Ruth Pollard: Israeli Soldiers Expose Plight of Palestinian Children
Ruth Pollard reports from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank
THE Israel Defence Force's arbitrary use of violence against Palestinian children, including forcing them to act as human shields in military operations, has been exposed by veteran soldiers in detailed statements chronicling dozens of brutal incidents.
The most disturbing trend that emerges from the soldiers' testimonies relates to the wounding and killing of children in the occupied West Bank and Gaza by either targeted shooting or by failing to protect minors during military operations, the report from veteran soldiers' group Breaking the Silence says.
If I am frightened of the soldiers I will not live my life, so it is better not to be afraid.
"The commander gripped the kid, stuck his gun in his mouth . . . The kid was hardly able to walk. We dragged him further, and then he said again: 'One more time this kid lifts a stone, anything, I kill him. No mercy'," one former soldier states.
A Palestinian girl cries as Israeli soldiers arrest her mother during a protest over land confiscation in al-Nabi Saleh. Photo: AFP
Another recalls: "There was an ambush where a kid coming up with a Molotov cocktail had his leg blown off. They laid ambush exactly at that spot. Kids came, the soldiers were there, the kids lit a bottle, and they were shot in the leg."
The release of the testimonies follows the publication of two damning reports — one from a group of eminent British lawyers who visited Israel's military courts and the other from the human rights organisation Defence of Children International — that detail multiple violations of international law by Israel in its treatment of children.
These include Israel's practice of holding Palestinian children in solitary confinement and denying them legal representation, as well as its use of physical violence, shackles and coerced confessions in interrogations.
An Israeli soldier restrains a Palestinian girl crying over the arrest of her mother during a protest over land confiscation in al-Nabi Saleh. Photo: AFP
"It is crucial that people in Israel are confronted about what it means for Palestinian children to live under military occupation," says Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence.
All the incidents detailed in the report occurred in what Israel admits is a "quiet period" — from 2005 to 2011, after the violence and suicide bombings of the second Palestinian intifada, in which at least 972 Israelis and 3315 Palestinians died.
Israeli soldiers and Palestinian children come into regular conflict as Israel seeks to maintain its control over areas of the West Bank where 300,000 settlers live across the 1967 "Green Line" in contravention of international law.
Children throw stones to protest against the presence of soldiers and settlers, sometimes with deadly consequences, soldiers say.
But that does not excuse the use of excessive force against children or the military's consistent arbitrary invasion of villages and homes as part of a campaign to suppress the Palestinian population of the West Bank, Mr Shaul says.
"Every soldier who has served in the occupied territories has these images of breaking into a house in the middle of the night, little children are crying, you wake up the family," he says.
"That is 24 hours a day, seven days a week you have patrols that bump into random houses and disrupt the life of people — that is idea — it is what we call in the military litzur tchushat nirdafaut' or 'to create the feeling of being chased'."
Mr Shaul says it is only once soldiers have finished their active duty and begin to think as civilians that they can see the military's actions in a different light — when the order to shoot to kill a child who is 200 metres away and not threatening anyone stops making sense.
"This is what our society is made of, you cannot ignore it, you cannot just run away from it — this is who we are as people and I think this is something we should face."
But according to the Israeli government, Palestinian children pose a grave threat to the country's security.
"Over a period of years now we have seen Palestinian minors involved in violence against Israeli civilians, whether it is throwing rocks at cars, whether it is throwing petrol bombs or Molotov cocktails," says Mark Regev, the spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We have established a parallel system to deal with minors because we recognise minors have special needs and . . . we are trying to do this in a manner that is as sensitive as possible in very difficult conditions."
It was unfortunate, Mr Regev said, that militant Palestinian organisations chose to put minors "on the front line".
He urged anyone with a complaint against the Israel Defence Forces to come forward.
"We have a very strict code of behaviour under which our soldiers are allowed to act and if there are violations of that code of behaviour soldiers face discipline and they can go to jail.
"There is an independent part of the military that investigates all such allegations . . . I don't think it is the norm but in any large system there are aberrations and we have to stamp them out."
Sixteen-year-old Anan Tamimi has been arrested three times by the IDF, and released each time without charge.
