How The NY Times Whitewashes the Scandal of Israel’s Child Prisoners

Dima al Wawi, 12, was released from an Israeli prison last week, and according to The New York Times, her experience there was not all that bad. She played shuffle ball and went to classes, and when she came home after more than two months, she remained her spunky self.

This is the tenor of a piece by Diaa Hadid that ran on page one recently under the headline, “As Attacks Surge, Boys and Girls Fill Israeli Jails.” The tone here is in stark contrast to other accounts. The Daily Mail, for instance, ran the story with this title: “Haunted face of a 12-year-old girl broken by jail.”

A YouTube video of Dima’s reunion with her family also reveals a stony-faced child with dull eyes, and her mother speaks of her dismay at seeing her like that: “It seems like she is living in another world, in shock, not aware of what is happening.” She adds, “It feels like our suffering has increased.”

But Hadid gives us nothing like this. Her piece opens with a description of a benign Israeli prison experience and ends with Dima talking back to her mother like a normal, spirited pre-teen. Only far into the story do readers learn that Dima was not allowed to have either her parents or a lawyer present when she was interrogated and that she was shackled when she appeared in court.

Also missing from Hadid’s article is a full account of Israel’s scandalous treatment of Palestinian children and its apartheid court system. She describes these euphemistically as “a debate over how Israel’s military justice system, which prosecutes Palestinians from the West Bank, differs from the courts that cover Israeli citizens…and especially how it handles very young offenders.”

In fact, this is more than a debate. It is an atrocity that monitoring organizations have been documenting and publicizing for years: Israel routinely abuses Palestinian children in custody, deprives them of access to their parents and lawyers and coerces them into confessions. (See list of sources below.)

In addition, Israel is the only country in the world that systematically tries children (but only Palestinian children) in military courts, and it has two distinct systems for Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. The former are tried in civil court while Palestinians face military trials.

In the Times story, however, this scandalous state of affairs becomes little more than a bureaucratic matter, a problem that calls for bringing two separate justice systems “more in line with one another.”

Hadid writes that Israel is trying to correct this deficiency, and she lists some policy changes made since a 2013 UNICEF report outlined abuses, but she fails to clarify either the extent of these abuses or the consistent and widespread condemnations of Israeli practices.

It is not only UNICEF that has raised alarm over the scandal: Human Rights Watch, Defence for Children International, the Israeli monitoring group B’Tselem, Amnesty International, Military Court Watch, several members of the U.S. Congress, the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child, Breaking the Silence (a group of former Israeli soldiers) and the U.S. State Department have done the same over several years.

It should also be noted that Israel, even as it claims it is correcting the problems, recently denied a delegation from the UK the right to witness child detainees in court. Additionally,  the DCI report, cited in Hadid’s article, states, “Despite repeated calls to end night arrests and ill treatment and torture of Palestinian children, Israel has persistently failed to implement practical changes to stop violence against child detainees.”

Missing from the Times story is a major abuse cited in the above quote: the arrest of young Palestinians during night raids. Israeli soldiers routinely invade Palestinian homes after midnight—terrorizing families and neighborhoods in the process—and haul away teenagers and children accused of throwing stones or other offenses.

After a drumbeat of criticism from rights groups, the military announced that it would try a pilot program to cut down on night raids by delivering summonses to suspects, demanding that they turn themselves to the authorities.

But as the online magazine 972 reported, little has changed. The program has affected only 5 percent of these arrests, the documents are often handwritten in Hebrew without translation and soldiers are delivering the summonses during night raids.

DCI noted in its report that Israel has an obvious interest in continuing the raids: “Arresting children from their homes in the middle of the night, ill-treating them during arrest and interrogation, and prosecuting them in military courts that lack basic fair trial guarantees, works to stifle dissent and control an occupied population.”

Hadid’s story makes no mention of the night raids nor of the possible Israeli strategic interest mentioned by DCI. We get glimpses of the hardships Dima’s family has faced, but overall the effect is to minimize the trauma Israel inflicts on Palestinian children.

As the Times tells it, the treatment of these young detainees is simply “different” from that of young Israelis who run afoul of the law. It’s a matter of making a few adjustments, not a matter of ingrained racism and a brutal occupation.

