Tuesday, 7 February 2017
Last year in this place, over 50 parliamentarians from both the House of Representatives and the Senate signed a petition calling for fair treatment of Palestinian children in Israel. This was not just a campaign started by interested people in Australia; it was part of an international process which was calling for consideration and investigation of how young people—children under 18—are treated currently through the disputes in Israel.
The campaign was auspiced by the American Friends Service Committee, which of course are the Quakers, and an organisation called Defence for Children International, which is auspiced specifically by their Palestinian group, but this organisation is much wider and is looking generally at the issues around defence for children.
As a result of the campaign, which is focused specifically at No Way to Treat a Child, in the US parliament 20 members of the US Congress wrote to the President urging the appointment of a special envoy for Palestinian children to ensure the US government prioritised Palestinian children's rights. And in the UK there have been a series of debates, the last one being in 2016, around issues of child prisoners and detainees in occupied Palestinian territories. This is focused most clearly on ensuring that questions are asked, that issues are raised and that, hopefully, together we will be able to look at whether the issues are real and whether there can be action into the future to ensure—most particularly amidst all the horrors of the ongoing violence and dispute within the Israel-Palestine area—that at least the world takes notice of the rights of children.
The data that was brought forward was not only in this campaign; over a number of years investigations have been held looking at how children are treated in the West Bank and Gaza. With this particular focus, we are looking at data which shows that, over the last couple of years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young people who have been held as a result of action or concerns about criminal activity in a militarised zone. The data is quite confronting, and it is important that people have a chance to see the kinds of allegations that have been made, looking indeed at young people. The findings, particularly from Defence for Children Palestine, look at a group of 429 children. That is not an extraordinarily large group, but these are in-depth discussions with young people who have survived the process of being detained. The report shows a disturbing pattern of practices used throughout the arrest, detention and prosecution of Palestinian children.
I will go through some of the findings. An overwhelming majority of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces had their hands tied and eyes blindfolded. During interrogation, 97 per cent of children did not have a lawyer or family member present. Forty per cent of the children were arrested from their homes in the middle of the night. In nearly 90 per cent of the cases parents were not informed of the reason for the arrest or the location of detention. Children have been taken from their homes—granted, homes that have not been secure, and children and families have been living in circumstances that no-one here can understand. Nonetheless, these children, who were in their home, their place of safety, were taken at night and their parents were not told where their children had been taken.
Upon arrest and during interrogation, 97 per cent of children were not properly informed of their rights, including the right to remain silent. Remember, this is an arrest process. These are rights that we take for granted, rights that are protected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and also through the general justice and jury process. From the data that has been brought forward by this particular organisation, the claim is that over 97 per cent of the children were not properly informed of, or did not know of, their rights in this process. The report goes on to say that a third of the children were shown or were forced to sign official documents in Hebrew. The implication of that statement is that these young children are Palestinian, and Hebrew is not a language with which they are familiar, or at least familiar enough to know exactly the circumstances in which they had been placed.
The report goes on to say that three-quarters of the young people experienced some form of physical violence. As documented, the elements of violence consist of 'being pushed, slapped, punched, kicked or struck with a soldier's helmet or gun'. Seventy-one per cent reported verbal abuse or intimidation and 70 per cent reported strip searching—and these are children being strip-searched by soldiers. Granted, many of the soldiers are quite young themselves, but they certainly are not children. Then 72 per cent were denied adequate food or water. The report documented that 66 children were held in solitary confinement for an average period of 13 days. A documented case from 2015 showed that Israeli authorities held Abdel-Fatah Ouri, who was 17 years old, in isolation for 45 days. The expectation, of course, is that the young people are taken and then accused of taking an action, and the hope from the authorities is that a confession can then be achieved and the process would follow on from there. The idea is to make sure that an allegation is followed by an interrogation so that, in cases where confessions are made, the justice system proceeds more quickly. If young people do not know their rights and do not know about what they are being charged with, there are questions about their understanding of the whole process.
