On Friday 21 July 2016, a debate took place in the House of Lords secured by Lord Warner, on the subject of the conditions in which Palestinian children are living and the impact on their health and wellbeing. This follows a visit by Lord Warner earlier this year to the occupied West Bank on a delegation organised by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu). Members of the Lords who took part included a board member of UNICEF and members who have worked with Save the Children and Oxfam.
Lord Warner opened the debate with the following statement:
“My Lords, I am pleased to have this opportunity to put on the parliamentary record the appalling conditions under which Palestine’s children are living in both the blockaded collective prison of Gaza and the 50-year military occupation in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. I start with a quotation from the recent memoir by the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave, who was an FCO Minister in the Thatcher Government. On page 259, he draws on Avi Shlaim’s book The Iron Wall with the following words:
“Israeli thinkers have right from the beginning judged that the injustice to the Palestinians perpetrated by the establishment of their state can never in truth be rectified for those who were displaced”.
This sentiment produces the sense of outrage one feels when seeing at first hand how Palestine’s children live day by day—day in and day out.
Let me begin with Gaza, whose children have experienced three military invasions in six years. I saw the destruction wreaked in Gaza after the first two invasions but have been prevented from entering Gaza to see the results of the third. The blockade following it has prevented major reconstruction and Gaza’s children now see themselves sentenced to a lifelong collective prison sentence. During the 2014 Gaza conflict, Save the Children found that “551 children were killed”, compared with one Israeli child,
“and 3,436 were injured, of whom 10% suffered permanent disability as a result”.
The rates of stunting and long-term malnutrition remain high, while anaemia affects nearly 60% of schoolchildren and even more infants. In this collective prison, 95% of the water is unfit for human consumption. In addition, 90 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage is dumped into the sea each day, which causes a high incidence of diseases such as typhoid and severe diarrhoea. Medical supplies are permanently in short supply, and many children live in poor accommodation, because only 1,000 homes out of the 10,000 destroyed have been rebuilt. These children now have to put up with Israeli air strikes, which recently killed two children, and see them destroy power stations. Israeli Ministers are now calling for Gaza to be cut off from water, gas and electricity.
Large swathes of the economy and the middle class have been destroyed, and a third of the schools destroyed have yet to be rebuilt. But why go to school if there are no jobs and you cannot leave the prison? Thirty percent of applications for patients, often children, to leave Gaza for medical treatment are denied. The population is increasingly dependent on humanitarian aid. UNICEF estimates that at least 373,000 children—nearly half of Gaza’s children—need specialised psychosocial support. Gaza’s children have been condemned, through no fault of their own, to a future without hope: a groundhog day of perpetual misery in an environment that the United Nations has predicted will be uninhabitable by 2020. My first question to the Minister is whether the Government accept the UN assessment of the timetable for Gaza becoming uninhabitable. In addition, what discussions are they having with the Israeli Government and the international community about collective action to prevent an impending humanitarian disaster in Gaza, especially for its children?
I turn now to the West Bank, which I visited in April with a small cross-party parliamentary group and representatives of Caabu and Medical Aid for Palestinians. I should make clear that no representative of Israel’s Government was willing to see us or to let us enter Gaza. Our Israeli contact was limited to a courageous former Israeli soldier from the Breaking the Silence movement, who escorted us around the city of Hebron. We saw at first hand how a military occupation could clear a thriving Palestinian town centre to make way for settlers, whose children had their own distinctive way of welcoming visitors, with eggs and dirty water.
On the West Bank, Palestinian children grow up in a culture of fear, intimidation, suspicion and sometimes death. We saw this most graphically when we visited a settler-firebombed house in Duma, where the parents and their child died. UNRWA has expressed concern over the daily threat of violence faced by Palestinian children. It has reported that the number of children killed in the West Bank has more than doubled in the last two years, to 31 in 2015, with things getting worse. Between October 2015 and 31 March 2016, 44 Palestinian children were killed. UNRWA has drawn attention to the increasing use of force and live ammunition by the Israeli security forces.
