Sussman: Military Tribunals for Kids

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

You are sleeping soundly at 2:00 a.m. on a calm summer night when there is suddenly loud pounding at your door. Armed soldiers rush into your home, yelling in a foreign tongue. Blindfolded, with hands tied behind your back, you are transported to a military detention center where interrogators threaten to torture you with electric shocks if you do not confess to a crime you have not committed. Without ever being formally charged, you are transported to a foreign country and held for twenty-two days, six in solitary confinement. A military tribunal approves your detainment on the basis of secret evidence unavailable to your attorney. Interrogators shine a merciless light into your lonely, windowless cell, robbing you of sleep and your rights as a human being in accord with the Third Geneva Convention.

You’ll be forgiven if you think this is the story of a suspected al-Qaeda operative. It is not.

Tragically, it is the story of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, M.M, tormented at the hands of the U.S.’s stalwart ally, Israel. I met M.M. this January at his family’s home in Asira al Qibliya, a 2,800 person Arab village deep in the hills of the West Bank, some seventy minutes north of Ramallah. Sitting legs crossed, on pillows laid out around a neat Persian rug in the family’s living room, I listened with amazement to his story.

M.M. is just one of 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as twelve, who are arrested, prosecuted, and convicted in Israeli-run military tribunals in the West Bank every year. Obscured by the broader geopolitical questions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the U.S.-Israeli alliance, the grotesquely undemocratic military tribunal system has been depriving Palestinian children of their human right to due process since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank subsequent to the Six Day War of 1967. Now, in the past two years, alarming investigatory studies conducted by the Palestinian division of the Defense for Children International have shed light on a system that perpetuates unacceptable and systematic abuses of detained children. In light of these findings, Israel must immediately cease prosecuting children in its failed and unjust military tribunal system.

As in M.M.’s case, children –ranging in age from twelve to seventeen – are typically arrested in sudden midnight raids by armed Israeli Defense Forces personnel. In most cases, neither the arrested Palestinian children nor their shocked families are informed of any charges. This is often because no evidence permissible in an ordinary court of law exists. Instead, arrests are made in response to stone-throwing at IDF soldiers by unidentifiable Palestinian youth. In a distorted and medieval form of collective punishment, suspected children are tied to crimes by hearsay at best and their home village at worst.

Yet the human rights violations implicit in arbitrary arrest are nothing compared to post-arrest treatment. DCI-Palestine’s latest report found an alarming pattern of institutional abuse of detained children. Brimming with horror stories of strip searches, aggressive interrogations, and forced signatures of Hebrew language documents indecipherable to Palestinian children, the report’s most disquieting discovery is that 87% of detained children report subjection to physical violence. Sickeningly, this includes the torture with which M.M. was threatened – electric shocks. Add these horrific interrogation methods to the use of secret evidence and forced confessions, and it is easy to understand how an astounding 99.7% of Palestinian children tried before the military tribunal are convicted.

Luckily, M.M. never faced trial. After their brutal interrogation techniques failed to elicit confession, M.M.’s captors released him. Now, a year and a half after his gruesome ordeal at the hands of the IDF, M.M. is living a near to normal life. Despite several initial months of isolation, in which he exhibited depression-like syndromes, M.M. is now attending school full-time and has resumed a functional social life. Oh, and we’re friends on Facebook.

Nonetheless, the arbitrary nature of the senseless suffering he endured at the hands of the Israeli military tribunal system still bothers him. Nothing short of the abolition of the military tribunals, in favor of a democratic court of law – where secret evidence and forced confessions are inadmissible and charges and rights read at arrest – can ensure that Palestinian children will not continually be unfairly arrested, tried, and jailed. Yet, disturbingly, not one of the 645 complaints of ill-treatment filed with the Israeli Security Agency has sparked criminal investigation, let alone reconsideration of the military tribunal system.

This is unacceptable conduct for a country whose advocates bill it as the only democracy in the Middle East. Whatever one’s views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or even of the disputed occupation of the West Bank, reasonable people of all views can unequivocally agree that a ‘justice’ system that systematically violates the human rights of children is intolerable. When Americans speak of Israel, it is as a steadfast ally that shares American values and projects them throughout the Middle East. For these talking points to have meaning, Israel must immediately cease unjustly prosecuting Palestinian children in its anti-democratic military tribunal system.




  1. really excellent article. thanks for drawing attention to an issue that is all too often ignored. it is precisely these voices and experiences that get lost in the politics of the conflict.

  2. Sam,
    Thanks to Israel’s work in finding and arresting potential terrorists, the rate of child suicide bombers has dramatically decreased from dozens to nothing. Many innocent civilians have had their lives spared. I am grateful for that.

    You forgot to mention in your article the Coalition to Stop Using Child Soldiers’ report on the Palestinian’s use of children to promote violence. This is a great tragedy. Just from Sept 2000-2003, 29 suicide attacks were carried out by Palestinian children, as well as 22 shootings attacks & more than 40 children were involved in attempted suicide bombings that were thwarted.

    I don’t know about the accuracy of this report and such claims. Many claims have been proven false in the past (ex.the Al-Durrah incident) Should interrogations or strip searches be stopped given the pattern of Palestinian use of child terrorism? Where is your condemnation of the use of children by the Palestinians?

  3. To clarify over the accuracy of the report that I have questions about (the DCI-Palestine), they have failed to address issues of Palestinian use of of children for spreading violence. Moreover MM claims he was threatened with electric shocks, but not shocked himself. If threatening someone with electric shocks is what it takes to protect people from suicide bombers, that seems worthwhile.

    Children are arrested by the US who are as young as 14 and brought without trial to Guantanamo Bay. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/25/guantanamo-files-children-old-men. This sounds much worse. But it’s more fun to be critical of Israel, right?

  4. Only an American would think that confiscating guns wouldn’t make those already militantly engraved resort to knifes instead. Wonderful that numbers of child suicide bombing decreased-I don’t think that exactly stops Palestinians from finding other means to have their share of revenge.

    No argument based on numbers is going to help Israeli side regarding the conflict-IDF is infinitely stronger than Hamas, and white phosphorous bombs dropped in Gaza Strips kill far more innocent civilians than five decades-old katyusha rockets occasionally landing in Ashdod or Beersheba.

    And he’s not condemning use of children by Palestinians because he’s writing an article about Israeli military oppression, not Palestinian domestic oppression. Don’t expect one piece of writing to represent an entirety of the writer’s perspective, let alone the entirety of the conflict.

    • S.H. Kang,

      Knives kill less than guns and suicide bomber vests, so that’s a good thing.

      Also one has to look at everything in context. These children are being stopped by the IDF because they are being used by Palestinian groups to attack and kill. It’s important to find the root of the problem. You can’t discount such numbers either. The fact remains, there were child suicide bombers, then the IDF took action, now there aren’t. This is a great thing for both the Palestinian children who were blowing themselves up and the Israeli civilians being blown up!

      Many other arguments based on numbers can help Israel, so I disagree. The number of honor killings in Gaza, the number of gays oppressed in areas under Palestinian control, the number of gay refugees escaping into Israel where being gay is legal, the number of Christians suffering discrimination in Palestinian held territory, etc.

      It is exactly because of such reasons that while Democrats and Republicans find so little to agree on, when it comes to Israel they are united in their support.

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