How was 2015 for Palestinian children?
Ramallah, January 20, 2016—Instability and violence continued to define much of life for Palestinian children in 2015. When tensions over the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem erupted into violence across the occupied West Bank in early October, Israeli forces responded predictably with excessive force, including the use of live ammunition against children. The rise in violence coincided with the 15 year anniversary of the onset of the second intifada, or uprising. During this five year period of conflict from September 2000 to February 2005, over 700 Palestinian children died at the hands of Israeli forces and setters. Since then, at least 1,277 Palestinian children have been killed.
Violations against Palestinian children were not limited to the last few months of 2015. Evidence collected by Defense for Children International - Palestine (DCIP) in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, showed a rise in the use of physical violence against children held in Israeli military detention, and the increased use of live ammunition against Palestinian children. In Gaza, reconstruction following the deadly 50-day military assault over the summer of 2014 has been extremely limited, leaving children displaced during the conflict in unstable living conditions.
Palestinian children throughout the OPT continued to face disproportionate physical violence, restricted access to education, and psychological trauma at the hands of Israeli forces and settlers.
Lethal force: ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy
At least 28 Palestinian children were fatally shot by Israeli forces in 2015. In several cases, DCIP found that children did not pose a direct, mortal threat at the time they were killed.
The number of fatalities drastically increased in October, after tensions across East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank escalated into lethal attacks. In just 12 weeks, 25 Palestinian children were fatally shot by Israeli forces, all except six while carrying out alleged knife attacks. Israeli authorities have not opened investigations into any of these shootings and have refused family requests for autopsies, which could independently verify the circumstances of their deaths.
In response to escalating violence Israeli forces now appear to be implementing a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy, which in some incidents may amount to extrajudicial killings. International law requires that intentional lethal force be used only when absolutely unavoidable. This comes alongside the decision by Israeli authorities to relax open-fire rules, allowing Israeli forces to use live ammunition during protests in Jerusalem when there is a “threat to life.” Previously, live ammunition was permitted only when there is a direct, mortal threat to the life of a police officer or soldier.
Accountability for shootings by Israeli forces is extremely rare. Only one incident, the fatal shooting of Nadeem Nawara, 17, in May 2014, has resulted in both an investigation and indictment. The Israeli border policeman charged with Nadeem’s death is currently under house arrest as he awaits trial.
Military detention: increased violence and the return of administrative detention
Each year, hundreds of Palestinian children are arrested, detained, and prosecuted within the Israeli military system. Child detainees report physical and verbal abuse, are denied fair trial standards, and often suffer from long term psychological trauma.
Children in military detention in 2015 suffered increasing levels of physical violence at the hands of Israeli forces. DCIP collected affidavits from 110 West Bank children detained in 2015 that showed three-quarters of them endured some form of physical violence following arrest.
Amid heightened violence in the fall of 2015, the number of Palestinian children skyrocketed to the highest it has been since March 2009. At the end of November, 412 Palestinian children were in the Israeli prison system. In response to the rising number of child detainees, Israel Prison Services used a section at Givon prison in October and November to house the overflow of Palestinian minors. Conditions at the prison were inadequate and failed to meet minimum standards. Children were crowded into cells, the building lacked proper heating and shower facilities, and children complained of poor quality and inadequate amounts of food.
DCIP is particularly disturbed that Israeli authorities have placed six Palestinian teenagers under administrative detention. This is the first time the measure has been used against Palestinian minors in nearly four years. Administrative detention is the imprisonment of individuals by the state for prolonged periods without charge or trial. The measure should never be used as a substitute for criminal prosecution.
Over the past few months, Israeli authorities pushed through a series of policies imposing harsher sentencing guidelines and fines for children in Jerusalem. These amendments include a 10-year prison sentence for throwing stones or other objects at moving vehicles with the possibility of endangering passengers or causing damage, and 20 years for throwing stones with the purpose of harming others. The amendments reduced judicial discretion, instituting mandatory minimum sentence of no less than one-fifth of the potential maximum sentence and restricting suspended sentences to special circumstances only. One of the latest bills proposes custodial sentences for children, as young as 12, convicted of “nationalistic-motivated” violent offences. The actual serving of the sentences would be deferred until the children reach the age of 14.
Israel’s establishment and expansion of Jewish-only settlements across the OPT since 1967 has created a dangerous environment for Palestinians. Approximately 515,000 Israelis now live illegally in the West Bank, and settler violence against neighboring Palestinian communities and children is common.
One of the most tragic incidents of settler violence took place last July, when a Palestinian toddler burned to death after Jewish settlers threw firebombs inside two homes in the northern West Bank village of Duma. The fire killed Ali Dawabsheh, 18 months, and left his parents, Saad and Riham, and brother, Ahmad, 4, in critical condition. Saad and Riham died later in the hospital from injuries sustained during the attack.
Statistics from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than 224 settler attacks occurred in 2015. Impunity for settler attacks against Palestinians remained the norm. A May 2015 report from Israeli human rights group Yesh Din found that Israeli police closed over 85 percent of investigations and only 1.9 percent of complaints submitted by Palestinians against Israeli civilian attacks resulted in conviction.
Gaza one year later: justice remains elusive
The summer of 2015 marked the one year anniversary of Israel’s 50-day military assault on Gaza, which killed 547 Palestinian children and injured a further 3,000. DCIP’s investigation into all Palestinian child fatalities during Operation Protective Edge found overwhelming and repeated evidence that Israeli forces committed grave violations against children amounting to war crimes. Despite well-documented evidence, there has been no justice and accountability for grave violations against Palestinian children.
An independent United Nations commission presented a report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that detailed international law violations committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during the conflict, noting “impunity prevails across the board for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law allegedly committed by Israeli forces.” The UNHRC endorsed the report in July, almost unanimously passing a resolution that emphasized the dire need for accountability in order to end systemic impunity.
In June, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shielded Israel from accountability for atrocities against children when he removed Israel’s armed forces from a draft list of groups that commit grave violations of children’s rights during armed conflict.