Online readers can get a more complete story by clicking on the links to the DCI and UNICEF reports, but in the Times itself only fragments of the truth are allowed into print. The result is to obscure the cruel reality of routine abuse in the cells and interrogation rooms of Israel’s crowded prisons.

Barbara Erickson

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NY Times Whitewashes Israel’s Racist Justice System

Three Israeli civilians are standing trial for killing a Palestinian teenager in a brutal murder last summer, and The New York Times is on hand to report the details. It is all meant to carry a clear message to readers: that democracy is at work in Israel and the law is on hand to deal out justice.

So we read that Israeli prosecutors are pressing defendants to admit their intent to kill, that the families of defendants and the victim are on hand and that the “cramped courtroom” in Jerusalem is crowded with judges, lawyers and observers.

But for all its detail, this story by Isabel Kershner is missing some crucial context: the fact that Israel runs a blatantly racist system of justice, with strikingly different treatment for Israelis and Palestinians. The present trial—for the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was doused with gasoline, beaten and burned in a wooded area a year ago—is far from typical.

In reality, Israeli civilians and security forces rarely stand trial for attacks on Palestinians. A study by the Israeli human rights monitoring organization, Yesh Din, released this May, shows that Palestinian complaints against Israeli civilians lead to indictments only 7.4 percent of the time, and only a third of these (or 2.5 percent of the complaints) result in even partial convictions.

Security forces are also shielded from prosecution. Yesh Din notes that criminal investigations against soldiers are rare and even when they do take place, they are closed without indictments 94 percent of the time. And, Yesh Din states, “In the rare cases that indictments are served, conviction leads to very light sentencing.”

In the Times story Kershner quotes the parents of the victim, who are skeptical of the Israeli justice system. “It is all an act,” the boy’s father says. “They burned Muhammad once. Every day we are burned anew.”

Readers are likely to dismiss his misgivings as rhetoric and prompted by anger and grief. In fact, Palestinians have reason for doubting that they can find justice in Israeli courts.

West Bank settlers, for instance, are tried in civilian courts, while their Palestinian neighbors—even the children—face trial in military courts, which are notorious for their lack of due process and impossibly high conviction rates. As UNICEF noted in an extensive report on the abuse of Palestinian children in Israeli custody: “In no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights.”

Palestinians tried in Israeli military courts are convicted 99.74 percent of the time, according to Israeli Defense Force data. Knowing this, most Palestinians and their lawyers opt for plea bargains and give up even the faintest hope of receiving a fair trial.

None of this appears in Kershner’s story, but the context of Israeli justice as it applies to Palestinians is crucial to understanding what is really happening here. The fact is, Israeli officials know the world is watching this trial, just as it watched events unfold after Abu Khdeir was abducted and killed. We can expect at least the appearance of justice to be on display.

The Times, which has ignored the hundreds of cases that show Israel in a far different light, is ready here to present Israeli prosecutors pressing for justice. Readers will not suspect that the newspaper has failed to inform them of other, less savory, outcomes to Israeli crimes against Palestinians.

We can name a few:

  • This past April, two years after 16-year-old Samir Awad of the West Bank village of Budrus was killed with three bullets to his back and head, the State Attorney’s Office opted to charge his accused assailant with the minor offense of a “reckless and negligent act using a firearm.” B’Tselem, the Israeli rights organization, called this decision “a new low in Israeli authorities’ disregard for the lives of Palestinians.”
  • In January Israel closed an investigation into the killing of Musad Badwan Ashak Dan’a, 17, in Hebron, four years after the event, saying there was no evidence available. In fact, the army investigating unit had plentiful evidence, including medical documents and eyewitness accounts.
  • Israel forces shot and killed Yusef a Shawamreh, 14, in March last year as he collected herbs near the Separation Barrier in the West Bank. Three months later, investigators closed the case, saying there was no breach of military rules involved. Videos of the incident show that the boy and his companions posed no possible threat to the soldiers or Israeli security.

All of these (and dozens of others) were newsworthy items, fit to print in the Times, but the newspaper has preferred to look away. Only Samir Awad’s name appeared briefly in an online Reuters story that never made it into print; the others received no mention.

Now, however, Israel knows that the world is aware of the Abu Khdeir case, and a trial is in progress. It is likely that the prosecutors and judges will remain on their best behavior throughout the proceedings.

The Times, as well, is ready to present a narrative of Israeli justice at work. We can expect more reports from the Jerusalem courtroom, but readers are unlikely to learn that the trial is a rare event, an aberration in a system of flagrant inequality.