He lives in the West Bank village of al-Nabi Saleh, where there are weekly clashes between the army and residents, who are protesting against attempts by Israelis from the Halamish settlement and its outposts to take over the al-Qawas Spring and the surrounding land.
Two human rights organisations — B'Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — have consistently expressed grave concerns about the behaviour of the IDF at al-Nabi Saleh.
The first time Anan was taken by the IDF, the soldiers came at 3am. His mother, Bushra Tamimi, says at one point there were more than 30 soldiers, some with dogs, on the second floor of the family's home.
The soldiers had a photograph and they were searching Anan's closet and drawers to try to find clothes that matched the person in the photograph, Mrs Tamimi told the Age. They found nothing to link her son to the photograph, but they took him anyway.
"When they took me outside the house . . . they turned my hands back to my back and they tied my hands with this plastic tie and blindfolded my eyes immediately," Anan says.
"I spent 17 hours in the settlement here . . . then they transferred me to Ofer [Prison] . . . on the fourth day they took me to the court and . . . I was released."
The second time he was arrested, he was again taken to the nearby settlement of Halamish, where after several hours he was released, still with his hands tied tightly behind his back and blindfolded, on the side of the road and left to find his own way home, Anan says.
Soon after, using the same photograph that had been found by the IDF's own military court to have no link to Anan, he was again arrested.
This time the 16-year-old spent 15 days in Ofer Prison before he was released without charge.
With the quiet bravado of a teenage boy, he says he is not worried about whether the Israeli army will raid his house again at night and take him away.
"If I am frightened of the soldiers I will not live my life, so it is better not to be afraid."
The most common offence children are accused of is throwing stones, says Gerard Horton, head of Defence of Children International in Palestine.
"But in many cases it is very difficult for the army to actually identify who was throwing the stones . . . so the modus operandi of the army appears to be that when an incident of stone-throwing does occur someone has to be punished for that even if you cannot identify who the perpetrator is.
"The army needs to maintain control in the West Bank and they need provide protection to 300,000 settlers who are living in the West Bank, contrary to international law. In order to do that they need to make sure that any form of resistance, no matter what form that takes, has to be crushed."
The IDF's spokesman, Major Arye Shalicar, said the security situation in the West Bank had improved significantly because of the army's work.
"In the end if you compare it to 10 years ago we have had a decline in suicide attacks," he said.
"We had hundreds of suicide murders in 2002 and none in 2012. It shows that there is some kind of effectiveness in the actions of the security establishment and its coordination with the Palestinian security forces."
If there was maltreatment of Palestinian children it was important that the IDF investigate the claims, he said.
He expressed frustration that Breaking the Silence did not provide the IDF or other relevant bodies with the information necessary to launch an investigation.
But Mr Shaul said it was important that Breaking the Silence protected the identity of its sources, many of whom were breaching IDF policy to expose the system of abuse.
Follow Ruth Pollard on Twitter @rpollard.
Extracts from testimonies of Israeli soldiers
First Sergeant, Kfir Brigade
"The commander gripped the kid, stuck his gun in his mouth, yelled … The kid was hardly able to walk. We dragged him further, and then he said again: 'One more time this kid lifts a stone, anything, I kill him. No mercy'."
Kfir Brigade, Ramallah
"We had lots of X's (marked on the side of a soldier's rifle, indicating the number of people he's killed] at that time. The battalion loved it. There was an ambush around there where a kid coming up with a Molotov cocktail had his leg blown off. They laid ambush exactly at that spot. Kids came, the soldiers were there, the kids lit a bottle, and they were shot in the leg."
First Sergeant, Nablus
"We would enter villages on a daily basis, at least twice or three times a day, to make our presence felt, and … it was like we were occupying them. Showing we're there, that the area is ours, not theirs. At first you point your gun at some five-year-old kid, and feel bad afterward, saying it's not right. Then you get to a point where … you get so nervous and sick of going into a village and getting stones thrown at you."
First Sergeant, Hebron
"So there's a school there. We'd often provoke riots there. We'd be on patrol, walking in the village, bored, so we'd trash shops, find a detonator, beat someone to a pulp, you know how it is. Search, mess it all up. Say we'd want a riot? We'd go up to the windows of a mosque, smash the panes, throw in a stun grenade, make a big boom, then we'd get a riot."
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald