Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): I very much welcome the opportunity to have this debate today, especially as it is taking place just two weeks after members of the all-party group on Palestine visited the west bank, under the auspices of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. I would like to put on record my thanks for CAABU’s support during our trip, and for the work that it does in promoting better understanding between the middle east and Britain.
During our visit, we had meetings with various politicians and officials, including the Palestinian Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs and others. However, our main concern was to see for ourselves the conditions faced by Palestinians in the west bank. In meeting that aim, we were assisted by various non-governmental organisations, which also deserve our gratitude. We toured the area of E1 and visited Silwan, where homes are under severe threat of demolition and where a large area has been redesignated as a protected area. We also toured the northern west bank, including Nablus and the Balata refugee camp.
We saw one household that has effectively been excluded from its community because it is sandwiched between the so-called security wall and a settlement. The owner of the house has been given a key to a small metal gate in the fence, but he still cannot easily access his land, which used to take him only a few minutes to reach. We met another family on the edge of a small village whose home had been attacked more than 90 times by nearby settlers, leading to one death and the destruction of their herd of goats, and therefore of their livelihood. We visited a Bedouin herding community who are constantly being harassed, including by having their shacks destroyed, and who have tremendous difficulty accessing basic services such as health and education. They do not have access to water because they are so hemmed in, and consequently they need to buy it, although they cannot easily afford it.
I could go on. However, it was a visit to a military court, where we saw the court process involving Palestinian children, that shocked us to the core, so we decided to highlight the issue on our return. That is why I applied for this debate, and why I shall concentrate mainly on that issue during it. However, I am not losing sight of the fact that it is not only a serious issue in its own right but illustrative of some of the wider issues in play in the occupied territories involving settlements, prolonged military occupation and de facto annexation of land. The military court system plays a component part in those wider issues, and I am sure that colleagues will wish to refer to some of those other issues if they manage to catch your eye, Mr Howarth.
According to article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child,
“The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child…shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli jails. In total, 32% of confessions made by children are taken in Hebrew, a language that is not spoken by most Palestinians.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Could the hon. Lady just clarify where that information comes from—that specific claim that 32% of confessions are made in Hebrew?
Sandra Osborne: Certainly. As I said, a number of NGOs took us around, and they have done research on the issue. However, most of the information comes from Defence for Children International, which has taken the testimonies of many children. I refer the hon. Gentleman to its report, if he wants to see more information.
Israel operates a dual legal system for Israelis and Palestinians, with different ages of responsibility and different levels of protection for Israeli and Palestinian children. In 2009, two thirds of Palestinian children detained reported being physically abused during their time in custody. Allegations of torture remain widespread. The Palestinian section of Defence for Children International reports that more than 700 children a year are prosecuted in Israel’s two west bank military courts. Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli jails. As of 1 November 2010, 251 Palestinian children were being detained in three Israeli prisons. Two of those children are currently being held by Israel without trial or charge, under administrative detention orders.
The Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association reports that most Palestinian children are detained on the charge of throwing stones; 62% of those arrested in 2009 were detained on that charge. Children are taken away from their home, generally at night, and they are blindfolded, often humiliated, and regularly abused. While we were at the military court, we spoke to a family who had been woken during the night and told to stand outside their home because their son had been identified as a boy who was going to be arrested. He was taken off, and the parents had no idea where he was going to. Children are taken to unknown military detention centres that are generally outside the occupied territories. The family is rarely informed of the location of their child, and may only find out that information via contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross or legal NGOs.
Once in detention, a child is rarely told why they have been arrested, and they are held for up to eight days without access to their family or a lawyer. Interviews take the form of military-style interrogations, and are conducted without video recording, despite demands to end that practice. Forms of abuse that are frequently reported include sleep deprivation, beatings, slapping and kicking, denial of food and water, prolonged periods in uncomfortable conditions, exposure to extreme heat or cold, and denial of access to toilets and washing facilities. In total, 81% of Palestinian children confess during interrogation. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel reports that abuse is widespread:
“Out of a sample of 100 sworn affidavits collected by lawyers from these children in 2009, 69% of the children reported being beaten and kicked, 49% reported being threatened, 14% were held in solitary confinement, 12% were threatened with sexual abuse including rape and 32% were forced to sign confessions in Hebrew.”
