An Israeli soldier stands guard as Palestinian children look at a protest against Jewish settlements in the West Bank (AFP)
WASHINGTON, DC – It was approximately 2:30 a.m. on 16 May when Israeli soldiers came for Kareem H., a 13-year-old Palestinian from the town of Azzun in Qalqilya. They took him away, pushing and verbally insulting him. Handcuffed and blindfolded, Kareem was punched and kicked before eventually being taken to the Israeli settlement of Ariel for interrogation.
Not informed of his rights, the teen was interrogated without a lawyer or a family member present, according to Defence for Children International-Palestine (DCIP), the Ramallah-based rights group which monitored Kareem's case. The Israeli interrogator accused Kareem of throwing stones, and he was forced to sign a statement in Hebrew. “He was shouting, and I was so scared that I confessed to throwing stones,” Kareem told DCIP.
The group says such instances of abuse are commonplace in the Israeli military detention system that tries Palestinian children. DCIP and other rights advocates charge that Washington is subsidizing this abuse system by giving Israel billions of dollars in military aid every year.
But on Tuesday, a group of Democratic representatives introduced a bill that could insure that any US assistance is not used to harm Palestinian children in Israeli custody. The legislation was proposed by Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, with an additional nine original co-sponsors, including representatives Raúl Calvarial and Mark Pocan, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
McCollum, a leading figure on the bill – titled the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act – has also been a key author of letters sent in the past to the State Department to “elevate the human rights of Palestinian children to a priority status in our bilateral relationship with the Government of Israel”.
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Human rights groups have documented widespread abuse of minors in Israel’s military detention system. Even for minor offences, Palestinian children are prosecuted in military courts that watchdogs like DCIP say lack basic legal protections and guarantees.
Israel prosecutes 500-700 children in military courts each year, DCIP reports. Since 2012, it has held an average of 204 Palestinian children in custody each month, according to data provided by the Israel Prison Service.
Rights activists and Palestine supporters say this is the “first-ever” legislation introduced in Congress that could scrutinize Israel. If passed, the bill would require the secretary of state to certify annually that none of the US funds given in the previous fiscal year to Israel have been used to support the ill-treatment of Palestinian children.
The bill would have to pass through the House and Senate to become law, an unlikely feat, its supporters say with Congress being the mainstay of pro-Israel groups. But its backers believe it paves the way for more vocal criticism of Israel on the Hill.
[The bill is] meant to be a messaging and organising tool
– Brad Parker, Defence for Children International-Palestine
“It's not going to pass any time soon,” acknowledged Brad Parker, international advocacy officer for DCIP, which helped draft the bill supported by various rights advocates like Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker charity.
“It's meant to be a messaging and organising tool,” Parker told Middle East Eye. “The goal is to put a vision out there for where members of Congress should be, and not to get trapped in the false parameters around what's possible.”
While the bill is focused on military aid to Israel, it doesn't adjust, cut or impact the actual military aid committed. But supporters believe its introduction is much needed because any criticism of Israel remains taboo in Congress.
“There's obviously been on the Hill a great reluctance to be critical of Israel's behaviour,” said Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, another group which supported the bill.
“But what's important is that [this bill] makes very clear that this kind of abusive behaviour is well-documented,” Munayyer told MEE. “It is a consistent feature of Israeli occupation, [and] it targets the most vulnerable members of society – children.”
Before the bill was introduced, DCIP had been working on ways to address the plight of Palestinian children, including pushing for a special envoy position in the State Department in the last months of the Obama administration.
“They would look specifically at the situation of Palestinian children and the escalation of violence and arrests,” Parker said. “But with the Trump administration coming in, we left the special envoy request on the side and wanted to do something a bit more direct.”
The bill's supporters are expecting some push-back from various figures, especially as Israel wages a campaign against BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement that seeks to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands.
“A lot of the opposition will focus on de-legitimising the organisations that are supporting the legislation or speaking out for it and some of the representatives that have signed on as well,” Parker said.
“Some of these groups support BDS, so that usually comes up as a talking point in opposition. It's meant not to challenge the substance of the issue, but to have a chilling effect and to silence members of Congress.”