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How to talk to your representative about Palestinian child detention

Photo: Mahfouz Abu Turk / Apaimages, Illustration: Aija Suuta / AFSC

For the past six years, AFSC has partnered with Defense for Children International-Palestine on a campaign to challenge Israel’s prolonged military occupation of Palestinians by exposing the widespread and systematic ill treatment of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces.

Our No Way to Treat a Child campaign engages policymakers in Washington, D.C. by hosting congressional briefings, delivering petitions, supporting relevant legislation, and mobilizing people across the country in advocacy through public events, webinars, videos, and other resources.

And we're seeing the impact. Since 2017, members of Congress have introduced legislation to hold Israel accountable for human rights violations against Palestinian children.

On April 15, 2021, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) and 13 members of Congress introduced “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Detention Act (H.R. 2590) that seeks to promote justice, equality and human rights for Palestinian children and families by prohibiting Israeli authorities from using U.S. taxpayer funds to detain and torture Palestinian children, demolish and seize Palestinian homes, and further annex Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

H.R. 2590 includes specific mention of the seizure, appropriation, or destruction of Palestinian property and forcible transfer of civilians in the Israeli-controlled and occupied West Bank, as these Israeli violations of international humanitarian law have increased in recent years. Evictions and demolitions are particularly a threat in Jerusalem where 20,000 Palestinian structures are subject to demolition.

In its first week of introduction, H.R. 2590 was endorsed by over 100 organizations, including Palestinian-led organizations, faith-based organizations (including Jewish organizations and rabbinical associations), civil and human rights organizations, progressive political parties, and movement allies such as the Movement for Black Lives and Detention Watch.

In the last session of Congress, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) introduced Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act (H.R. 2407), that would ensure that U.S. financial assistance to Israel is not used for the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill treatment of Palestinian children. H.R. 2407 followed a similar bill introduced by Rep. McCollum in 2017, which was the first-ever bill to address Palestinian human rights in Congress and was signed by 31 representatives.

You can help us keep up the momentum and build support for Palestinian rights. Through our work, we have found the following messages to be effective in talking with members of Congress about Palestinian children in Israeli military detention. We encourage you to use them to communicate with your elected officials—whether in phone calls, emails, letters, online forums, or, eventually, in person (once we can avoid health risks from the pandemic). 

1. Children are the future. They also are the present.

Download our poster: Protection Not Detention

All societies value their children and build their dreams and hopes for a better future around their youth. In the occupied Palestinian territory, where children under 18 make up nearly half of the population, this is also true. These Palestinian children are not only the future, they are also the present and their rights are being violated when they are detained and tried in the military court system. When it comes to children—whether or not they have committed an alleged offense—international law demands that detention must be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest amount of time. The best interests of a child must be a primary concern.

2. Two sets of laws exist: one for Palestinians, another for Israelis. Even on the same land.

In the occupied West Bank, there are two separate legal systems operating in the same territory. The sole factor in determining which laws apply to a person is their nationality and ethnicity. Israeli military law, which denies people their fundamental rights, is applied to the entire Palestinian population—while Israeli settlers living in the West Bank are subject to the Israeli civilian and criminal legal system. No Israeli child comes in contact with the military court system.

Israel is the only country in the world that systematically prosecutes children in a military court system that lacks basic safeguards for a fair trial. Between 500 and 700 Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, are detained and prosecuted in the military court system each year.

3. Abuse in the military court system is widespread, systematic, and well documented. Military courts are not about providing justice.

United Nations agencies and local and international human rights organizations—including UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, Bt’selem, Amnesty International, and Defense for Children International-Palestine—have documented the widespread, systematic, and institutionalized ill-treatment of Palestinian children arrested and detained by Israeli forces. The U.S. State Department also has documented the ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees in its annual human rights country reports on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.

Three out of four children arrested experience physical violence during arrest or interrogation by Israeli soldiers. Children are often arrested in night raids on their homes—blindfolded and hand tied, denied access to lawyers and their parents during interrogation, coerced into signing confessions, convicted in military courts, and imprisoned in detention centers, often inside Israel outside of the occupied West Bank, which makes it difficult for family to visit. Since 2016, Israeli authorities have increasingly used solitary confinement for interrogation purposes to obtain a confession or gather intelligence information from the child, a practice amounting to torture under international law.

Over 90% of Palestinian children taken to military court are convicted.

4. The U.S. government is not a neutral player on this issue—but could make a positive difference.

A 2017 visit by AFSC staff, volunteers, and others to congressional offices to raise awareness about Palestinian children in detention. Photo: AFSC/Irit Reinheimer

In recent years, members of Congress have publicly stated their concern for the rights of Palestinian children: 

  • In 2015, 19 members of Congress signed a letter to then Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to prioritize the rights of Palestinian children in the U.S. government’s bilateral relationship with Israel. 
  • One year later, 20 members of Congress called on President Obama to appoint a special envoy for Palestinian children. 
  • In January 2017, over 11,000 people signed a petition to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, requesting the U.S. government to prioritize human rights and hold Israel accountable for its systematic ill treatment of Palestinian child detainees.
  • In November 2017, Rep. Betty McCollum introduced H.R. 4391, "Promoting Human Rights by Ending the Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act," which prohibits U.S. taxpayer funds from supporting grave human rights violations against Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system. The bill received 31 Congressional sponsors in the 115th U.S. Congress.
  • In April 2019, Rep. McCollum introduced H.R. 2407, “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Military Occupation Act,” which would require that United States funds do not support military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children. The bill had 25 congressional supporters in the 116th U.S. Congress.

U.S. military assistance to Israel has helped to sustain the military occupation and undermined the long-term security interests of both Israelis and Palestinians — and that must change. In September 2016, the U.S. agreed to give Israel $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade (fiscal years 2019-2028), the largest such aid package in U.S. history.

Realizing a just and lasting peace will require accountability. Continued U.S. military assistance to Israel will only maintain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation, including the abuse and detention of Palestinian children. 

Join our work to end Palestinian child detention by learning more and taking action:

About the Author

Jennifer Bing has worked at AFSC since 1989, serving in various capacities in its Israel-Palestine programs. She directs the AFSC Palestine Activism Program in Chicago and works with her colleagues Palestine and Israel.