Turtle Bay

UNICEF appeals to Israel to release minors

As the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap got under way this week, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) appealed late last night to the Israel military to ensure the release of 164 Palestinian prisoners detained as minors, mostly on charges of throwing stones at Israeli authorities. The minors were not included in a list of the first round ...

As the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap got under way this week, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) appealed late last night to the Israel military to ensure the release of 164 Palestinian prisoners detained as minors, mostly on charges of throwing stones at Israeli authorities.

The minors were not included in a list of the first round 477 Palestinian prisoners who were released in exchange for one Israel soldier, Gilad Shalit, freed by Hamas after five years of captivity through a prison swap brokered by the Egyptian government. It remains unclear whether the minors will be included in a second round of an additional 550 Palestinian prisoners due to be released in the coming months, according to UNICEF officials.

"As stated in the convention on the rights of the child, the detention of children should be used only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time," said Jean Gough, UNICEF’s Special Representative in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. "UNICEF calls on the Israeli government to release Palestinian child detainees so that they can be reunited with their families."

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, reacted sharply to the U.N. agencies appeal, telling Turtle Bay in a statement that "this press release demonstrates UNICEF’s clear bias and double-standards when it comes to Israel. Its timing is mind-boggling."

Prosor said that while Israel is willing to discuss the concerns of any humanitarian agency UNICEF "should use its time and resource to focus on real violators of children’s rights in the Middle East."

‘Gilad Shalit just lost more than five years of his youth as a hostage. Why hasn’t UNICEF condemned Hamas?" Prosor continued. "Where is its condemnation of the missiles that continue to rain down on Israeli kindergartens and school buses? Where is its outrage at Hamas’ cynical use of children as suicide bombers and human shields? Where is its condemnation of the hate that continues to be spread in Palestinian classrooms and textbooks?"

Israel’s detention of minors has been a sore point for the U.N. children’s agencies and other children’s rights groups, who maintain that children should not be tried by military courts and that governments should only jail minors under the most extreme circumstances. "Military tribunals are not required to treat children’s best interests as their primary concern, and, therefore, are not an appropriate forum for hearing cases against children," according to a September report by the U.N. secretary general special representative for children and armed conflict, Radikha Coomaraswamy.

"Seven thousand Palestinian children have been detained, interrogated and prosecuted and imprisoned in the Israeli military system over the past ten years," Catherine Weibel, a spokeswoman for UNICEF said in a phone interview today.

Weibel said that 35 of the detained minors are between the ages of 12 and 15 but that most are 16 or 17 years of age. Under Israeli law, minors over the age of 14 can be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for throwing a stone at an individual, and up to 20 years for hurling it at a moving vehicle. In practice, Israeli military courts rarely sentence minors to more than 2 months, and typically hold them for a period of a couple of weeks to about 3 months. Children under the age of 12 are released from custody without being charged.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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