Activism

‘There’s been a huge shift’: breaking down Betty McCollum’s historic bill on Palestinian children

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After years of prodding members of Congress to act on their concerns over Palestinian human rights abuses, last year Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced legislation that would prohibit militaries from using American funds to detain and prosecute children. 

The historic bill, H.R. 2407, targets Israel’s army for arresting children as young as 12. It currently has 23 Democratic cosponsors, as activists throughout the country continue to pressure more lawmakers. An earlier version of the bill introduced in 2017 also by McCollum, is the first piece of legislation to seek safeguards for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Brad Parker, a senior policy advisor for Defense for Children International – Palestine, or DCIP, has spent the last five years working alongside McCollum on the measure. I spoke to Parker last month from his home in New York about the bill’s background and how support for the rights of Palestinians has rapidly grown inside the halls of Congress. 

Michael Arria: Could you briefly explain your entry point to Palestinian rights work and how you became involved with this issue?

Brad Parker: I have Syrian heritage through my grandmother and her family, so I grew up with an eye to the Middle East surrounded by Syrian food and culture. As I went through school, headlines in the news and conversations among family members all helped establish my broader interest in the region. I eventually chose to go to law school and in 2009 during the summer I was a legal volunteer at Defense for Children International – Palestine.

It was my first experience living in the West Bank. Working with a local Palestinian organization was transformative for me. I remember vividly my first visit to Ofer military court and seeing DCIP attorneys represent children in the Israeli military courts. I worked on all of DCIP’s documentation and evidence of kids killed and injured by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead that took place the previous winter. I drafted submissions on killing and maiming and attacks on schools and hospitals to the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflicted headed by Justice Richard Goldstone. It was an experience that showed me what role lawyers can play to support Palestinians. It obviously stayed with me and I set off on making sure I could use my legal training in support of Palestinians human rights.

I stayed in touch with DCIP over the years and helped out on various projects. Then, in late 2012 as I was finishing up a fellowship, DCIP was looking for somebody to fill in for a one-year parental leave cover. I went back to DCIP in January 2013 and have been there since. We have always been trying to do different things and to be creative in pursuing accountability for grave violations against children living under Israeli military occupation. In 2015, DCIP established a full-time presence in the U.S. and created the No Way to Treat a Child campaign with Jennifer Bing at the American Friends Service Committee.

Palestinian children fill bottles with water from a public tap in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, July 1, 2014. Israel had bombed the main water line for al-Shati refugee camp and a sewage plant west of Gaza City. (Photo: Eyad Al Baba/APA Images)
Palestinian children fill bottles with water from a public tap in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, July 1, 2014. (Photo: Eyad Al Baba/APA Images)

There are many aspects of the occupation. Can you explain the choice to focus on the specific issue of child detention?

BP: It was a couple things. For decades, it’s been a systemic issue, both ill-treatment against child prisoners and the lack of fair trial rights inherent in the Israeli military court system. In moving to target U.S. audiences specifically, we wanted to create something to serve as a vehicle to bring people into the Palestinian rights movement. We wanted something that would help build a movement around a narrow, child-focused issue that would allow us to highlight the human impact of Israeli military occupation. A lot of the work that we had seen done internationally, whether by local groups or national groups or solidarity organizations, the focus was on issues more generally. It didn’t really include a human face or human perspective as the main focus. So, what we wanted to do was pick a narrow issue that was accessible, that was relatable to mass audiences, and then put a human face on it and show what the human impact of occupation is for Palestinian children and families. We could show in detail that this is one narrow piece of Palestinian experience.

Everybody can understand the issue if it is physical violence against a child. I think that’s a universal red line that exists for most people. That understanding was at the core of the campaign we set out to build. We wanted to have something that was really quite basic, straightforward, accessible, and relatable so that it expanded the Palestinian rights movement by complementing the other things that were happening. We thought if we can pick a narrow child-focused issue, make it relatable and accessible, we can create a sort of a gateway drug to Palestinian rights work and activism in the United States. Much of the existing efforts at the time had a higher bar to entering them and engaging in discussions. We saw the utility of being able to say, no child should be tortured. No child should experience physical violence. Children shouldn’t be detained in a military system and prosecuted in military courts. That’s sort of a more straightforward entry point for folks and what we hoped would empower them to stand up and speak out in a way that they might not have done otherwise.

Also, for so long a lot of the work had been defensive or reactionary, where the burden was always on the Palestinian rights organizations and supporters to defend a position or react to harmful policies. We wanted to shift the burden away from the Palestinian rights movement and onto policymakers specifically. So we say, “Children shouldn’t be tortured. Do you agree with that?” And we wanted to really make that question clear for lawmakers. We wanted them to unequivocally tell us where they stand on these narrow issues. We wanted them to make a clear choice. “Yes. I am okay with children being tortured in Israeli military detention” or “No, I don’t think it’s okay.” I think that burden-shifting, which was really important in the initial thinking in the campaign, has allowed it to grow into what it is today, because it’s not a reactionary defensive model. It is a proactive campaign that it’s shifting the burden onto policymakers and others to say where they stand on this very clear issue.

