JERUSALEM – About 300 Palestinian minors have been rounded up in Israeli army sweeps over the past year and are being held in crowded lockups, some without charges, lawyers and human rights monitors say.
The army acknowledges it has locked up teens, but treats those over 16 as adults, despite international conventions defining minors warranting special treatment as those under 18. Israel says militant groups often recruit teens, pointing to a 16-year-old suicide bomber, Issa Bdair from Bethlehem, who killed two Israelis in a blast in Tel Aviv last year. Several other bombers have been minors.
Roundups of Palestinians have intensified in the past year, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says a total of 7,600 Palestinians are currently in custody. Red Cross officials say they have visited 260 minors in Israeli lockups.
Israeli human rights monitors, including the respected B'tselem group, estimate about 300 Palestinians under 18 are in detention, and say many of those detained are held for minor offenses, such as throwing stones.
A 14-year-old, Ali Rahman, said he was jailed for eight days after throwing a stone at an army jeep that drove past his home in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Ali said he slept on a floor with a blanket, sharing a cell with 15 other boys at the West Bank's Etzion military detention center.
Israeli human rights lawyer Tamar Peleg represents several Palestinian teens, including Mohammed Najar from Bethlehem who was first arrested when he was 15.
Najar is being held in so-called administrative detention, a practice held over from British Mandate rule that allows the army to jail Palestinians without trial or charges. He is serving the first of renewable six-month detentions in the Ketziot tent camp, a crowded prison in Israel's southern Negev Desert.
Peleg, who works for Israel's Center for the Defense of the Individual, said military prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to charge Najar with a crime, but persuaded a military judge he was dangerous enough to keep locked up anyway.
Before being sent to Ketziot, he spent 45 days in solitary confinement in a West Bank army lockup because a judge ordered him held separately from adult prisoners. The day after he turned 16, he was moved to Ketziot prison, Peleg said.
The lawyer said Najar is one of about 30 minors, half of them under 16, being held without trial or charges.
Some of the other young prisoners she's met at military judicial hearings have complained of beatings, hunger, overcrowded rooms stuffed wall to wall with mattresses and too few trips allowed to the toilet.
Many are interrogated without the presence of lawyers and are held for months without visits from their parents, she said.
Israel is in violation of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines minors as younger than 18, said Jessica Montell, director of B'tselem.
The treaty, which Israel signed and ratified, says the arrest and imprisonment of children should be a last resort and for the shortest appropriate time, and they should not be jailed with adults. It also gives minors the right to legal assistance, visits from relatives and to be informed of the charges against them.
The army blames the arrest of youths on violent Palestinian militant groups who recruit teens.
"They use the young children, luring them and turning them into killers," said Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman. "They're easy prey for these terror organizations. When they are caught, they are held responsible for what they do."
A senior army official speaking on condition of anonymity said the Etzion detention center, a facility meant to hold 50 people, now holds 71 Palestinians.
He said Etzion and other centers are meant to detain Palestinians only until space can be found at larger military and civilian prisons, which are already filled with prisoners rounded up during Israel's hunt for terrorists.
He said the army is holding 14 Palestinians younger than 16. He didn't have a figure for how many were between the ages of 16 and 18. Some of them are detained for aiding suicide bombing missions, others for such minor offenses as throwing stones at soldiers, he said.
One of them, 16-year-old Hussein Ramadan from Bethlehem's Dheisheh refugee camp, was arrested in November after soldiers confronted him about being part of a group of rock throwers, said his father, Ismail.
"This boy should be in school, not in prison," the father said. "The occupation is at our doors and provokes the children."
Bilal Ibsharat, 17, from the northern West Bank village of Tamoun, was held for seven months without trial and then released. He thinks he ended up in custody for being singled out by an informer, perhaps a classmate who didn't like him.
Ali Rahman, the 14-year-old stone-thrower, said his eight days in jail shook him up badly. "I was really scared in prison and never want to go back," he said.