At the end of our all-party group’s four-day tour of the occupied west bank, we arrived at the military court of Ofer. We were there to witness just how the Israeli military courts treated Palestinian children. The courtroom procedures were witnessed by our delegation in a tense and distressing atmosphere. There was a jangle of chains outside the door of the courtroom. All the visitors froze. Army officers led child detainees into the military courtroom. The children’s legs were shackled, they were handcuffed and they were all kitted out in brown jumpsuits. One had to wonder if the soldiers felt threatened by 13 and 14-year-old boys.
We waited in the basic concrete courtrooms, looking at the uniformed judge and prosecutors. Two parallel processes happened. The judge, the prosecuting team and the defence lawyer discussed the case in Hebrew, with an interpreter translating into Arabic. No witnesses were called and no testimony was challenged. The judge never once looked at the children or spoke to them. Some children only met their lawyers for the first time in the courtroom. Each child’s case lasted barely a few minutes. I think that I am correct in saying that there was no outcome reached in any case that we saw, although my colleagues will correct me if I am wrong. The cases were all continued. I do not know if that had anything to do with our presence, but that was the situation.
For all the children we saw that morning, the only thing that mattered was seeing their families, perhaps for the first time in months. They showed no faith in the proceedings, neither caring what the judge was saying nor expecting to be released. One child had to shout out to his parents the name of the prison inside Israel where he was being held. His parents had had no idea where he was being kept. Nearly all the children were there on stone-throwing offences. One was being tried on the basis of a confession from another minor, which was later withdrawn.
Lawyers advise children and their families to plead guilty, not because the children might be guilty, but because if they plead guilty, they might be released after three months, whereas if they plead innocent, they are likely to be detained for about a year, which for a child of that age is unthinkable. In 2006, acquittals were granted in just 0.26% of child cases, which shows a presumption of guilt, not innocence. All prosecuted children get a security record that prevents them from entering Israel or Jerusalem, which affects them, as do the other aspects of growing up under occupation.
For decades, our Government have said that Israel must adhere to international law, including the fourth Geneva convention, including by ending illegal settlements, home demolitions, collective punishments, the use of human shields and the theft of resources and artefacts. It also means addressing the treatment of Palestinian children in military courts and detention centres. Is it not time for the British Government to show that they are serious about their responsibilities to hold Israel and its leaders to account? Israel cannot remain above international law.
John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Much of the account that my hon. Friend is giving is first-hand and distressing. Although I know that we will hear more in her conclusion, will she also make the case that the process remains a two-way one? Israel should be held to account for its obligations under international law, but it is also important that the Palestinian Authority play their part in creating meaningful peace and security in the region.
Sandra Osborne: Of course that is true, but I point out that Defence for Children International is carrying out research on both juvenile court systems to assess their equity. The fact remains that the Israeli Government treat Palestinians and Israelis in two different ways, one involving military courts and the other civil courts, which cannot possibly be justified.
Guto Bebb: Is it not the case that that dual system recognises that the west bank, for example, is not an annexed part of Israel? There is an issue in terms of the legal systems and the Palestinian Authority being coupled with Israel. As those areas are not annexed, the legal system that Israel faces involves a different way of dealing with those children.
Sandra Osborne: The Palestinians have their own system for dealing with juvenile crime. I might add that we raised some issues about that with the Palestinian Prime Minister, who certainly acknowledged that there are problems with adult crime. The occupation has gone on for years, and the fact that Palestine is at least facing up to its difficulties and trying to improve the situation is laudable. However, it does not really matter what the legal system is. The system used by the Israelis breaks international law. That is completely unacceptable, and it is high time that something was done about it.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. Further to the previous intervention, if I understood it correctly, it cannot be defensible to argue simply that because Israel is illegally occupying other territories, that justifies a dual and discriminatory legal system that contravenes international law and the human rights of Palestinians. Surely that is not what the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) was arguing, was it?
Sandra Osborne: I certainly hope not. I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend.
Will the Minister confirm that the Government accept that such treatment is a serious breach of the fourth Geneva convention, and that the Government should implore Israel to abide by its treaty obligations? Will he raise those issues personally with the Israeli Prime Minister on behalf of the UK Government? Has he made any effort to view the military courts? I know that he will visit the west bank shortly; will he consider seeing the situation for himself?
DCI has made the following recommendations based on its detailed research into the legal issues. The Israeli authorities should:
“Ensure that no child is interrogated in the absence of a lawyer of their choice and family member;
Ensure that all interrogations of children are video recorded;
Ensure that all evidence suspected of being obtained through ill-treatment or torture be rejected by the military courts;
Ensure that all credible allegations of ill-treatment and torture be thoroughly and impartially investigated”.
Those found responsible for such abuse should be brought to justice. Furthermore:
“No Palestinian child should be detained inside Israel in contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention”.
Thank you, Mr Howarth, for the opportunity to have this debate. I hope that the Minister will take this serious matter on board.
Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this important debate. I have been to the area many times and seen aspects of the occupation and its impact on the lives of Palestinians that I can only describe as Kafkaesque. Having been there so many times, I thought that the area had lost its capacity to shock me. I had read reports by Defence for Children International and other non-governmental organisations about the treatment of child prisoners in Israeli jails, and I had read United Nations reports about the use of detention, but as it is a part of the world in which facts are often the subject of dispute and counter-dispute, I thought that the chance to go to a military prison and court would be valuable, so I could see with my own eyes what happens.
When I saw the military court and what went on there, I knew that the area still had the capacity to shock me, with a vengeance. As my hon. Friend graphically described, when I saw children come into the room—it would be over-egging it to describe it as a courtroom in the way that most of us would understand the term—shuffling because their legs are shackled together, and with their hands in handcuffs, it hit me. It hit me even more to be told by an observer, a brave Israeli woman who monitors what goes on in such courtrooms week in, week out, that what we saw was better than normal. The children came in handcuffed with their hands in front of them, but all too often their hands are cuffed behind their backs.
It hit me when I saw the look on the face of a child who only wanted to see his mother, who had come to the court to see her child, probably for the first time since he was arrested in the middle of the night. There were two ranks of chairs in the spectators’ gallery, and we happened to be in the front row. There were not enough seats, and some parents sat in the row behind us. When some of my colleagues offered to give up their seats to the parents so they could be a bit closer to their children, they were told by the security guard that it was not allowed and that the Palestinian parents had to sit in the second rank. When one sees such things for oneself, one cannot ignore it and say, “Well, this is just something to do with the political situation there.” It is totally unacceptable.
Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): The hon. Gentleman paints an extremely distressing picture. Having said that, it is important to point out that the hon. Lady told us that the vast majority of such children face charges of throwing stones, but is it not the case that much more serious accusations are made against many: for example, being involved in shootings, throwing Molotov cocktails or attacking military vehicles? Is it not the case that in a civilised society, putting somebody on trial for such behaviour is a reasonable response?
Richard Burden: I cannot envisage any situation in which a child, whatever they are alleged to have done, should be manacled, shackled and denied the right to see their parents. We cannot start discriminating against someone on the basis of the offence for which they are being tried. That does not excuse holding and treating children in ways that are contrary to the UN convention on the rights of the child and to the provisions of the Geneva convention. My views on the Israel-Palestine issue are well known—I do not claim to be impartial or always objective—but I would like to think that if I sat in a Palestinian court and saw an Israeli child being brought in shackled and manacled with their hands in front of them or behind their backs, I would not say, “Well, we have to remember that the Palestinians are actually living under occupation.” I hope that the hon. Gentleman would see that the same thing works the other way around. Whatever a child is alleged to have done, such treatment is unacceptable.
The hon. Gentleman is right that those teenagers are often charged with a range of offences, but the most common charge by far is for stone throwing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock said, DCI reported in 2009 that of the 192 cases in which it represented such children, 117 were for a charge of stone throwing, which is 61%. I do not want to go over the ground of whether the charges brought against those children are questionable—I think that many of my colleagues will speak about that in due course—but I want to say something about stone throwing and the context in which it happens.
Stone-throwing incidents frequently take place in areas close to Israeli settlements in the west bank, which are, as we have heard, illegal under international law. Palestinians living there, in a very literal sense, see those settlements as a concrete manifestation of occupation, a manifestation that is increasing in size and population. The presence and expansion of settlements and the dispossession or eviction of Palestinians to make way for them creates a tinderbox for violent confrontation. The settlements all too often bring Israeli soldiers and settlers in the occupied territory close to Palestinian population centres, and Israeli soldiers have sometimes shot children close to settlements and the separation barrier.
We have also seen a worrying rise in settler violence, according to UN monitors and human rights groups in the area. In 2010, there were on average 35 incidents of settler violence a month, an increase from 15 in 2006. As my hon. Friend said, we saw at first hand the evidence of some of those attacks near the town of Nablus and spoke directly with some of the Palestinian victims. Not all of the allegations stand up, but all the indications from the UN and others show that settler violence is a growing and real problem. It is a matter of concern in the context of this debate that more than 90% of cases of alleged settler violence that are investigated by the Israeli authorities are closed without any charges being filed. It is a very different picture for charges brought against Palestinians, particularly in the way in which Palestinian children are arrested, detained and sentenced.
