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Gilad Shalit is free – now release the 164 jailed Palestinian children, says Mehdi Hasan

Israel's crimes, including the arrest, detention and alleged torture of incarcerated children, are rarely reported.

At 2am on 6 July, Ahmed, a 15-year-old boy from the village of Burin, in the occupied West Bank, was up late socialising with relatives. "Suddenly, many [Israeli] soldiers stormed the house," he recalls. "We were surprised to see them. They started shouting at us and ordering us into the living room."

The teenager, who was told he was "wanted for interrogation", was blindfolded and taken to a detention centre on the outskirts of Nablus, where he says he was verbally abused, shoved and kicked, and threatened with a dog. Whenever he tried to sleep, an Israeli soldier would kick him to keep him awake. Interrogators accused Ahmed of throwing stones. He was then transferred to the Megiddo Prison in Israel, where he was strip-searched on arrival.

Ahmed's story is one of dozens of case studies collated by the charity Defence for Children International. At the time of writing, according to figures released by the Israel Prison Service, there are 164 Palestinian children aged between 12 and 17 incarcerated in Israeli jails, including 35 minors aged between 12 and 15. As many as 700 Palestinian children are prosecuted each year in Israel's military courts; more than 7,000 have been detained since 2000.

We do not know their names and we do not hear their stories. But we do know Gilad Shalit, who was captured inside Israel after a cross-border raid by Hamas in June 2006. On the morning of 18 October, the 25-year-old soldier was freed by Hamas in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. The next day, his photo was on the front pages of the world's leading newspapers. David Cameron expressed his "joy and relief" at the release of Sergeant Shalit.

Kids first

But what of the Palestinian children who continue to languish in Israeli prison cells? Does our Prime Minister have a view on their ongoing incarceration? Will he condemn the transfer of children from the occupied West Bank to prisons inside Israel, in contravention of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention? Or the interrogation of Palestinian children in the absence of lawyers and their parents?

Above all, why hasn't the British government, and the international community, urged Israel to release these particular detainees in its thousand-for-one prisoner swap? Of the 477 Palestinian prisoners, including 27 women, freed so far in exchange for Shalit, none is a minor. "I would have released the children first," Rabbi Arik Ascherman, of the Jerusalem-based Rabbis for Human Rights, told me. "These children are often caught up in [security] sweeps, with no real evidence that they were in any way involved in violence."

Ascherman says the sentences that they usually receive are "extremely disproportionate" and a product of "kangaroo courts". The empirical evidence is on his side. According to a report by the leading Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, between 2005 and 2010, 835 Palestinian minors were tried in military courts in the West Bank on charges of stone-throwing. Only one minor was acquitted during those five years: a shockingly high conviction rate of 99.9 per cent.

Nineteen of the Palestinian minors sent to jail by Israeli military judges during this period were aged between 12 and 13. Yet, in Israel, it is against the law to imprison any child under the age of 14. Why treat Palestinian children differently from Israeli children? And if this isn't a form of apartheid, then what is?

In 2009, 100 sworn affidavits were collected by human rights lawyers from a group of imprisoned Palestinian children. They found 69 per cent of them reported being beaten and kicked; 49 per cent said they had been threatened with violence; 14 per cent were held in solitary confinement; and 12 per cent were threatened with sexual assault, including rape. One-third of the children said they had been bullied by Israeli interrogators into signing confessions written in Hebrew, not Arabic.


Over the past decade, however, despite the submission of 600 or so complaints against interrogators over alleged abuse and torture of Palestinian detainees, not one criminal investigation has been conducted by the Israeli authorities. Does anyone care?

The Palestinian child prisoners are perhaps the best example of what the historian Mark Curtis has called "unpeople" - those whose lives are "deemed worthless, expendable in the pursuit of power and commercial gain"; voiceless and delegitimised. They have few advocates or champions in the west.

Hamas must take some responsibility, too. Why didn't the militant group's leadership insist on the release of these children under the prisoner swap? Why lobby for only murderers and bomb-makers? (One source with intimate knowledge of the internal politics of Hamas says the militant group "may have been targeting those with life or long-term sentences who otherwise may not have been let out".)

Most British politicians, in all three main parties, continue to ignore the systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights by Israel, our close "friend" and "ally". Israel's crimes, including the arrest, detention and alleged torture of incarcerated children, are routinely ignored, or even excused. This month, for instance, Foreign Secretary William Hague designated the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni's visit to the UK as a "special mission", thereby preventing a warrant for her arrest, over accusations of war crimes relating to the 2009 war in Gaza, from being issued.

The double standard is glaring. Gilad Shalit, often described in the Israeli press as "Israel's son" , is finally - and thankfully - free from captivity. Many of Palestine's sons and daughters, however, remain behind bars.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying