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State Department Human Rights Report (2023)

[25 April 2024] – On 22 April 2024, the US State Department published the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Israel, West Bank and Gaza (2023) (The Report). The Report is mandated by Congress and documents human rights conditions in nearly 200 countries and territories. Staff in US embassies around the world compile the information contained in the Report. As in previous years the Report highlights human rights violations by multiple actors in the region and considers the treatment of Palestinian children held in Israeli military detention.

Occupied territory and annexation - Consistent with international law, the Report covers the "Occupied Palestinian Territories" and accordingly the Fourth Geneva Convention applies in full to the conflict. However, the Report notes, contrary to international law, that: "The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019." This position creates a dangerous precedent incompatible with the "rules-based order" and inconsistent with US policy in Ukraine and the South China Sea which is founded on the principal of non-acquisition of territory by force. This position creates ambiguity and increases the prospects of territorial disputes globally.
Application of two legal systems - The State Department confirms that Israel continues to apply "separate and thereby unequal legal regimes in the West Bank" depending on whether a person is Palestinian (military law), or an Israeli settler (civilian law). While military law technically applies to both groups, Israeli prosecutors have a discretion as to where to prosecute Israeli citizens. Applying two legal systems violates the principal that no state is permitted to discriminate between those over whom it exercises criminal jurisdiction based on race or national identity. This is one factor that prompted Human Rights Watch to label the situation in the West Bank as Apartheid.
Unlawful transfer of prisoners - The State Department notes that 68 percent of Palestinian child detainees continue to be "forcibly transferred or unlawfully detained in prisons located outside the West Bank" - in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It should be noted that in 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russians responsible for transferring "hundreds" of Ukrainian children in violation of the same legal principal. Based on data released by the Israel Prison Service (IPS), it is estimated that up to 32,000 Palestinian children have been unlawfully transferred since 1967 - many of who report serious abuse. The ICC has been in possession of this evidence since 16 March 2015, but has thus far taken no action.
Impact of Israeli settlements - The State Department notes that: the Israeli settler population in the West Bank excluding East Jerusalem grew by almost 3 percent during the year, to 517,407. Citing UN data, the Report also notes a 43 percent increase in settler violence against Palestinians. Based on over 1,100 testimonies collected by MCW between 2013-2023, 98 percent of Palestinian children detained by Israeli forces in the West Bank live within several kilometres of a settlement or related infrastructure. These settlements also play a critical logistical role in these detentions including hosting interrogation centres. And while the settlements are prohibited under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel relies on the Convention to prosecute Palestinian children in military courts. 
Specifically in relation to Israel's military detention of Palestinian children, the State Department notes that:
  • Use of military courts - The State Department notes that: Israel prosecutes Palestinian men, women and children (12-17 years) from the West Bank in military courts with a conviction rate of at least 96 percent. While Israel relies on the Fourth Geneva Convention to justify using military courts, international humanitarian law only permits their use on a temporary basis in a situation of military occupation. Be that as it may, Israeli military courts in the West Bank have been prosecuting Palestinian civilians since 7 June 1967.
  • Torture and ill-treatment - The State Department notes that: more than 67 percent of Palestinian children detained in the West Bank reported being subjected to various forms of physical abuse during arrest, transfer, or interrogation. Most children were arrested in night raids, and Israeli forces used physical abuse, strip searches, threats of violence, hand ties, and blindfolds. 26 percent reported being placed in solitary confinement as part of their interrogation process. At the conclusion of interrogations most children were shown, or made to sign, documentation in Hebrew. 
  • Due process - The State Department notes that: although there is provision for issuing written summonses in lieu of arresting children at night, these summonses were almost never used; contrary to Israeli military regulations, parents of children arrested from home were not always provided with written notification concerning the arrests; unlike Israeli parents, Palestinian parents were excluded from attending their child's interrogation; many children did not always have access to a lawyer prior to interrogation, and often did not see a lawyer until they appeared in a military court. In most cases children were denied bail.
  • Administrative detention - The State Department notes that: Israeli military law allows for indefinite administrative detention without charge or trial for Palestinians accused of "security-related offenses". While these orders are reviewed by a military court judge, the evidence is generally classified preventing any meaningful challenge by detainees. In December 2023, the IPS reported that it was holding 3,291 Palestinians in administrative detention including 49 children. These figures do not include the hundreds or perhaps thousands of Palestinians from Gaza.
  • Prison conditions - A "state of emergency" in prisons was imposed after 7 October which imposed harsh conditions on Palestinian detainees. Reports from inside the prisons include: severe beatings, deliberate humiliation and verbal abuse; violent searches; medical neglect; reduced food; cutting off water and electricity for long hours; no family visits; and the use of solitary confinement. Six deaths in custody were reported. The Report also notes that Israeli authorities placed restrictions on the independent monitoring of prisons including by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  • Accountability - The State Department notes that: 79 percent of complaints against Israeli soldiers for alleged harm to Palestinians went uninvestigated. Complaints filed to the Department of Internal Police Investigations resulted almost exclusively in dismissal. Only 0.87 percent of investigations led to indictments with convictions resulting in light sentences. This lack of effective domestic remedies is reflected internationally where the US actively opposes legal accountability resulting in a well-placed sense of impunity.
For well over a decade the US State Department has been meticulously documenting in some detail serious violations against Palestinian children held in Israeli military detention - in some cases these violations amount to war crimes (e.g. ill-treatment and torture). In one instance (unlawful transfer) the evidence is irrefutable and is provided by the Israel Prison Service. Be that as it may, successive US governments continue to provide Israel with seemingly unconditional political, diplomatic, financial and military support. This policy not only diminishes US standing in the world, but also undermines the credibility and viability of the "rules based order". This will have repercussions in and beyond the region.