As we have heard, there is a dual system of law based on nationality. Few Israeli settlers are charged with offences committed in the occupied west bank, but when they are, they are prosecuted in regular civilian courts within the state of Israel. Palestinians who are arrested, however, have to go to military courts and are held in military prison. That applies to children as well as adults. Palestinian children in the west bank go to military courts, but Israeli children go to civilian juvenile courts. What counts as a child in such cases depends on whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. The minimum age for criminal responsibility is the same for Israelis and Palestinians; in both cases, it is 12. However, the minimum age for a full custodial sentence in the Israeli civil system is 14, and in the Israeli military system it is 12. The age of majority for Israelis is 18, but for Palestinians it is 16. On the legal right to have a parent present during questioning, there is a partial right for Israeli children, but no such right for Palestinian children. It has to be said that in neither case is there a legal right to have a lawyer present. Is there audio-visual recording for interrogations? For Israeli children the answer is yes, but for Palestinian children it is no. The maximum period of detention before being brought before a judge is 48 hours for Israeli children, but 8 days for Palestinian children.
The maximum period of detention without access to a lawyer is 48 hours for an Israeli child, but for Palestinian children it is 90 days. The maximum period for detention without charge for an Israeli child is 40 days, for a Palestinian child it is 188 days. The maximum period of detention between being charged and the conclusion of a trial is 6 months for an Israeli child, but two years for a Palestinian child. Bail is denied in 20% of cases for Israeli children, but in 87.5% of cases for Palestinian children. Custodial sentences are imposed in 6.5% of cases for Israeli children, but in 83% of cases for Palestinian children. If that is not a form of apartheid in the legal system, I do not know how else to describe it. When victims of such apartheid are children, it become even more distasteful.
As chair of the all-party Britain-Palestine group, I do not claim to be impartial on the political situation in the west bank, but as I said to the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), I would like to think that if the boot was on the other foot I would take exactly the same view.
Mr Andrew Smith: My hon. Friend’s commitment in that area is widely recognised. I invite him to speculate on why Israel continues in that fashion, given that it does such enormous damage to its international reputation and to the case it makes for self-defence. Could it be that the culture of subservience that is being inculcated is calculated by the Israeli authorities to confer benefits that outweigh the damage to its international reputation, not least because of the pusillanimity of the international community when confronted with such blatant disregard for human rights and international law?
Richard Burden: My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and we can only speculate on that. To some extent, we have already heard the answer today. Somehow, rights that should be inviolable and indivisible are being qualified, largely because Israel feels under threat. They are being qualified in a way that I do not think Israel would accept for any other state in the world. If we are to reach a settlement in that part of the world, the need to recognise that people have rights, irrespective of whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, is fundamental. We should not say that mistreating children in court is bad and then say that we should remember why it happens. Mistreating children in court is wrong, and we should be big enough to say that without qualification.
Guto Bebb: The hon. Gentleman has stated that he is not impartial on the issue, which is a reasonable point for him to make. It is important to note that it is asked time and again why Israel behaves in that way. I do not believe for one second that Israel would behave in that way unless it was faced with an insurrection that put its citizens in danger, and that insurrection is unfortunately utilising young people in the Palestinian territories. Does he not condemn the use of young people by terrorist organisations in the Palestinian territories to attack Israeli citizens? Does he not condemn the use of young people in such an inappropriate behaviour?
Richard Burden: The hon. Gentleman again makes my point for me. I absolutely do condemn that, without qualification. However, will he condemn, without qualification, the treatment of children in Israeli prisons? I invite him to intervene on me again.
Guto Bebb: I do not think that that can be done without qualification, because the context is crucial. In this debate, we have heard various claims about stone throwing and so on, but nothing, for example, about the 54 young children who were arrested for throwing grenades. The context is important. We know that this country has also behaved inappropriately in terms of human rights when specific circumstances called for unacceptable behaviour; for example, in respect of court services in Northern Ireland. Sometimes things have to be put in context.
Richard Burden: I am afraid that I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s view that circumstances may call for unacceptable behaviour. If behaviour is unacceptable, it is unacceptable, and it is unacceptable in this case.
