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Defence for Children International-Palestine Section aims to protect the rights of children and minors living in occupied Palestine. Rifat Kassis was elected as president of the executive council of Defence for Children International (DCI) in 2005 and is currently serving his second term. The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof recently interviewed Kassis about DCI-PS’s work and the special situation of Palestinian children growing up under occupation.
Adri Nieuwhof: Can you tell us about DCI-PS and your work there?
Rifat Kassis: DCI-PS is now in its nineteenth year of operation. I founded the organization with others. Seeing DCI now makes me proud — what started as a simple, small organization and where it is now. Our main work is legal assistance, monitoring and documenting violations of the rights of children, and international advocacy. We represent 30 to 40 percent of the children held in Israeli detention and we are quite successful in lobbying the structures of the European Union and the United Nations. We have different programs for the rights of children who are under the jurisdiction of the Israeli military occupation and those under Palestinian jurisdiction and we work with the Palestinian police forces and relevant ministries and lawyers in Palestine to introduce juvenile justice standards.
DCI-PS also promotes the protection of children as victims of domestic violence. For example, we work with the [Palestinian] ministry of education on the banning of corporal punishment. With community-based organizations we work on how they can integrate child rights in their programs and invite children to participate in advocating for their rights to end domestic violence and corporal punishment.
AN: What are the main charges against Palestinian children in Israeli prisons?
RK: According to our records almost 700 children are detained each year under the Israeli military court system. Some children are as young as 12 years old. The majority — around 26 percent — of the children were charged with stone throwing. There are also some other reasons, for example participation in banned political activities or demonstrations.
AN: Can you describe the experiences of Palestinian children held in Israeli detention?
RK: You know, we found every time the same procedure described in affidavits from children, from their families and from their lawyers. Soldiers come during the night or in the early morning. They come with a lot of noise, entering violently into the house. They take the child away without any explanation given to the family. There are some other children that are arrested at the checkpoints. But when children are taken from their homes, soldiers shout, “Where is Mohammed?” And whether Mohammed is 12- or 13-years-old, they kick him, blindfold him, tie his hands painfully with plastic handcuffs, and put him in the back of the military jeep. There he will be beaten and kicked by soldiers. This creates a lot of psychological damage to the child. At the detention center they put the child in a cell or take him for interrogation. During the interrogation the same treatment continues of kicking and beating. There is verbal abuse, threatening the child that they will hurt his family, rape his mother.
In most cases children will confess after two or three hours of interrogation. The interrogator will give the child a piece of paper in Hebrew, a language they don’t understand, and they will sign the confession. In the military court most of the children, almost 95 percent, will plead guilty, whether they committed the “crime” or not. The whole process is contrary to international law and conventions on the rights of the child. Last year, a military order was issued by Israel to establish a juvenile justice system in the military courts. It came into effect in October. This was in response to the accusations of the illegality of their system by all Palestinian lawyers. But my lawyers will tell you that it is still the same. Children continued to be transported with adults and they are still brought to adult military courts. There is no system of juvenile justice in the [Israeli] military courts.
AN: How many children have been killed due to the violence related to the Israeli occupation?
RK: From the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada [in September 2000] until now around 1,000 children have been killed, excluding the 348 children that were killed in Gaza during the Israeli invasion last winter. We have documented how these children were killed. It is either a direct targeted killing, when they are shot in their heads or [vital] organs, or they were killed because they were bystanders when Israel tried to assassinate somebody, and bombed a building or demolished a home. We should not ignore the fact that children are killed because they do not have quick access to hospitals. There are figures, but I hate figures, as if it is only about numbers — children are human beings.
Now, with the blockade of Gaza, human rights organizations find it difficult to document the causes of death of children. For example, we do not document a child that was anemic and did not have sufficient food and died because of this. There are so many [ways] children are murdered by Israelis. Take for example settler violence. In 2008, more that 20 children were injured and even some were killed by the violence of settlers, by their aggression and atrocities. We wrote about this in a November 2008 report entitled “Under Attack: Settler Violence against Palestinian Children in the Occupied Territory.”
AN: Can you discuss Israel’s increasing criticism of foreign donors and governments for their support of human rights organizations?
RK: Israel is a country that relies on its military power, on the loyal blind support from the United States and the European Union and on its public relations [machine]. Israel’s image as the “only democracy in the Middle East” is its justification for its existence. When Palestinian organizations write about human rights violations, Israel dismisses this by linking it to political factions. When there are international organizations or internationals working in local organizations it becomes tougher for Israel to dismiss criticism.
When Israel wants to show their power in the West Bank or Gaza, they form a media unit in the army to tell their story, and they forbid the foreign media to enter the area to report. The international organizations and the internationals in our organizations have helped us with the follow up on the Goldstone report. We “defeated” the Palestinian Authority that wanted to dismiss the report and we continued harassing Israel with the report. The international presence has to do with this. Israel does not want them to be here. It will make their life easier when the internationals are not here. Israel also wants to move international organizations out of Jerusalem. They don’t want to negotiate over Jerusalem. I don’t blame Israel. I blame the European Union which abides by Israeli pressure and betrays its own values. I hope international donors and governments do not give in to the pressure. I hope they stand for their beliefs and their support for human rights organizations.