As of March 2012, there are approximately 200 Palestinian minors aged 12-18 in Israeli prisons (Click here for detailed figures). Minors have more difficulty than adults in dealing with the law enforcement system. The separation from their families, the interrogation, the punishment – all are much more intense and have more significant and longer term impact on the lives of minors. Thus, most judicial systems in the world, including Israel’s, have created separate enforcement systems for minors. Yet Israel’s military law enforcement system, where Palestinian minors are tried and sentenced, treats minors as if they were adults, and apart from a few aspects does not acknowledge that they have rights by virtue of being minors.
The various Israeli agencies responsible for arresting and incarcerating Palestinians – the military, the Israeli Prison Authority (IPA), and the police – do not have data on the total number of minors detained and incarcerated annually on suspicion of security offenses. According to data from the IPA, during 2011 some 200 Palestinian minors a month from the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) were being held in custody by the security forces. The number of minors held in prisons has been continually declining. For comparison’s sake, in 2008 some 320 minors were being held on average in any given month.
These data do not include minors taken into custody for interrogation and/or released without having been tried, about whom the authorities have no quantitative data. According to data from the military courts, in 2010 charges were brought against 650 minors. In about 40 percent of these cases, the minors were accused of rock throwing without additional offenses. Others were accused of throwing Molotov cocktails and belonging to banned organizations, among other things. According to data from the IDF Spokesperson’s office, in 2010 eight minors were convicted of serious offenses, among them attempting to attack a soldier. In 2011, one minor was convicted for the killing of the Fogel family from Itamar. The court sentenced him to five consecutive life sentences, and five more years due to the other offenses of which he was convicted. The court sentenced him to five consecutive life sentences, and five more years due to the other offenses of which he was convicted.
Video: No Minor Matter
Without defense: From arrest to indictment
Under Israeli law, anyone under 18 years of age is considered a minor. This rule has been applied to Palestinians in the West Bank only since September 2011. Prior to that date, Palestinians were considered minors only under age 16.
Despite this welcome change of policy, military law still does not permit Palestinian minors all the aspects of a proper defense customary for minors under international law and even under Israeli law. Arrest and incarceration continue to be the sole means of coping with offenses committed by minors – rather than a last resort. The presence of parents at the interrogation – a right granted to Israeli minors – is not mentioned at all in the relevant military law, and Palestinian minors are often interrogated alone without even having had an opportunity to talk to a lawyer. Furthermore, military law has no appropriate rules for the arrest and interrogation of minors. The army typically hauls these minors out of bed in the middle of the night to arrest them, even when the interrogation is not deemed urgent. And contrary to Israeli law, which requires that every detainee who is a minor must be brought before a judge within 24 hours – and for those under age 14, within 12 hours – the rules in the territories permit postponement of a minor’s appearance before a judge until the eighth day of his detention, precisely the same as for an adult detainee.
The age of criminal responsibility in Israel and in the territories is 12, and minors younger than that are not subject to criminal proceedings. Israeli law, however, provides additional special protections to minors younger than 14 – such as prohibiting holding them in detention or in prison, and placing limitations on filing an indictment against someone younger than 13. These protections do not exist in military law. The only limitation in military law states that imprisonment of a minor younger than 14 shall not exceed a period of six months.
Israel’s military court for minors: Only partial improvement
In November 2009 the first military youth court was established at the Ofer prison camp. The judges in this court are trained as youth judges, and the deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. Since its inception, this court has handled the cases of minors up to the age of 18, despite the fact that under military law at the time, youths 16 years of age and older were considered adults. The military youth court conducts only key deliberations. Hearings on extending a prisoner’s confinement take place in the regular military court, and appeals take place in the military court of appeals, whose judges are not necessarily youth judges.
Since the military youth court was established, efforts have been made to handle cases more quickly. According to data from the IDF Spokesperson’s office, before the youth court was established, the handling of some 10 percent of cases involving minors – who are kept in prison until the end of the proceedings – took more than nine months. In 2010, this figure dropped to only 1.5 percent.
B’Tselem has found that some 93 percent of minors convicted of stone throwing between the beginning of 2005 and the end of June 2011 were sentenced to some prison time. Since the establishment of the military youth court, the treatment of children under 14 has improved. In the first half of 2011, no minors younger than 14 were convicted of stone throwing. Furthermore, the youth court significantly shortened the period of incarceration for minors under 14 who were convicted. In 2010, the longest period of imprisonment for a minor in that age group was nine days. This is compared to sentences of up to two months in prison during the period before the youth court was established. Within Israel, minors under 14 years of age cannot be imprisoned.
Among other age groups, no substantive change occurred in the extent of punishment following the establishment of the military youth court. The median period of active prison time (excluding any suspended sentence) for minors aged 14-15, from the beginning of 2005 through the end of June 2011, was two and a half months, and the median for minors aged 16-17 was four months.