Israel's assault on Palestinian children: Will US Congress act?

Israel's assault on Palestinian children: Will US Congress act?
Comment: A new US bill aims to prevent American funding from supporting the detention of Palestinian children - but it has yet to pass through Congress, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
5 min read
23 Nov, 2017
The majority of children have been arrested for throwing stones [AFP]
"Once I saw kids passing, and one of the guys - a reservist who spoke Arabic - wanted to ask them what they studied. Then I saw how the kid nearly peed his pants… The guy was kidding and the kid was scared to death"

This story was told in 2012 by an Israeli soldier, speaking about his encounters with Palestinian children for a booklet of testimonies published by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli human rights group.

The treatment of Palestinian children at the hands of occupation forces sticks out like a sore thumb, even in the context of the numerous hardships already endured by the Palestinian people in the territories.

American congresswoman Betty McCollum from Minnesota last week proposed a bill that would prohibit United States funding being used to detain Palestinian children in the West Bank.

This detention often results in allegations of torture and abuse which contravene all international law agreements, many of which Israel is party to. In 2015, McCollum called upon then Secretary of State John Kerry to take notice of the issue with support from 18 other representatives, including Maxine Waters and Keith Ellison.

While the move is being welcomed in pro-Palestinian and human rights circles, there is reason for caution in optimism, considering the long and well-documented record of the US legislature and successive administrations that have firmly positioned themselves in Israel's corner; one they are unlikely to abandon any time soon.

Ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread and institutionalised

Prosecution of children

In a 2013 UNICEF report, the authors concluded that the "ill-treatment of Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalised".

According to B'tselem and other Israeli human rights groups, as of August 2017 there were an estimated 331 Palestinian minors in Israeli detention, all designated criminal offenders. Since 2000, the NGO, Defense for Children International, estimates 8,000 children have been detained or arrested by Israeli security forces - on average 500-700 each year.

Their crime? The majority have been arrested for throwing stones at occupation forces; for which they can receive a maximum sentence of 10 to 20 years in jail.

Night raids of villages in the West Bank have seen children, some barely in their teens, pulled from homes and arrested without any legal guardian or counsellor allowed to accompany them. In prison, many of these children have reported abusive behaviour from Israeli security forces including the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency.

Last month, Yazid Akram Humaidan, a 15-year-old described how undercover Israeli occupation forces punched and slapped him, and at one point stomped on his neck. Afterwards he seriously feared for his life.

A 2015 report published by Human Rights Watch found similar accounts of abuse that included the shackling and beating of minors in Israeli prisons. In one case, 11-year-old Rashid S had a stun grenade thrown at him by Israeli army soldiers and was placed in a choke hold and kicked around before being arrested.

An Israeli spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Yigal Palmor, admitted that the arrest of Palestinian children and subsequent human rights abuses was "Intolerable". The comment featured in the 2014 Australian documentary Stone Cold Justice, highlighting the mistreatment of Palestinian minors by Israeli security forces. Palmor added that the night-time arrests of children from their homes was especially problematic.

"The question of the arrests is [one] that needs to be addressed, because once you send soldiers and not policemen to arrest people, the whole attitude becomes different," he said.

11-year-old Rashid S had a stun grenade thrown at him by Israeli army soldiers and was placed in a choke hold 

Hope for the future?

McCollum's proposed bill contains strong language that is often not seen when dealing with matters concerning Israeli violation in the occupied territories - a genuinely refreshing move. In fact, the bill is said to be the first piece of legislation that seeks to defend Palestinian human rights.

Yet in the American legislature, attempts to educate or stand up to Israeli aggression towards Palestinians are met with swift resistance.

Even those who are hardly attuned with the realities of the conflict are actively resistant, if only to stave off pressure from pro-Israeli groups like AIPAC - which many lawmakers rely on for support for their respective electoral campaigns. 

Despite claims to be bringing about peace, the Trump White House has shown no indication it will be an objective arbiter between the two sides.  

At least for now, all signs point to the Palestinians being forced to concede some of their basic demands at the behest of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who now also has the backing of some Arab state leaders. Leaders who have for a while found a reason to side with Israel vis-à-vis their tiff with Iran.

The bill is a strong indication of shifting American opinion on the conflict, as Israeli politics moves further to the right, increasingly isolating many individuals due to recent events - including three devastating wars in Gaza in the past nine years.

Surveys consistently show support for Israel to be decreasing - especially in Democrat party circles - with the younger generations the most critical.

While passing any such legislation in Congress may very well prove futile, its sponsors would be better advised to work closely with human rights and pro-Palestine groups to build wider support among the American public. This is all the  more so, when most Americans are becoming increasingly intolerant of their tax dollars aiding and facilitating Israel's actions.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. 

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.