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UK Parliamentary debate: Military Detention of Palestinian Children by Israeli Authorities

[13 February 2018] - On 7 February 2018, the UK Parliament debated the military detention of Palestinian children by Israeli authorities (video/transcript). This is the second time in two years that the issue has been debated in the UK Parliament, the first debate occurring on 6 January 2016. The motion was moved by Sarah Champion MP (Labour) who has visited the region on two occasions and attended hearings in Ofer military court, near Jerusalem.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Champion stated that the intention of calling the debate was "to support and encourage Israel to meet its international obligations with regards to the rights of children." While Ms. Champion noted that Israel fully meets its legal obligations with respect to Israeli citizens, the same cannot be said for Palestinian children prosecuted in Israeli military courts in the occupied West Bank. In referring to the debate in 2016, Ms. Champion noted with regret that little has changed during the intervening period.
The focus of Ms. Champion's speech during the debate was on "rule of law" issues - fundamental principles that apply regardless of the allegations against the suspect. Some of the principles referred to by Ms. Champion included:
  1. The right to silence: After noting the fundamental nature of this right against self-incrimination, Ms. Champion observed that this right is enshrined in Israeli military law. However, according to evidence cited during the debate, 84 percent of children continue to be denied this right.
  2. Timely access to lawyers: A suspect's right to consult with a lawyer prior to interrogation is also enshrined in Israeli military law and the fundamental nature of the right was confirmed by Israel's Supreme Court. However, according to evidence cited during the debate, 81 percent of children continue to be denied this right.
  3. Audio-visual recording of interrogations: In 2012 and 2013, a delegation of senior UK lawyers and UNICEF recommended that all child interrogations should be audio-visually recorded as a means of protecting both the suspect and interrogator against improper conduct or false allegations of wrongdoing. While this recommendation has been adopted in "non-security" offences, approximately 95 percent of cases involving children remain unprotected by the law.
  4. Unlawful transfer of child detainees: International law stipulates that no Palestinian detainees can be transferred out of the occupied West Bank to prisons inside Israel. Violation of this principle constitutes a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Citing evidence produced by the Israeli Prison Service, Ms. Champion noted that 61 percent of child detainees continue to be unlawfully transferred.
Ms. Champion concluded her speech by noting that: "This issue concerns us all, as when Israel, our friend and a democratic State, breaks international laws and obligations, it makes it that much harder to enforce them with other countries around the world."
Following Ms. Champion's speech MPs were each given three minutes to respond. These contributions included voices both supportive and critical of Palestinian and Israeli positions. While a number of MPs raised concerns over alleged incitement by the Palestinian Authority and others of young people to commit acts of violence (John Howell MP (Conservative); Ross Thomson MP (Conservative); Andrew Percy MP (Conservative); Joan Ryan MP (Labour); Dr Matthew Offord MP (Conservative); and Louise Ellman MP (Labour/Co-op)), it is worth noting that no MP suggested that incitement was any justification for systematically denying children their legal rights, or constituted a legal defence to the war crime of unlawful transfer.
Following these contributions, Fabian Hamilton MP (Labour), Shadow Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, spoke on behalf of the Labour Opposition. As part of his response, Mr. Hamilton urged members to consider the context in which Palestinian children are detained, including: 50 years of military occupation; no plausible peace process; and the continued expansion of illegal settlements. After noting no improvement since the previous debate, Mr. Hamilton urged the Government to commit funds for a return visit of the legal delegation to update the 2012 report, and asked whether any progress had been made in obtaining Israeli cooperation in this regard.
Finally, Alistair Burt MP (Conservative), Minister of State for the Middle East, spoke on behalf of the Government. The Minister commenced by commending Ms. Champion on her "comprehensive and forensic contribution" and undertook to respond to her specific questions in writing. The Minister then made a statement regarding incitement by Palestinians and Israelis. He referred to past attempts to establish a trilateral forum on incitement including Israel, Palestine and a third party to discuss individual incidents and hoped that this idea could be revived. In 2014, the Netanyahu government rejected a US-Palestinian proposal to establish an anti-incitement committee.
The Minister went on to state that the treatment of children prosecuted in Israel's military system is "inextricably mixed up with Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories". He noted that children are entitled to special protection and due process under international humanitarian law. The Minister noted that these protections are reaffirmed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Israel is a State party. The Minister stressed that the UK Government makes it very clear "that Israel needs to live up to what is in the Conventions that it's signed."
The Minister then noted that the UK does recognise that Israel has made some progress in fulfilling its obligations, such as: reducing the number of detainees aged between 12-14 years; increasing the age of majority from 16 to 18 years; establishing separate juvenile courts; and enacting a special statute of limitations for minors". However, the Minister confirmed that in the Government's assessment just 1 of the 40 recommendations included in the Foreign Office sponsored lawyers' report of 2012 has been implemented.
The Minister then stressed that the UK Government is committed to helping the Israeli authorities to make the necessary changes. The Minister then gave the following example: "Last year we invited the Israeli authorities to attend discussions with the Metropolitan Police to share their more than 30 years UK experience implementing regulations designed specifically to protect the rights of minors in detention ... We have been disappointed when the invitation was declined. The invitation still stands. It's not a threatening invitation. It's not a condemnatory invitation. It's an opportunity to do something right," said the Minister.
The Minister concluded his reply by stating: "I find these debates incredibly sad. We shouldn't be having them because the situation that gives rise to them should end and that can only happen with the resolution of the issues by direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian people."