On 30 April this year, 414 Palestinian children were in a military prison, with 48% of them held in Israel, in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Military Court Watch says that the number of Palestinian children arrested by Israeli forces has risen by 156% since September 2015. Many of these children are beaten and held in unsafe and abusive conditions, without access to parents or lawyers. Most of them are arrested for throwing stones—an offence that under Military Order 1651 carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, or 20 years if the stone is thrown at a moving vehicle. Usually, however, they will usually be in custody for about four months. If not detained at the scene of the offence, they will have been picked up later, often during a terrifying raid on their family home by Israeli soldiers in the middle of the night. They may have been given up by a Palestinian informant, possibly under duress, to the network of local military intelligence officers. It makes little difference whether they are guilty, because they will plead guilty anyway to avoid a longer time in prison. Their guilty plea will usually have been obtained without a lawyer or adult present and often in a sleep-deprived state. When they come to court, as I saw at the Ofer military court, they will shuffle in with their hands tied and their feet manacled.
Nominally, this is a separate juvenile court, but the military judge and prosecutor court process is exactly the same for juveniles as adults. Witnesses and evidence are conspicuous by their absence: who needs them in a system in which everyone pleads guilty? Once he has made sure that he has the right person, the judge quickly pronounces verdict and sentence—it all takes about 15 to 20 minutes.
Even when the young person gets out of custody, he may be returning home to more trouble if he is living in one of the 600 Palestinian structures demolished in the first four months of 2016. These demolitions made 800 Palestinians homeless, half of them children. We could hear the explosions for demolitions while we were there. Sometimes, demolished structures were funded by international aid, including British taxpayers. There are now more than 11,000 approved demolition orders which the Israeli military can choose to implement whenever they like with virtually no notice. Palestinian children often take their favourite toy to school in case their home is gone on their return.
Of course, from the perspective of the Israeli Government, this nearly 50 year-old military occupation and system has been very effective in controlling 2.7 million Palestinians who live on the West Bank while protecting the 400,000 Israelis who have settled there illegally since 1967. This figure excludes 200,000 illegal settlers in east Jerusalem. There are now 125 of these settlements —in reality, towns—sanctioned by the Israeli Government, and more than 100 so-called outposts which in turn will expand into settlements. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, this settler population is expanding at more than three times the rate of the Israeli population as a whole. I experienced these settlements in April, often cheek by jowl with long-established Palestinian settlements, whose movement, water and agriculture are often disrupted. Palestinian children and young people watch their land being removed from them before their eyes, with their older generations and the Palestinian Government powerless to do anything about it because this is a military occupation focused on protecting settlers.
I close with a quotation about the psychological state of Palestine’s children from an expert psychiatric report commissioned by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel from Dr Graciela Carmon. She writes:
“These interrogation methods, when applied to children and adolescents, are equivalent to torture … The social and mental consequences of the use of the aforementioned methods of detention and interrogation by the investigating and/or detaining authority for the life of the child or adolescent are difficult to remedy and damaging. They can cause serious mental suffering to a child or adolescent and cause psychological and psychiatric problem, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder … psychosomatic diseases, fits of anger, difficulties in learning and concentration, memory problems, fears and anxieties, sleep disorders, eating disorders, regressive symptoms, and bedwetting. Such outcomes are devastating to the normative development of the child or adolescent, especially when he or she is innocent. These detention and interrogation methods ultimately create a system that breaks down, exhausts and permeates the personality of the child or adolescent and robs him or her of hope”.
I conclude by putting a question to the Minister for this new Government about their approach to the Israeli Government over this situation. Will they keep trundling along the path of recent years, whereby the FCO commission’s reports from experts ably led by people such as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, with FCO Ministers raising concerns with the Israeli Government—occasionally securing small procedural improvements, I acknowledge, but they are rarely implemented by the Israeli security forces on the ground? Or are they, as part of improving the UK’s international reputation for respecting the rule of law, going to start challenging the Israeli Government over their daily breaches of international law, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention? Which course they choose has implications not only for Palestine’s children but also for our own credibility with other transgressors of international law, such as Russia in Crimea and China in the South China Sea.
When children are seriously damaged and have no sense of hope, as Palestine’s children increasingly are, they become adults with nothing to lose, who can all too easily turn to a path of violence against their oppressors and those who collude with them. The Government need to think very carefully about which path they choose on this issue.
The Minister may also wish to clarify at some stage why the House of Lords Library briefing for this debate was withdrawn after being put up on its website for about 24 hours. I beg to move.”