McCollum introduced the first version of this bill, H.R. 4391 in 2017. H.R. 2407 aims to implement the policy in a different way. Can you explain the differences between the 2 bills and why the legislation was changed?

BP: H.R. 4391 was unique, it was the first bill focused solely on Palestinian human rights. It was unique, too, because it had a specific operational mechanism that required the Secretary of State to certify that no funds provided by the U.S. to Israel went towards specific, prohibited purposes like ill-treatment and torture of Palestinian child detainees and due process violations, which were specifically listed out in the bill. If the Secretary of State wasn’t able to certify that no funds went towards those prohibited purposes, then the result was simply an obligation to report on where funds did go. So in some ways, H.R. 4391 was really a weak bill because it didn’t have any concrete impact on Israeli forces or their actions toward Palestinian children. The bill didn’t condition or reduce U.S. military assistance to Israel. It didn’t touch military assistance to Israel at all. Under the bill, Israeli forces were completely free to continue everything that they were doing in violation of international law. It simply said that the Secretary of State had to certify that funds either went to or didn’t go to the prohibited purposes listed in the bill.

The weaknesses of H.R. 4391 was actually its strength as we used it as a vehicle to force discussions on Capitol Hill. It helped us establish a baseline of sorts and see where we were as far as rights-based issues concerning Israel and Palestine with members of Congress. Even a bill that was solely a certification and reporting structure to provide information on where funds go or don’t go was still extremely contentious.

The other interesting thing about H.R. 4391 related to the reporting requirement. Underlying H.R. 4391 was existing law known as the Leahy Law, which says if a unit or individual of foreign armed forces or security forces is involved in human rights violations like torture or ill-treatment, extrajudicial killing, and other gross violations of human rights, that unit or individual is prohibited from receiving any U.S. military assistance or training. Between 2013 and 2017, DCIP and other organizations had been sending specific cases involving gross violations of human rights against Palestinians to the State Department with the idea that they’d be included in the specific database to manage and monitor violations as part of Leahy law vetting. Eventually, it came out in meetings with State Department officials that they really didn’t have much information at all on where U.S. military assistance to Israel ends up. For weapons, it was really unclear, though they conceded big-ticket items like warplanes and missiles should be able to be monitored and tracked. While the State Department is the agency responsible for Leahy law vetting, it was clear there were huge problems with monitoring and tracking military assistance provided to Israel. From there, it became clear that military assistance to Israel known as “offshore procurement funds,” was even more problematic. These funds are essentially a cash dump to the Israeli government to be spent on purchasing weapons and materials from Israeli weapons manufacturers. So for that chunk of U.S. military assistance, which is around $800 million, the State Department essentially had no receipts. So, what that reporting piece of H.R. 4391 allowed us to do was call out this lack of transparency and information. There was no transparency in the way that U.S. military assistance to Israel was transferred and used by the Israeli military. H.R. 4391 was about accountability simply through transparency.

At the start of 2019, we felt the discussion and discourse had changed since H.R. 4391 was introduced, so with the new Congress in 2019, we wanted to try to create another vehicle that would keep pushing the discourse forward. Working with Rep. Betty McCollum again in early 2019, H.R. 2407 was the result as it maintains the same specific prohibitions that were included in H.R. 4391, but includes them as generally applicable language as an amendment to existing U.S. law. The bill adds an amendment to the Leahy law. The way the Leahy law works is there are specific types of violations that would trigger the Leahy law prohibitions on training and assistance. H.R. 2407 doesn’t apply specifically to Israel, it applies to any country in the world that prosecutes children in military courts and denies basic due process rights. I think it’s a step forward from the last bill. It’s stronger in the sense that it’s more of a direct accountability mechanism. While it would condition funds in line with existing U.S. law, it doesn’t add any new obligations under existing law. In this way, it’s weakness is again its strength. Similar to H.R. 4391, the bill doesn’t demand or require Israeli forces to act any differently. Israeli forces can continue to ill-treat Palestinian child prisoners and prosecute children in military courts. They just can’t do it with money or assistance from the United States. The obligation is still squarely on U.S. actors specific to funding and military assistance that goes to Israel.

Israeli soldiers confront Palestinian children during a demonstration against Israel's separation barrier in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah, Friday, June 29, 2012. (Photo: Issam Rimawi/APA Images)
Israeli soldiers confront Palestinian children during a demonstration against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah, Friday, June 29, 2012. (Photo: Issam Rimawi/APA Images)

You mentioned a shift happening over these issues. We even have Democrats on the campaign trail broaching the idea of conditioning aid to Israel over potential annexation, which reflects this. Can you speak to how this shift has impacted the work you do?