Barbara Erickson

Israeli Bias Trumps the News in the NY Times

It’s been a rough two weeks in the West Bank, ever since three Israeli teenagers went missing near Hebron: the aggressive search operation has led to scores of injuries, hundreds of raids on homes and offices, confiscated property and the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians.

In a dozen stories published since June 12, when the settler boys were last seen, The New York Times has informed us of the massive campaign and the reactions of Israelis and Palestinians to the operation dubbed Brother’s Keeper. Yet, in all this reportage, the newspaper has omitted or glossed over some key developments, including the arrests of of Palestinian children, who can also be described as kidnap victims, albeit at the hands of security forces.

In its operation, ostensibly aimed at finding the three Israeli teens, the army has arrested dozens of Palestinian children, bringing the total to 250 held in military custody. Times readers have not been told about this, however, nor have they heard that Israel’s treatment of child prisoners has come under attack by numerous groups in recent years. (See TimesWarp, “The Times Non-Story of 2013: Abuse of Child Prisoners.”)

A UNICEF report published in 2013, found that Israel was responsible for abusive treatment of child prisoners, coerced confessions, failure to provide legal help or contact with parents and other violations of the rights of children. It stated, “In no other country are children systematically tried by military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing for the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights.” In spite of this report and others, Israel has continued to arrest Palestinian children, targeting even more of them during the recent crackdown.

Reports also inform us that Israel is aiming to increase yet another alarming statistic: officials say they will double the number of Palestinians held without charge or trial (administrative detainees), from 200 to 400. Rights groups have frequently condemned this practice, and a recent letter by a consortium of groups states (with a hint of sarcasm), “In terms of administrative detainees, it is hard not to question if there is really an immediate, essential military need that entailed the swift detention without trial of dozens of people.”

Among those arrested during the sweep of the last two weeks are 52 former prisoners released in an exchange deal for the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, plus another former detainee, Samer Issawi, who won his freedom from administrative detention after a grueling partial fast of 266 days. During a brief court appearance, his lawyer said, Issawi was barely able to hold up his head in court, a sign of severe sleep deprivation.

Which brings us to another unreported item concerning Brother’s Keeper, the loosening of laws restricting torture. Israeli media have reported that less than a week after the teens went missing, the government issued an order classifying prisoners detained in the current operation as “ticking bombs.” Under Israeli law, this designation allows the use of interrogation techniques that amount to torture.

Samer Issawi’s behavior in court is a sign that this government order is in effect. The order also means that every Palestinian rounded up in the sweep comes under this designation of “ticking bomb:” university professors, students, shopkeepers, legislators, farmers and children as well as adults.

The Times last reported that “more than 370” Palestinians have been arrested since the operation began. The number appears to be much higher, however. Last week the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society reported 566 in detention. The group also provided the numbers city by city, ranging from 201 in Hebron (near the site the teens were last seen) and 90 in Nablus (far from the alleged crime) to one in Jericho.

Moreover, the Times has failed to report the total number of Palestinian dead as a result of the search operation. As of June 27 it stood at seven, including two elderly West Bank residents who died of heart failure during raids on their communities. The victims have been unarmed civilians.

The Times has also glossed over the fact that Israeli, Palestinian and international organizations, such as Amnesty International have condemned the search campaign, failing to name these groups or give more than passing mention to their statements. Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren takes notice of their protests but vaguely refers to them as a “chorus of human rights groups” and places their charge of collective punishment in quotes.

A statement by several of the organizations, however, notes that Israel’s crackdown breaches international law and the army’s measures “do not seem to serve a military need that can justify the damage they have caused.” It condemns “stringent restrictions” imposed on Palestinians already in detention as well as Israel’s “sweeping and arbitrary travel restrictions,” and it calls the operation “a blatant violation of the prohibition against collective punishment.” Times readers, unfortunately, have heard none of this.

We have a right to know these aspects of Brother’s Keeper. The number of dead, the abuse of children and all prisoners, the practice of administrative detention and the heartbreaking story of Samer Issawi and his courageous battle for freedom are newsworthy items fit to print. The Times, however, has omitted these details from its coverage, showing once again that its dedication to preserving the reputation of Israel trumps its responsibility to readers.

Barbara Erickson