THIS week, Ahed Tamimi turns 17. She recently came to global attention after a video of her slapping an Israeli soldier who was standing on her family’s property went viral on social media. She is now under arrest, and, with one provocative act, she has become the face of hundreds of Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel every year.
This week, I visited the child military courts at Ofer, on the West Bank. I was taken there by the NGO Military Court Watch. The courts are a series of Portakabins within a maze of wire-mesh fences. We arrived by car through checkpoints and walled roads built for Israeli settlers. Many of the children who arrive there have a less comfortable journey.
Typically, they are picked up in night-time raids. Children as young as 12 are handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken on a journey of up to ten hours, on the floor of a jeep, to a dedicated children’s interrogation centre. Questioned without lawyers, few are advised of their right to silence. Often their traumatised confession is the only evidence submitted.
Two relatives for each detainee are allowed to attend the hearings, and, as we pass into the waiting area, many family members are keen to talk. One of them is the mother of Iyas, from the Amari refugee camp in Ramallah. She explains that the family were woken at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day by an explosion, as soldiers blew their front door off its hinges. Thirty soldiers entered the house and arrested her son. They gave no explanation or documentation to the family.
Iyas’s mother was there to attend his third hearing, but was yet to hear what the charges are. She is grateful that the soldiers did no further damage to their property with a search. Her other son, who is 14, is not coping well, and refuses to sleep in his own bed for fear that the soldiers will return. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.
On our way through, we are handed the official Israeli four-page justification for these military courts. It cites the fourth Geneva Convention, aimed at providing guidance for temporary situations of military occupation. This occupation, however, has lasted 50 years.
Israel detains about 900 Palestinian children every year, mostly charged with stone-throwing. With no legal aid, long charge sheets, patchy translation, and the denial of basic human rights, children are often advised to plead guilty and receive a one-month sentence rather than challenge the court and risk receiving six months instead.
The courtroom that we entered was cramped, and the proceedings seemed chaotic. Judge, prosecutor, and translator all wear military uniform. Palestinian lawyers were introduced to their clients for the first time.
Children entered handcuffed and shackled. Some were seeing relatives for the first time since their arrest, and news was exchanged. Parents encouraged their children to keep studying, not to smoke, and to trust in God. In a couple of the courtrooms, the arrival of a priest (I wore my clerical collar) seemed to change the tone of proceedings. Lawyers offered more of a flourish, and judges made a point of requesting psychological reports before sentencing. In some small way, it seemed that they knew that the eyes of the world were upon them.
A UNICEF report in 2013 concluded: “Ill-treatment of children who come in contact with the military detention system appears to be widespread, systematic, and institutionalised throughout the process, from the moment of arrest until the child’s prosecution and eventual conviction and sentencing.”
As Ahed Tamimi turns 17, there is the prospect of a longer sentence. The slapping video that went viral on YouTube means that she faces more evidence than most — although she also has more support than most: nearly 1.4 million people have signed an online petition calling for her release, and that of all Palestinian child prisoners.
Meanwhile, just 125 British MPs have signed an Early Day Motion demanding urgent reform of the courts.
The Revd Nick Davies is Team Rector of South Cheltenham. For more information visit www.militarycourtwatch.org.