Israel's treatment of children detained by the military authorities in the West Bank puts it in serious breach of its obligations under international law, according to a damning report by a high-level delegation of British lawyers.
The report, Children in Military Custody, was compiled after a visit to Israel last November by a group of lawyers specialising in children's rights, led by the former Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, and retired Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Sedley.
The report passed no judgment on conflicting accounts of the treatment of children from Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups, the United Nations and former Israeli soldiers and the Israeli government on the other. But its conclusions about the different treatment of Israeli and Palestinian children within the judicial system will be deeply damaging to Israel.
Whereas the Israeli juvenile criminal justice system conforms well to international standards, the UK lawyers concluded that Israel is in breach of a series of articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, ratified by Israel in 1991. These include articles on discrimination, protection of a child's best interests, the premature resort to detention, non-separation from adults, prompt access to lawyers and the use of shackles. The transportation of child prisoners into Israel is also a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians.
The delegation concluded that if reports of the mistreatment of Palestinian child detainees by NGOs, former Israeli soldiers and the children themselves turned out to be true, then Israel would be in breach of the prohibition on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. More seriously still, if reports of children being held for substantial periods in solitary confinement could be verified, then this would amount to torture.
Out of 40 separate recommendations, the report highlights three specific priorities for the Israeli government: that international law and the UNCRC should apply to the Occupied Palestinian territories; that the best interests of the child should be of primary consideration throughout the military, police and judicial systems; and that Israel should not discriminate between the children under its jurisdiction.
The UK lawyers welcomed a new military order in September 2011 raising of the age of majority for Palestinian children from 16 to 18 (the same as Israeli children, but showed concern that cases where the maximum sentence was over five years (which could include prosecutions for stone-throwing) could still be tried in adult courts. The Israeli government's failure to translate the new military order from Hebrew also represented a breach of the Geneva Conventions.
A statement issued by the Israeli embassy in London in response to the report said that Palestinians under the age of 18 were encouraged by school textbooks and television programmes to glorify terrorism. As a result they were often involved in lethal acts which presented the Israeli authorities with serious challenges.
Its spokesman said: "A wide range of senior Israeli officials met the delegation and openly shared Israel's dilemmas on these issues. Israel, as an open society, has an ongoing dialogue with civil society representatives in Israel and from the international community, including the UK Israel notes the detailed recommendations in the report and will study them closely as part of its ongoing efforts to find the most appropriate balance between preventing violence and treating perpetrators with humanity."