Sabeel event travels to Ofer Prison to pray for imprisoned children

Jerusalem – Today 179 children are incarcerated in Israel’s Ofer Prison, Gerard Horton told participants in the Sabeel International Conference here. The whole conference moved from the Notre Dame Center to Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, to offer prayers and song for the Palestinian youngsters held there. Sabeel is the ecumenical liberation theology center in Jerusalem. About 200 people are taking part in the conference
Horton outlined how and why so many children are prosecuted in the Israeli military court system. From 750,000 to 800,000 men, women and children have been prosecuted in these courts since 1967, he said. In most cases the purpose of these arrests is to gain intelligence and subdue the population through intimidation.

Horton is a founder of Military Court Watch, which monitors the treatment of children in Israeli military detention in light of rights and protections guaranteed under international law.

“During interrogation attempts are made to recruit the child as collaborator. The interrogator tries to scare the child, usually a boy. And this interrogation can be quite coercive,” Horton said. This is an effective tool for intelligence, he said. If the child has no concrete information, they will ask which kids in the neighborhood have been bragging about throwing stones at Israelis.

Horton relentlessly walked his audience through the harrowing events a child (usually 15-16 years old) might experience. “You have turned off the lights in your house and gone to bed. About 2:00 A.M. a military convoy enters the village or refugee camp. They know where the people are whom they have come to arrest. They might shout from the street or storm right into your house,” he said.

“The soldiers approach the father and ask for everyone’s identity cards. They compare these names with their list and identify. They take that child, bind his wrists behind him with a plastic zip tie, blindfold him and lead him out of the house. The soldiers have no documents; they say that the child will be returned home the next day,” Horton said.

“These soldiers are 19 years old, and they have been told that what they are doing is dangerous,” Horton explained. “They are scared and moving fast. They pinch the zip tie on the child’s wrists and pull it tight, too tight” causing swelling and sometimes bleeding. “They force the screaming family back into house and drive to the police station at one of the settlements,” he said.

“The child most often lies on the metal floor of the truck that bumps over the rough roads of the West Bank. He is terrified, cold, sometimes injured. He may have wet his pants, from fear or not having been allowed to use a toilet,” Horton said.

According to international law, each arrested child has the right to a lawyer, “but he usually does not see one until he is in court and has already signed a confession, printed in Hebrew, which he cannot read,” Horton said. “He has a right to silence, but he does not know this. He has the right to have his parents with him, but this does not happen,” he said.

“Under interrogation, the allegation is made: stone throwing. When the child denies that he has thrown stones he is yelled at, at close range, with and without the blindfold. If he does not confess, the interrogator threatens him based on information they already have (his father might lose his work permit, for example), Horton said. In most cases the child is denied bail. If he makes no confession, bail is denied and his imprisonment will be longer. He is most likely to confess to ensure a shorter prison term.

Israel’s conviction rate is 99.4 percent, Horton said. The convicted child is usually transferred to a prison inside Israel, contrary to international law that says he should be kept in the occupied territory.

“Having looked at this for six years, I see no other way for the Israeli military to do it. It’s effective. These children come out of prison with PTSD,” Horton said. “Their mothers know: they wet their beds, they have nightmares and isolate themselves away from their friends. They say they never want to see a soldier again, never want to go near a point of friction, a checkpoint,” he said. People who shut themselves away do not want to confront the army. This psychological intimidation works better for occupation than boots on the ground, he said.

Six changes would transform this system, Horton said.
1. End night raids that cause massive trauma. Stop binding children’s’ wrists. Instead issue summonses that allow the child to come in to the police with his parents.
2. Inform the children of their right to silence. Provide a written document, in Arabic, upon arrest, before interrogation.
3. Inform them of their right to a lawyer and provide one if they need. It is unlawful to discriminate on this; both Israelis and Palestinians have this right.
4. Allow the child to be accompanied by parent; this is the right that Israeli children have.
5 Every interrogation should be audio/video recorded. This practice would protect interrogators from false witness of human rights violations or wrongdoing.
6. Release the child if any of the above have not been observed. Military judges are critical of the violations they continually warn against, but they still let in the “evidence.”