Palestinian Children in Israeli Military Detention: A Call for Awareness and Change

On a windy airstrip outside Tel Aviv, President Obama marked his March 20 visit as, “an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between [the United States and Israel], to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and [their] neighbors.”

As one committed to justice, peace, and security for all people of the Holy Land, I reflect on our president’s affirmation with appreciation. The U.S. government’s long and faithful friendship with Israel presents an opportunity to be a positive force for peace in the region.  

The question at hand is this: given our privileged position to promote peace in the Holy Land, can we affirm our commitment to Israel’s security while gently encouraging changes to obstructive policies, such as the criminal proceedings for children under Israeli military law?

On that afternoon in March, with the Iron Dome Defense System at Obama’s side, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act crawling through the House and Senate, and an impending proposal to extend US military aid to Israel, our president’s message was clear: we are committed to your secure and prosperous future.

Obama reflected: “after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.” This statement addresses a foundational prerequisite to being a voice for peace in the region: empathetically acknowledging and respecting the burden of historic Jewish suffering on the collective conscience of contemporary Israelis.  

President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres on the March 20 visit to Tel Aviv (Whitehouse).

President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres on the March 20 visit to Tel Aviv (Whitehouse).

Given historic Jewish suffering and the threatening geopolitical environment surrounding the state of Israel, talks of peace, reconciliation, and friendship can’t begin without an earnest commitment to Israel’s future and security. Unfortunately, in North American public discourse, this valid point of understanding is translated into the required affirmation of all Israeli security measures, even when excessive and arguably counterproductive. When considering problematic policies, such as the treatment of Palestinian children in military detention, I believe friendship with Israel requires a gentle, yet stern, encouragement to change. 

Just hours before Obama’s speech, a group of Palestinian children were stopped during their walk to school and detained by the Israeli Defense Force.  An Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, reported, “[Israeli] officials confirmed that, further to a stone-throwing incident earlier that morning, the military apprehended 27 minors, including at least 14 under the age of 12.” B’Tselem’s press release was accompanied by a video of the event.

More recently, the story of Mohammad Khalek illustrates many of the specific flaws in the criminal proceedings. Reading reports by Associated PressAljazeera, and Defense for Children International, and keeping in contact with individuals attending the 14 year olds court appearances, I am one of many that closely followed his trial. The increased attention is largely due to the fact that young Mohammad is a citizen of the United States. 

At 2 a.m. on Friday April 5 in the West Bank village of Silwad, eight Israeli soldiers raided the home of Mohammad Khalek at gunpoint. In front of his parents and five siblings, Mohammad was shackled and blindfolded. The 14 year old was taken to a military facility, then to a police station and interrogated.

Mohammad’s fourth hearing was this Sunday, April 14th. The charge against Mohammad is throwing stones at the moving vehicles of Israeli settlers on multiple occasions from September 2012 to April 2013. The defense attorney testified that the charges were hard to contest due to the lack of specific facts, such as the  dates these offenses occurred.

The pieces of evidence presented against Mohammad include the testimony of two other young men in custody (who were also accused of throwing stones) and his own confession. Said confession was given the afternoon following his early morning detention, after hours of sleepless transport and interrogation.During the trial, Mohammad testified that during the interrogation he was assured that his confession would hasten his release.

The hearing also addressed the issue of physical abuse. Mohammad described being hit by one of the soldiers on three occasions, showing the judge his front tooth where a bracket of his braces was broken off. The young man was not permitted to see a doctor for two weeks following the incident: the injuries sustained during his detention are of concern, but not as pressing as the heart murmur his parents wished to be examined. 

The final hearing was scheduled for Wednesday April 17th, where Mohammad was convicted and sentenced to 30 days imprisonment.

Mohammad’s story is not unusual, as there were approximately 230 Palestinian minors between the ages of 12 and 17  in Israeli prisons that month, many with similar experiences. For more case studies, statistics, and interviews, there are in-depth reports by Defense for Children InternationalB’Tselem,Save the ChildrenUNICEF, and a 2011 report by a delegation of British lawyers.

As I look to be a friend of Israel, to be committed to security and our nations’ unbreakable bond, I am fixed on the fact that the only long term plan for security is peace. Throwing stones in an act of aggression does not promote peace. The act has had fatal consequences and should be addressed, but I submit that a child’s punishment should be centered on rehabilitation and inclusion, not retribution and alienation.

I can’t speak to Mohammad’s future. I do not know how his arrest and detention will affect him personally, but I do not expect him, or the 8,000 Palestinian children detained since 2000, nor those children’s families and communities, to trust in Israel or the Palestinian Authority’s ability to protect and govern them. The destabilization these policies bring to individuals and communities does not increase security, but undermines it. I am calling upon advocates to push for reform on this issue of children in military detention; as military orders are changed by a single signature, rather than a legislative body, this is a very attainable goal.

I do not believe my concern for Palestinian children is a violation of my commitment to Israel’s future, but is a part of a growing dialogue in the American Church that honors the security of Israel, while respecting the fears, apprehensions and aspirations of the Palestinian people. As a common friend to Israeli’s and Palestinians, this growing voice takes seriously the calling to be peacemakers in the Holy Land.

As the birthplace of our faith and heritage, this land is an obvious concern for Christians across the world. I believe it’s time for American Christians to honor our privileged position, and be an active force for peace that is authentically, Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, Pro-peace, and Pro-Justice.

-Craig Swandby is a Wheaton College graduate living and working in Washington, DC. He's an advocate for aid, justice, and development among the world's poor, and for peace and justice in the Middle East. Follow @craigswandby