BP: In the past few years, it is clear there has been a significant shift in how these issues are received and also, I think, the vision for what is possible. When we started the campaign, for example, back in late 2014, early 2015, we had people laughing at us over the idea we were going to create a campaign targeting Congress. But our first action in 2015 was a Dear Colleague letter where we had 19 members of Congress actually signing on a letter to the State Department to say ill-treatment of Palestinian children by Israeli forces was wrong and identifying it as a violation of international human rights. That was our starting point. Since that first Dear Colleague letter, we’ve had other letters, several packed congressional briefings, and two historic pieces of legislation introduced in Congress. On a certain level, it’s all quite shocking despite the long road ahead that remain.

Our original thinking was that if we could get one member of Congress to lead on that original Dear Colleague letter, that would be a success. To see where the discourse is now and the dozens of members of Congress supporting rights-respecting legislation on Palestinian human rights is a huge success, maybe even beyond what I thought would be possible. Moving forward, I think we need more pro-active legislative vehicles like H.R. 4391 and H.R. 2407 to help create even more opportunities to move the discussion forward.

It has been a pretty massive shift, even from the previous Congress to the current Congress. With H.R. 4391, there was a lot of caution and hesitation. In a lot of our meetings on Capitol Hill, lawmakers were very concerned about the certification and reporting mechanism being too strong, but it allowed us to start a discussion about military assistance to Israel that at the time was untouchable. Fast-forward to the current Congress where prominent lawmakers made several statements in early 2019 suggesting that the U.S. government should be considering conditioning military assistance to Israeli forces. The focus of the most recent J Street conference in October 2019 where the main question was should there be conditions on U.S. assistance to Israel? So, there’s been a huge shift since we started our efforts in 2015. I think the driving force has been the mix of strong grassroots efforts combined with strategic policy vehicles in Congress and obviously members of Congress with us from the beginning and willing to speak out on these issues, starting with Rep. Betty McCollum

What do you think happens next with this legislation and the larger fight?

BP: The longterm vision goes beyond these bills for sure. We are pushing to secure basic rights for Palestinian children. There’s an entire system of discrimination that exists for Palestinians living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza. We are pushing to end the occupation and the systemic discrimination and structural violence inherent in it. What we’ve recognized is that this kind of work needs political vehicles. You’re not going to get from A to B without actually building and creating a movement of citizens, individuals, but also policymakers to help you get there. So, I think the bills are really a vehicle to help facilitate conversations, to facilitate meetings at the local level, engagement at the local level with constituents, congressional staff, etcetera. I think we felt that for all the good work that was being done in the U.S. at the time we started this, people were really not engaged politically in the way necessary to build a movement to force change. We need to be better at doing the work in individual districts throughout the country. That’s the kind of value that we really want to try to add to the Palestinian rights movement. We want to create mechanisms that open the door to all of the other issues that impact Palestine.

There’s not going to be a law enacted anytime soon. So the goal is to use these vehicles to engage members of Congress, engage their staff, educate them on what’s happening, and then keep pushing. If you don’t want to sign on as an H.R. 2407 cosponsor, we’ll figure out why and then have conversations around that. It’s a way to keep everything moving. For the next Congress, we will have to reintroduce H.R. 2407 or create something new. I think having more and more of these vehicles is what ultimately gets us to the place where we’re trying to get.

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Ah, yes, regarding Palestinian children: “Israel, a light unto nations [NOT!!]” SUPPORT BDS!!! https://ppost24.com/post/672/un-israel-killed-3602-palestinians-injured-over-100000-during-pas “UN: ‘Israel killed 3,602 Palestinians, injured over 100,000 during past decade.'” Feb. 14, 2020, Palestine 24 Post. “At least, 791 among the Palestinians killed by the Israeli occupation during the past decade were children.” “In 2019, Israeli occupation forces killed 132 Palestinians, mostly by air-launched explosive weapons or live ammunition: 107 were killed in the Gaza Strip and 25 in the… Read more »

I like both those pictures of the kids, but there something almost haunting about the one of filling water bottles. Behind the young girl, the street scene could be so many places and times with the boy pausing in an energetic stance and the tree-lined street. Then we see the girl’s touching face and realize what she and the boy at the counter are doing – filling old drink bottles with water to bring home.… Read more »

I agree. Both photos convey the horrible reality children bear while living under a brutal military occupation.

However, the photo of the young boy wearing a striped shirt with his arms at his side staring in defiance at his well armed Zionist occupiers/oppressors says it all.

You can also run for office and demand action against Israel. For example, this city council campaign in Michigan: https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2019/12/anti-israel-activist-and-environmentalist-running-for-ann-arbor-council.html