In conclusion, I again invite the Minister to agree with the delegation’s recommendations. We came back with some specific recommendations about what we should call on Israel to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock made these points, which bear brief repetition. First, no child should be interrogated in the absence of a lawyer of their choice or a family member. Secondly, all interrogation of children should be recorded audio-visually. That now applies to Israeli children but not to Palestinian children. Thirdly, we should call on Israel to ensure that all evidence suspected of being obtained through ill-treatment or torture is rejected by military courts. Fourthly, all credible allegations of ill-treatment and torture should be thoroughly and impartially investigated, and those responsible brought to justice. And, fifthly, no Palestinian child from the occupied territories should be detained outside the provisions of article 76 of the Geneva convention.
The UK has a particular responsibility in this situation. Not only is it a signatory to the fourth Geneva convention, it is a high contracting party to it. It is important that we do rather more than agree that such things are unacceptable; there is an obligation on us to do something about them. I hope that the Minister will give an indication not just of his views on these things—I have no doubt that he will share our abhorrence of some of the things that we saw, and that would be a good, important start, but it is important to say not just what we think about such things but what we are prepared to do about them.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, for the first time. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this important debate. As has already been indicated, I was one of four Members of Parliament from the all-party group on Palestine who visited the west bank only last week. I do not have any long-standing commitment to the Palestinian cause as such, but as a new MP, I felt that it behoved me to look at the situation with my own eyes, to make my own objective judgment on what I saw, and to share my evidence with the House.
Last Monday, I was in an Israeli military court in Ofer with my colleagues and the non-governmental organisation Defence for Children International, which was mentioned earlier. I received a briefing from the NGO’s solicitors but also had an opportunity, through an interpreter, to chat with some of the families of the children detainees. I would like to use this opportunity to record my thanks and those of the whole delegation for the excellent work that NGOs such as Defence for Children International perform. They do valuable work documenting what is actually happening, bearing witness and providing information that we in turn can bring to the attention of the Minister in the hope that some of the issues can be addressed.
The situation facing Palestinian child detainees—“Palestinian” is an important distinction to make—is serious in its own right, but as colleagues have said, it is also symptomatic of some of the other, interrelated issues in play in the occupied territories. The illegal settlements on the west bank and in East Jerusalem have already been mentioned; in many respects, they are becoming a kind of de facto annexation. Also mentioned were the seizure of water resources and Palestinian lands, which we also visited. We spoke with Palestinians, NGOs and various other organisations, including the United Nations.
The military court system plays an important part in those wider issues, and I want to concentrate my remarks on it and how it is applied to Palestinian children in detention. It is important to repeat something that has already been said: Israel’s actions represent serious breaches of the fourth Geneva convention, the UN convention against torture and the UN convention on the rights of the child.
Frankly, the experience last week of seeing the treatment of Palestinian child detainees was shocking. I am the father of a 13-year-old child, and the image of children of 12 and 13 in prison fatigues with leg irons and manacles being marched into court was appalling. I found it difficult to come to terms with it. Although that was the first time I had witnessed such violations, they are not recent. They have been happening consistently over the past 43 years of the military occupation.
Israel signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child in 1991. Does the Minister agree with UNICEF, which only last month stated that Israel was in tangible breach of that convention? Will he not only ask but insist that Israel applies the convention to its conduct, not only in its own territories but in the occupied territories?
It seems that arrest and detention are used by the Israeli authorities as their default position. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock referred to article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which states that the arrest, detention or imprisonment of children should be the last resort. However, for Palestinians, imprisonment without due process seems to be the measure of first resort. Under the convention, authorities should refrain from detaining juveniles who are undergoing trial, but Israel detains them in 87.5% of cases. Children are frequently taken into detention inside Israel, as, of course, are adults, but I want to concentrate on child detainees.
Israel has a clear obligation, and there is a clear violation of article 76 of the fourth Geneva convention. The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) asked whether there should be some dispensation because Israel is in dispute about whether occupied territories or some annexation is involved. This is occurring in occupied territory, and Israel has a clear obligation in international law under article 76. By removing adults and, indeed, children from the occupied territories to detention centres and prisons in Israel, it is in clear breach of its obligations, just as it is in breach by moving settlers into the occupied territories.
