Children and teenagers are frequent victims of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. They face physical abuse by Israeli military forces and are shuffled through an unfair court system without access to legal counsel or even their parents.
The United States has long subsidized these abuses, giving billions of dollars in military aid to Israel every year. Now, a group of Democratic members of Congress is saying enough is enough.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and nine co-sponsors on Tuesday introduced legislation that would require the U.S. State Department to certify every year that American military aid is not being used to fund the systematic abuse of Palestinian children.
If passed, the bill — titled the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act — would explicitly prohibit U.S. aid from being used by Israel to support the administrative detention or physical abuse of Palestinian children. The bill says that detention of Palestinian children is “inconsistent with the values of the United States.”
Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, told The Intercept that the legislation is an attempt to establish some sort of transparency over how Israel uses U.S. military aid, particularly as it relates to human rights abuses.
“There is no accountability or transparency on U.S. military assistance to Israel with regards to U.S. funds being used to pay for this,” Harper said.
The other sponsors of the bill are Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin; Raúl Grijalva of Arizona; John Conyers of Michigan; Earl Blumenauer of Oregon; Chellie Pingree of Maine; Peter DeFazio of Oregon; André Carson of Indiana; and Luis Gutiérrez and Danny Davis of Illinois.
Israel maintains two different legal systems in the occupied West Bank: a civilian criminal legal system that applies to Israeli settlers, and a military court system for Palestinians.
Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director, described the situation to The Intercept in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “In the West Bank, you have two communities that live here: You have Palestinians and you have Israelis. Israel effectively controls the entire area and has a two-tiered system, a system in which Palestinians and Israelis who live in the same territory are governed by two different systems — separate and unequal systems,” he said.
This network of military courts prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children every year, according to Defense for Children International – Palestine. Between 2012 and 2015, three-quarters of those children reported some form of physical violence after arrest, and 97 percent lacked access to legal counsel or did not have a parent present when they were interrogated, a DCIP survey found.
In Israeli civilian courts, on the other hand, children under the age of 18 have the right to have their parents present when they are being interrogated. And while Palestinian children are often prosecuted for throwing stones at Israeli settlers — 835 Palestinian youths were charged between 2005 and 2010 for this offense, and all but one was convicted — Israeli children have pelted Palestinians with stones and escaped prosecution, according to Jessica Montell, former executive director of Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.
Human Rights Watch has documented a litany of abuses against Palestinian youth. “[Children have been] blindfolded, threatened, deprived of sleep, put in chokeholds, kicked — we’ve documented cases of children who’ve urinated themselves in fear of arrest,” Shakir said.
Human rights advocates repeatedly asked former President Barack Obama’s administration to address the plight of Palestinian children, said Brad Parker, a DCIP attorney and international advocacy officer, who worked closely with McCollum’s office on the legislation.
“In 2015, we did a Dear Colleague letter where we had 19 members of Congress sign onto a letter to Secretary [John] Kerry [addressing abuse of Palestinian children],” Parker said. “In 2016, we had a Dear Colleague letter to President Obama asking for the creation of a Special Envoy for Palestinian children.”
But the Obama administration did not act on the advocates’ recommendations, leading them to work with Congress to draft the legislation instead, Parker said.
The McCollum bill comes at a time of increasing debate in the Democratic Party about its orientation toward Israel-Palestine. The Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign had tapped Palestinian-Americans to serve as surrogates, Sanders had charged Hillary Clinton with failing to consider the needs of the Palestinian people. Polls show that Democratic-leaning voters are increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians; more self-identified liberal Democrats now tell pollsters they are more sympathetic to Palestinians than they are to Israel.
Parker does not expect the bill, which he referred to as a “long-term congressional organizing vehicle,” to pass any time soon. But because the nature of U.S. military aid to Israel is so rarely examined, he said, he expects it to spark a much-needed debate.
“We don’t expect this to become law,” he said, “but it’s sort of meant to be a visioning or messaging document that gets the discussion started about where our aid goes.”
This type of legislation is gaining traction, Harper said, “because the situation on the ground is so dire.”