy’s health, because he was born with a heart murmur. The judge granted the prosecution their request in an incredibly short hearing, and Jamil was taken back to interrogation. Days later, he was brought before the judge again. This time, he was missing two brackets of the braces on his teeth.
“What happened to your braces?” his father whispered furtively to him, since family members are not allowed to interact with the detainee in court.
“I fell,” he responded.
We both immediately knew what Jamil would not say for fear of more brutal consequences later.
While shocking, this treatment and abuse is not unique. Since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation in the early 2000s, over 10,000 Palestinian minors have been arrested by the Israeli military and subjected to cruel treatment, interrogation, and imprisonment. Like Jamil, most are arrested on flimsy charges of stone throwing, punishable for up to 20 years. According to Defense for Children International-Palestine and UN OHCHR, 82% of minors experience physical violence at the hands of Israeli soldiers during their arrest and detention, and 97% of children undergo military interrogation without a parent present. On average, children spend 13 days in solitary confinement. During this period of intense isolation and questioning, children are coerced into signing confessions, written in Hebrew, a language most cannot understand or read, and are then indicted on that basis. Considering that the military court has a 99.7% conviction rate, the fastest way for a child to be released from custody is by pleading guilty, even when they are innocent.
Sworn affidavits indicate that nearly all children have been subjected to torture or ill-treatment. They are physically beaten, held in stress positions, and handcuffed for days. They are also psychologically tortured and often endure sensory deprivation and death threats. Palestinian children face these forms of punishment despite the fact that Israel signed and ratified the United Nations Treaty on the Rights of the Child in 1991, which prohibits such violations.
The effects of jail on children are long-lasting. They are “marked” as criminals and heavily surveilled by the Israeli army while under probation, with any minor infraction landing them back in jail without a trial. This is how Israel creates a society of child prisoners who have missed so much school that many of them drop out rather than fall behind, stunting their potential and a future already thwarted by military occupation. At the time of writing, 280 children are in detention, including one who is under administrative detention, held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Israel is the only country in the world that systematically tries children in military court. At least 700 children are tried every year. It is worth noting that Israeli children illegally living in settlements on Palestinian land are subject to Israeli civil law rather than military law, further indicating the racist and discriminatory use of law for the purpose of criminalizing Palestinians.
Israel is the largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, having received over $128 billion dollars in assistance, almost all in the form of military aid. In Barack Obama’s last months as president, he finalized a deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that guarantees $38 billion dollars of military aid to Israel for the next ten years. The deal stipulates that military equipment must be purchased from US companies, continuing to make the United States materially and morally complicit in the torture and ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli occupation’s prison system. Moreover, these weapons will be used to kill children, such as 17-year-old Nadim Nuwara, who was shot in the back by live ammunition outside of Ofer Military Prison, or the 504 children killed during Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014.
The message of McCollum’s bill is simple: As Israel’s largest benefactor, the US must stop funding Israel’s human rights abuses against children.
Congress shouldn’t stop with this bill. Israel uses military law as a weapon to stifle any form of Palestinian resistance against its now 69-year-old military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. Over 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested since the military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and upwards of one million have been arrested since 1948. Political detention is central to entrenched occupation, and Congress must stop funding the instruments of oppression that affect Palestinians. Palestinians of all ages should not be persecuted for maintaining steadfastness on their land, nor should they be targeted for struggling for their freedom.
*Name changed for protection of the child.