I would like to share some of the conversations that I had with the families. The standard operating procedure is as follows. Palestinian children are often arrested at checkpoints. They are not arrested in situ for throwing stones at the army—the arrests happen afterwards. Children may be taken off the street or, most commonly, from the family home. During house arrests, large numbers of Israeli soldiers typically surround the family home, often in the early hours of the morning, between 2 am and 4 am, and, once a child has been identified for arrest, he or she is often roughed up—slapped or kicked—then blindfolded, and their hands are tied behind their back with a plastic tie. The child would then be placed in the back of a military vehicle, often on the floor, and, again, they would suffer further physical and psychological abuse on the way to interrogation and detention centres.
On arrest, children and their families are seldom informed of the charges against them. Often, the evidence is confessions from other children, who have been asked to identify their friends who have been involved in stone-throwing. The evidence used is questionable. Families are not informed of where their children are taken; most often they are taken out of the west bank to detention centres or prisons in Israel. On arrival at the detention or interrogation centre, the child is either placed in a cell or taken straight for interrogation. I am told that common interrogation practices include slapping, kicking—
Guto Bebb: The hon. Gentleman specifically said “I am told”. Is this hearsay or actual evidence?
Grahame M. Morris: I am relating the evidence that was relayed to me. I did not see this with my own eyes. I had conversations with families of detainees and a reputable source, in so far as the NGOs that I spoke about—international lawyers—have documented these cases, and there is a common strand, in terms of the modus operandi and methods that are employed in both the arrest and interrogation of the children.
Guto Bebb rose —
Grahame M. Morris: I will give way one more time.
Guto Bebb: I am extremely grateful. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the MO—in other words, a pattern of behaviour. There has been a pattern of behaviour during this debate, because numerous references have been made to stone-throwing, but there has been no recognition of the fact that, for example, 217 Palestinian children were arrested between 2000 and 2009 for involvement in suicide bombings. Several references have also been made to torture; the international Red Cross has never censured Israel for any torturous behaviour in its prisons.
Grahame M. Morris: I will come on to that in a moment, but I want to press on with what happens to the children before doing so. I am not mounting a defence of what they have done, but explaining what happens. I am certainly not defending violence or criminal acts. I am simply explaining, as the father of a teenage child, what happens, which is unacceptable and in clear breach of international obligations.
On arrival at the detention or interrogation centre, the child is either placed in a cell or taken straight for interrogation. Common interrogation practices include slapping and kicking, verbal abuse of and shouting at children, who are often threatened into confessing. Threats are made against the child’s family, including the threat of having their homes demolished or having travel documents withdrawn, which means that the family will no longer be able to work. In most cases the children confess to the allegations put to them within the first couple of hours. It is not uncommon for children to be given a confession written in Hebrew, on which their signatures are put. Hon. Members should remember that, often, these children do not understand Hebrew. Another disturbing aspect of these detentions and arrests is that the children are not visited by their families; they are not allowed visits. As has been mentioned, all bar one of the centres where the Palestinian children from the west bank are taken are inside Israel.
Israel, by wilfully depriving a protected person of their right to a fair and regular trial, is in grave breach of the fourth Geneva convention. I should like to draw the Minister’s attention to the legal duty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) mentioned, on all 194 high contracting parties to that convention, including the United Kingdom, to provide effective penal sanction for persons committing or ordering the commissioning of such grave breaches, and to search for and prosecute those responsible. Minister, children as young as 12 are regularly denied access to a lawyer and visits from their families.
In 2008, bail was denied in 91% of all cases involving Palestinian children. I saw evidence of that with my own eyes at first hand, having seen children who had been detained for three months without access to, or contact with, their parents or families.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy asked why there were no documented cases of complaints of torture. I asked the same question. Between 2001 and 2008, over 600 complaints were filed against Israeli Security Agency interrogators for alleged ill-treatment and torture. To date, there has not been a single criminal investigation—not one. There cannot be any prosecutions, because the Israeli authorities do not investigate complaints.
Palestinian children, including girls, have been held under administrative detention, which is detention without charge or trial, granted by administrative order rather than by judicial decree. There is also a broader denial of freedom. To put all the issues relating to detention in the context of the broader picture, Palestinian children have been denied freedom, live under military occupation and face inordinate obstacles. For example, they have to negotiate checkpoints just to get to school, to visit medical facilities and even to get to their homes.
A whole generation of Palestinian children are being denied their childhood, and not just on the west bank. I read an article in The Guardian recently about the Prime Minister having highlighted issues in Gaza, which he described as a “prison camp”. When will the Foreign Secretary call the Israel ambassador in and say that these persistent and systemic violations of international law are unacceptable and will have consequences for our relations? The Israeli Government have demanded that we change perfectly proper British legislation about the prosecution of war criminals, yet they continue to commit war crimes.
