I have just returned from Palestine, where I went with a number of colleagues as part of a delegation from the all-party Palestine group and the Council for Arab-British Understanding, for which I will of course make an entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. We saw much that gave rise to great concern, but time does not permit me to speak about the expansion of settlements, the land grabs, the house demolitions and the wall. Today, I want to touch on how Israeli justice is administered in Palestine.
No one disputes Israel’s right to protect its citizens and to arrest, try and imprison criminals and terrorists, but the rule of law must prevail, and I have no doubt that it does within Israel itself. However, that cannot be said to be true of justice within Palestine. Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, Palestinians have been charged with offences under military law and tried in military Israeli courts. Around 4,800 Palestinians are in prison today. Until yesterday, more than a third were on hunger strike.
The mass protest began on 17 April. Two prisoners had been refusing food for 77 days and there were fears for their lives. A hunger strike is the most extreme form of non-violent protest. It is a clear sign of desperation and the all-pervasive sense that the occupation will never end and that Palestinians will never determine their own destiny.
Yesterday, as the Foreign Secretary said, the strike ended. Following Egyptian mediation, Israel delivered significant concessions. Solitary confinement is to end, and 400 prisoners from Gaza are to be allowed family visits. Significantly, those prisoners who are held without charge or trial will not have their terms automatically renewed, as was common practice. Instead, fresh evidence and information will have to be brought before a military court. In return, the prisoners have agreed that they will end any “terrorist activity inside Israeli jails”.
I want to draw hope from that development, but it comes against a background of increasing despair. Despite the Palestinian Authority’s considerable achievements in demonstrating its preparedness for statehood, no peace talks have been reconvened.
Instead, the pressure of occupation increases, relentlessly pressing down on every aspect of Palestinian existence. Nowhere is that more poignant than in the treatment of children—those who throw stones at the wall, at passing military vehicles, at the symbols of their oppressors. For those offences, children as young as 12 are arrested, taken from their homes in night raids, interrogated with no parent or lawyer present, tried in military courts and imprisoned in Israeli jails, where their families cannot visit them.
Defence for Children International recently published research using the testimonies of more than 300 children. Harriet Sherwood has written extensively on the subject in The Guardian. However, no amount of reading can prepare anyone for the actual sight of children in the military court, or for meeting the families of those who have experienced the system.
Last week, I visited Ofer military court. The proceedings were chaotic. Several children were brought into the court at the same time. They were handcuffed together and their legs were shackled. They immediately looked around for their families and started to try to communicate with them across the courtroom. It was clear that no one took the court seriously, with deals being openly struck to plead guilty rather than mount a defence.
We saw the sentencing of one 16-year-old, a small nervous boy accused of stone throwing, car damage and making two petrol bombs. Asked by the judge whether the accusations were true, he looked utterly bewildered, and looked to his family for help. His lawyer was doing a deal and told him to say yes. He had already served four months; he got a further 20 months.
We got a further insight into the treatment of children by the military when we visited Beit Ummar, halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron. Every Saturday, the residents hold a peaceful protest near the settlement of Karmi Zur against being denied access to their agricultural land.
We met Hamda, whose husband is a member of the committee that organises the protest. She told us about the treatment of her son, Yusef, who was first arrested and imprisoned when he was 12, and has been jailed three times since. On the last occasion, the soldiers came for him at 1.30 am. They surrounded the house and banged on the door, their faces masked. They tied Yusef’s hands behind his back, made him lie face down, and then hit and kicked him. As he screamed in pain, his mother attempted to go to him, only to be hit in the chest with the butt of a gun, which fractured her rib. Yusef was blindfolded and led away. The family was forced back indoors, and the departing soldiers threw tear gas canisters into the house.
Hamda’s story is typical of those documented by DCI. Following terrifying night raids, children are taken to police stations, often on local settlements. The transfer process to the interrogation centre is often lengthy and may involve further ill treatment. At the centre, children are questioned alone and rarely informed of their rights. The interrogation techniques frequently include a mix of intimidation, threat and physical violence, with the clear purpose of obtaining a confession. Once the interrogation stage is concluded, the majority of children remain in pre-trial detention, awaiting their prosecution. The primary evidence against most children will either be their own confession or that of another child. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the children will plead guilty whether they are or not. They just want to get out of the system. The conviction rate is over 99%.
Clearly, I do not know whether Hamda’s 16-year-old son, who has been in prison for the past three weeks awaiting trial for stone throwing, did it or not, and I do not know whether Yusef, now 19, was guilty on four occasions, but I do know that the father of the family has repeatedly protested against the settlement that has taken their land and that the family feel they are being targeted. I also know that young Palestinian boys and men must feel a constant sense of humiliation and frustration.
But whether they are guilty or not, the issue is one of justice. Israel is in breach of several international conventions in the actions it is taking. DCI recommends minimum standards to ensure that no child is interrogated in the absence of a lawyer of their choice and a family member; that all interrogations are audio-visually recorded; that all evidence suspected of being obtained through ill treatment or torture be rejected by the military courts; and that all credible allegations of ill treatment and torture be thoroughly and impartially investigated and those found responsible for such abuse brought to justice.
I urge Ministers to raise these issues with their Israeli counterparts and to monitor the effect of the promise of no more automatic renewal of administrative orders when they expire.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I did not want to interrupt her, because she was making such a powerful case. What more does she think the Government can do? As someone who has campaigned for the suspension of the EU-Israel association agreement, I wanted to ask her about that, because it is one of the very few tools we have. The agreement has a human rights clause. It seems incredibly ironic that we are not using the one tool we have. Does she agree that the UK Government could do more to persuade our EU counterparts to do that?
Dame Joan Ruddock:
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I agree with her. I want to end on this note about what more can be done. We cannot stand aside and fail to use whatever tools are at our disposal. We have a responsibility. We are all signed up to the human rights convention, and what is going on is an absolute denial of human rights.
I urge the Government to take up these issues, but also to monitor the effect of the promise of no more automatic renewal of administrative orders when they expire. Most of the 27 Palestinian MPs in Israeli prisons are being held without charge. They should be released immediately. Yesterday, the EU Foreign Affairs Council issued a strong statement in support of Palestinians and renewed talks. I am quite sure that the Foreign Secretary contributed positively to that statement, but statements cannot address the crisis in Palestine. The international community must find the will to get peace talks started again on the two-state solution.
When we asked Hamda, the mother to whom I referred, what she thought of the future, she said, “There is no future for my sons.” We must not allow that to be the case.
To read the full debate held at the Commons please click here.