Military Court Watch, which is on the internet, looks particularly at what happens in military courts around the world. It is led by an Australian lawyer called Gerard Horton, and he interviewed 71 children in 2016. Their report follows the patterns that I have described and that were indicated in the report from the Defence for Children International—the concerns about understanding the situation, being subjected to violence and then not understanding where the detainment will take place or when and if they will see their parents or understand their legal rights.
Furthermore, the UN Committee against Torture—which is again fully documented, and people can go to these websites and see it—also looked at the issues around young people in this particular conflict. A report in May last year reported that, while they recognise some policy changes have taken place, because these discussions have been going on for a long time, they are:
…concerned at reports that such legal developments are not always implemented in practice, in particular with respect to Palestinian minors accused of security-related offences. In this respect, it is concerned at allegations of many instances in which Palestinian minors were exposed to torture or ill-treatment, including to obtain confessions … The Committee is also concerned that many of these children, like many other Palestinians, are deprived of liberty in facilities located in Israel, thus hindering access to visits of relatives who live in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Committee is further concerned that at the time of the dialogue there were 12 minors in administrative detention and 207 Palestinian minors residents of the West Bank in detention for security-related offences.
The committee recommended in a direct recommendation of this process through to Israel that the Israeli government should work on:
(a) Ensuring that the deprivation of liberty of minors, irrespective of the charges brought against them, is a last resort, limited to the shortest possible period, and that it is reviewed daily with a view to eliminating it;
(b) Systematically ensuring that all minors deprived of liberty are afforded all the basic legal safeguards from the very outset of the deprivation of liberty; that they have a lawyer and/or a trusted adult present at every phase of the proceeding, including during interrogations; and that evidence obtained without observing these provisions are inadmissible in court;
(c) Preventing, investigating and adequately sanctioning practices involving torture or ill-treatment. It should also ensure that minors who were victims of torture or ill-treatment are afforded appropriate redress, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible;
(d) Facilitating visits from relatives and friends, in accordance with international standards.
The kind of issues that I have just read out are the expectations of international jurists and of many people here who are knowledgeable on legal process and would be standard expectations of the treatment of young people who are caught up in a legal situation. We do understand—and there is no naivety in this situation, Mr Acting Deputy President—that we are talking about a warlike situation. People are fully aware that this is a security area and that there has been generations of violence in this place. Considering that, there still should be an understanding that when you are looking at the rights of young people there should be—and there are—international guidelines for how this treatment should be handled, for how the investigation should take place and for ensuring consistently that young people are safe and fully aware of their rights.
I just want to put on record one of the pieces of evidence that was made about one young man. Often, you can talk about the theory. But when you hear the statement made by this young person about his own treatment it brings it very close and makes it a much more real understanding. This relates to a young man called Waleed Lebdeh, who was arrested by Israeli soldiers on 17 March 2014—it is almost coming up three years. He was arrested around 8 pm after he was reported to have thrown a stone at a car near the Jewish only settlement, Ma'ale Shomron, near the West Bank village of Azzun. The armed guard at the entrance to the settlement saw Waleed and shouted at him to stay still. The guard radioed Israeli forces, which soon arrived, and Waleed was blindfolded and bound at the wrist with a single plastic cord. He was transported in a military vehicle to Ariel police station, located in Ariel settlement, arriving around 10 pm. Waleed was permitted to drink water and use the bathroom before interrogation, which proceeded without reading these rights to any legal guardian or counsel present. 'He interrogated me for about an hour,' Waleed said. 'He was shouting and pounding the table to intimidate me. I confessed to throwing one stone.' He signed a statement in Hebrew without knowing its contents. Although there was a translator in the room, the document was not translated. He was again blindfolded, bound and transferred to Huwwara Interrogation and Detention Center, where he was detained until 10 am the following morning. Subsequently, he was transferred to Megiddo prison in Israel, arriving around noon. There, he was stripsearched and detained in the juvenile section. He appeared before a judge on 19 March. On 20 March, Waleed pleaded guilty to throwing stones.