The Israelis pretend that they are adhering to their obligations under international conventions, and we in the west pretend that we believe they are adhering to these conventions. Now it is time for action to bring about justice and to relieve the suffering of Palestinian children and the Palestinian people in both Gaza and the west bank.
Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing such an important debate. I am amazed that Members of Parliament are seeking to justify Israel’s being allowed to contravene international law. I am disappointed, to say the least, that certain people believe that children can be tret in this way, because, regardless of colour or creed, children are children and we should be looking to protect them under international law.
Article 37(b) of the UN convention on the rights of the child, which has been mentioned by Opposition Members, states clearly:
“The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child…shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.
That is not the case in Palestine or Israel. Children are taken to court, or to detention centres up and down the west bank and detained for long periods. Around 700 children are prosecuted a year, and 9,000 adult Palestinians have been prosecuted in military courts. Since 2000, around 6,500 Palestinian children have been detained. What I saw at in the military courts beggared belief. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), I am a parent, and I have children. The way children were tret in the military courts was absolutely savage, and cannot be justified. Kids as young as 12, and up to 16 were frightened out of their wits. They had not seen their parents since they were detained. They were snatched at the dead of night, bound, put in the back of an Israeli army truck, kicked and beaten, and taken to a detention centre with no parents, no lawyers and no one at all to protect them.
Most of the children—62%—were detained on stone-throwing charges, but even if every one of them were 100% guilty, no member of the public, let alone a Member of Parliament, should try to justify the treatment that they received.
Guto Bebb: Labour Members seem to treat Israel as a special case. In effect, they are saying that even if the children in question are guilty—the hon. Gentleman’s figures show that 38% were charged with issues unrelated to stone-throwing—Israel has no right to self-defence. If young people from the Palestinian territories are being used by terrorist organisations to attack the state of Israel, should the hon. Gentleman not condemn that, and be as keen to do so as he is to condemn the state of Israel?
Ian Lavery: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The simple answer is that even if children are 100% guilty, there is no justification whatever for treating them in the way they are being tret. I have seen that with my own eyes, but I will move on.
The people we are talking about are subject to all sorts of abuse, including sleep deprivation, beatings, slappings, denial of food and water, position abuse, exposure to extreme heat and cold, and denial of access to toilets and washing facilities. Some 81% of those children—81% of the Palestinian children detained—confessed during interrogation, and 32% of those confessions were, as my hon. Friends said, written in Hebrew, so how are they supposed to understand anything? It is a disgrace, and a deliberate attempt to intimidate Palestinian children in any way, shape or form.
How can that be in the best interests of children? If a child pleads guilty, they may be penalised for around three and a half months, and 81%—the vast majority—do plead guilty. They do so because if they plead not guilty it will probably be one or two months before their case is even heard in court, and the full duration of the process may take up to a year. It is common sense that if the penalty is three and a half months for pleading guilty as opposed to in excess of a year for pleading not guilty, they will plead guilty. Again, that is intimidation of the highest order. The problem following prosecution is that the children, and members of their families, have a security record, so they cannot enter Israel or parts of Jerusalem.
I shall touch briefly on some cases of mistreatment of children. The details come from the Defence for Children International. Palestinian children have been used as human shields and their lives have been put at risk. In August, a 13-year-old was reportedly used as a human shield near Nablus. In October, the Israeli military authorities opened an investigation into the use of a 16-year-old girl as a shield. In November, two Israeli soldiers who used a nine-year-old Palestinian boy as a human shield received suspended sentences and were demoted after being convicted of “inappropriate conduct”. The unnamed soldiers ordered Majeh Rabah from the Tel Al-Hawa neighbourhood in Gaza city to check bags for explosives in January 2009 towards the end of the Israeli three-week offensive.
Will the Minister confirm that no one, let alone a nine-year-old child, should be used as a human shield? Does he agree that that is a disgrace, and a clear violation of international law? Has he made the strongest representations about the failure to hold those soldiers to account? We heard of disturbing new cases of tasers being used on children during interrogation. Will the Minister look into that as a matter of urgency?
