Military Courts

As a direct consequence of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, and government policies which allow Israeli citizens to establish settlements beyond the Green Line, two systems of law have been applied in the West Bank. A system of civilian law is applied to Israeli citizens and a system of military law to Palestinians in areas B and C. In area C Palestinians are subject to military law for both security and civilian matters and in area B Palestinians are subject to military law for security matters only.

There are two Israeli military courts in the West Bank used exclusively to prosecute Palestinians. These courts have been in continuous operation since June 1967, and to date, have processed an estimated 750,000 – 800,000 men, women and children. This figure includes 500-700 children each year, or approximately two children every day. The youngest child that can be prosecuted in these courts is aged 12.

The two courts are located in the centre (Ofer military court) and north (Salem military court) of the West Bank. Both locations also include military juvenile courts that were established in 2009. The facilities at the courts are identical for both adults and children. Under military law children can still be dealt with by the adult court in all applications prior to trial, including bail hearings. Entry to these courts is strictly controlled but access is possible on application and approval by the military authorities.

During the Yachad student and movement worker trip in September 2014, our visit to Ofer Military Court, enabled us to learn about the impact of the current judicial system on the lives of Palestinian children and the ways in which the system they experience differs from that of Israeli children.

The table below documents some of the differences in treatment experienced by Palestinian and Israeli children.

(Information from Two boys, two laws: The discriminatory application of law in the West Bank, published September 2013, http://bit.ly/1Cd3Zux)

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Arrest

Many children are arrested in the middle of the night from their homes. In some cases, children are arrested close to roads used by the Israeli army and settlers or at military checkpoints. The arrests are conducted by armed soldiers during raids on villages. These night-time raids often occur within days of a stone-throwing incident directed at soldiers, military vehicles or vehicles used by settlers being reported.

Once a military convoy has entered a Palestinian village, pre-selected houses are surrounded and the occupants ordered to exit with their identity papers. The commanding officer will identify individuals for arrest from a pre-prepared list in his possession. Arrest warrants are almost never used. In the case of children, parents are mostly told that their child is “wanted” and will be returned “soon”

Once identified for arrest, adults and children are usually blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs using a single plastic cable-tie.

Interrogation

Most children are handed over to the Israeli police for interrogation. The interrogations are conducted in military bases or police stations inside settlements in the West Bank.

Sometimes questioning can take place before the child rests or sees a lawyer. The child will be led into an interrogation room, still tied and blindfolded, and made to sit on a chair. His blindfold will be removed but most children remain tied throughout the questioning process. Under Israeli military law the child has no guaranteed right to consult with a lawyer prior to questioning and is not entitled to have a parent, or other responsible adult, accompany him throughout the process

Although Israeli military law provides that no one is obliged to incriminate him or herself, few children are informed that they have the right to remain silent before being questioned.

In September 2013 the report Children in Military Custody, http://bit.ly/1z4uWTr, documented the treatment of 105 Palestinian juveniles. Their testimonies report that:

47%  Were Arrested at Night

5%    Consulted with a lawyer before interrogation

6%    Had parents present during interrogation 

12%  Were informed of the right to silence 

69% Signed or were shown documents in Hebrew

39%  Reported some verbal abuse

60%  Reported they received some level of physical abuse  

Trial

All children are brought to the court complex in handcuffs and leg shackles, wearing brown prison uniforms. On entering the courtroom, the handcuffs are removed but the leg shackles remain until the child is returned to prison at the end of the day. Once inside the courtroom, most children briefly consult with their lawyer for the first time. In most cases two members of the child’s family are permitted entry into the court but physical contact and communication are generally prohibited. For most children this will be the first time since their arrest that they have seen their parents.

Legal representation

Occasionally children are unrepresented at their first court appearance but subsequently all children will have access to representation. The majority of defence lawyers appearing in the military courts are Palestinians working for the Palestinian Ministry of Justice or local NGOs. Private Palestinian and Israeli lawyers also provide legal representation to defendants. No legal aid is provided by the Israeli military authorities and so families must either pay for a private lawyer or obtain free legal services from an NGO funded by international donors. Proceedings in court are conducted in Hebrew with simultaneous translation provided by a soldier. Similarly, all court documentation is in Hebrew.

Chance of release

Around 90 percent of children are denied bail and must remain in detention until the conclusion of the legal process that can take many months. The dilemma faced by many families is that once bail is denied it is generally quicker to plead guilty, whether the offence was committed or not, than to remain in detention waiting for a trial date that could take up to six months to schedule. This explains why as many as 98 percent of cases end in a plea bargain and why, according to the annual report published by the military courts in 2011, the system achieved a conviction rate of 99.74 percent in the preceding year.

Sentencing

The most common offence for which children are convicted is stone throwing. Although military law provides for harsh maximum sentences for throwing objects (10-20 years, depending on whether a vehicle is involved) in practice a child can expect to receive a custodial sentence ranging from a few weeks up to one year, depending on the nature of the offence. Around 90 percent of children convicted in the military courts will be sentenced to a term of imprisonment. In addition to being given a custodial sentence, a similar percentage of children will also receive a fine, which will result in a longer prison term if it remains unpaid by the child’s parents. Any time already served by the child in pre-trial detention is taken into account and included in the final sentence.

Click here for links to extensive reporting around the military court