There are a series of horrors that have occurred in the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is not a place where we are going to be able to solve all those issues. What we can do is ensure that there is an openness of discussion and, in some way, we are able to move forward.
After the petition was signed in Australia, a number of the people who did sign that petition received letters from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council. I was really pleased to be able to receive this communication from the council. I respect many of the people who are involved in that group. I have met with them many times over the years. They have actually come up with a response to some of the allegations that were made in the petition. They do make the conclusion that nobody would say that the IDF's handling of Palestinian youth offenders is perfect or cannot be criticised. But the petition is not really about making things better. Or it would support cooperative efforts, like the IDF-UNICEF collaboration on the issue, and track and promote progress when it occurs rather than just ignore it. A number of specific statements were made about some of the allegations that I have read out in terms of treatment of young people.
In particular, with the issue around the rights of children to have lawyers and them not being available for that process it is claimed that this is standard Israeli law—this is not a particular process for Palestinian children. The military prosecutor and the Israeli police clarified that the same regulations apply to Palestinian children in military detention as for Israeli children under Israeli law. Children have the right to consult with the lawyer but the lawyer does not have the right to be present during the interrogation. I think that is something that raises even more concerns for me in terms of the rights of all children under Israeli law. But at least there was some response. The AIJAC response also talks about the fact that with the issues raised by UNICEF in the past there have been attempts to work on that and to make them better. That is something we welcome. When issues are raised and it is acknowledged that things can be done better the idea is: that process is put in place, and we can then work together to make sure that things do become better.
I am really pleased that at least we will be able to have some dialogue on this process. The open statement and, indeed, all the things I have read into the record this afternoon from No Way to Treat a Child are all on public record. Anyone can read this, get their own information and ask their own questions. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council's information is also openly available. I think it would be really useful if people who have concerns in this space have the chance to read all the information and further question and interrogate so that we can share an acknowledgement that our overall concern is about the safety and well-being of children.
There is an ongoing process through the report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict. This is a process in which their report is given every year about the situation across the world in areas of conflict—not just in Israel and Palestine. So it is not focused just in this space. It is a very sad document to read—the 2016 report in this case—because it itemises concerns of Palestinian children being poorly treated by Israelis and, also, Israeli children who have been caught up in this confident, as well. It is just a series of data that looks at the number of young people being treated poorly. Fifty-four Palestinian children, 45 boys and nine girls, were involved in issues with Israeli settlers, with 20 cases of direct injury by settlers. A total of 13 Israeli children, nine boys and four girls, were injured by Palestinians. It goes through and lists this data.
We have information now available to all of us. It is there. It is not a matter of actually trying to allocate total fault or blame, because we have gone well beyond that in this process. What I want to highlight this evening is the particular concern about young people and how we as parliamentarians, not just in Australia but across the world, can be involved in a positive way to see whether we can work effectively to look at one element of this ongoing conflict. I think that that would be something that we would all agree on, no matter which way we feel about the original causes of the conflict and what the future will be. I do not think there is anyone who would not be seeking a way of ensuring that children are treated fairly and safely. The international conventions on the treatment of the child, the international conventions on effective jurisprudence and the international conventions on how people can be treated in conflict itself are all available to learn from. We can ensure that questions about the treatment of Waleed, his future, his detention and how he will be able to rebuild his life after the series of attacks that he suffered after an accusation that he threw one stone at a vehicle in a security space are answered. No-one can believe that that is the fair treatment of a child.
The petition that 51 parliamentarians signed here in the Australian parliament calls on the Israeli government to:
… comply with its obligations under the Convention on the rights of the child and to not arrest or detain Palestinian children unless this is a last resort, and if they are detained, to immediately institute protections for those children including that their safety and best interests are prioritised, and that they are permitted a fair trial.
I am more than happy to sign a petition with that claim.