Young people were threatened with electric shocks, and the threat alone convinced many of them to plead guilty to charges. But electric shocks are not just threatened; they are used in interrogation. We must remember that those children are on their own, have not seen their parents, and are not legally represented, yet they are blindfolded, with shackled arms and feet, and threatened with electric shocks. We heard reports from DCI that some children have had electrodes attached to their genitals with the threat of electric shocks. That is absolutely horrendous, and enough to break any reasonable person’s heart.
We heard of a child being held in solitary confinement for 65 days at Al Jalameh. In east Jerusalem there have been an increased number of cases of abuse of children following clashes near the illegal Israeli settlements at Silwan, which we visited only a few days ago. Some 380 settlers had moved into 18 homes in that overcrowded Palestinian district of 13,500 people, leading to the demolition of Palestinian homes. In 2010, more than 1,200 criminal cases had been opened against children from occupied east Jerusalem alleging involvement in stone-throwing incidents. The youngest boy to be mistreated was only seven years old.
[Mr Roger Gale in the Chair]
There are many other problems in Jerusalem. A case lasting two years involved an innocent child. In another case, eight Palestinian teenagers were held for two years on testimony from soldiers that was subsequently overturned. There have been serious breaches of the fourth Geneva convention, and of the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and the UN convention on the rights of the child, article 3 of which clearly states:
“In all actions concerning children…the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
That article is blatantly and openly violated. Those are not recent violations; they have happened consistently over 43 years of military occupation.
At some stage, we as politicians and members of the public must ask what we can do to ensure that Israel stops breaching and violating those articles, international laws and conventions. Over the past few days, UK representatives at the United Nations have agreed at committee level that such violations have taken place. Who are those representatives? What is their mandate? What are we doing about it? Is it for the UK Government to tell representatives on UN committees that action must be taken? We cannot continue to ignore such violations and the systematic abuse of children.
This is a cross-party matter; I am not here spoiling for a fight with the Government, and I hope that we can broadly agree that this matter is about children being abused at an international level. We have a duty as parents, fathers and decent people to protect children no matter what the circumstances, and regardless of their colour or creed, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, or which country they come from. I hope that the Minister will agree and explain to the House what we can do together in the simple name of moral humanity.
Stephen Twigg (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Gale, for the final two speeches of the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to her long-standing and consistent advocacy of human rights in general, and the Palestinian cause in particular, during her time in the House. The same applies to my other hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate.
Over the past hour, we have heard powerful and often shocking testimonies that demonstrate the importance to the work of the House of delegations such as that sent by the Britain-Palestine all-party group to the west bank last week. It is welcome to have such an immediate and early opportunity to address the situation viewed by those who visited last week.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt) indicated assent .
Stephen Twigg: I see the Minister nodding—we have cross-party agreement on that.
This is my first opportunity to speak about the middle east since I joined the shadow Foreign Office team in October. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the shadow Foreign Secretary, visited Israel and the west bank last week, and met a range of Palestinian and Israeli leaders, including President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I would like to reaffirm the Labour party’s long-standing commitment to the middle east peace process and a solution based on the two states of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and human rights at the heart of the process. Progress will require action by both sides, although in the context of this debate, particularly by Israel to end the expansion of settlements and the blockade of Gaza, as well as action by the Palestinians and other Arab states to fulfil their obligations under the principles of the Quartet.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock focused on the plight of Palestinian children and, although I am a friend of Israel, I condemn everything that we have heard about today. That should not be difficult for a friend of Israel to do. If we are serious about the peace process, those of us who have long been friends of Israel must be clear that we are also friends of the Palestinians. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) nodding; I know he believes that that can be achieved, provided that we stick with the absolute principles of human rights and democracy.
I deplore the methods that we have heard about in such detail today, primarily because they violate the universal principles of human rights, but also because they exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for peace. I pay tribute to the organisations mentioned during the debate and the brave NGOs that take up such causes. In particular, I mention Defence for Children International and the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, which does fantastic work in that field.
My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned night arrests, which are of particular concern especially if, as is alleged, they involve the use of physical violence. That cannot be right morally, but it must also worsen community tensions in what are already difficult and fragile circumstances. As a number of my hon. Friends have said, interrogation methods include the use of blindfolding and sleep deprivation to obtain confessions. Detainees are often presented with a confession written in Hebrew—a language that the vast majority of them do not understand. Several cases have been cited that suggest that people have signed confessions that they did not understand, which is not right or defensible. There is a lack of legal representation for detainees; many reports from international and Israeli human rights groups describe detainees not being permitted proper legal counsel throughout their interrogation. As we have heard, the majority of cases end in a confession.