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Senator Rice on Palestinian children in detention in Israel

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 16 May 2017

I also seek to take note of the minister's explanation; both parts of it. The question that I am concerned with, regarding Palestinian children in military detention in Israel, was put on notice by Senator Ludlam on 17 March. With 30 days to answer that question, it means that that question is at least a month overdue. I think that is more than enough notice to respond to this very significant issue.

The issue of children in detention is one that I know this parliament has had a very strong interest in for a very long time, whether it is children in detention in Australia or under Australia's control, or other children in detention, as in the case of these Palestinian children in Israel. There are currently approximately 300 children from the age of 12 jailed in Israeli military prisons. There are 6½ thousand Palestinian prisoners overall, 550 of whom are in administrative detention, which means that they are detained indefinitely without charge or trial. Of those 550, there are approximately 13 children who are being held in administrative detention, out of that total of around 300 children. International human rights law says that child detention should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. This situation is continuing in Israel, and it is something that this Senate and this parliament have previously been interested in. It is very important that we get a timely response to concerns being expressed about it by the Senate.

There was a gathering here earlier this year that included a number of senators—myself, Senator Rhiannon, Senator Marshall—speaking out in support of the international movement to remove children from Israeli military jails. In fact, the concern about the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinian children goes back a number of years. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, when he was foreign minister in 2011, responded to media coverage that was outlining the appalling treatment of Palestinian children in detention. In that media coverage, he was reported to have instructed Australian diplomats to visit juvenile military courts.

This was the background to my first question regarding this issue in December last year, when I asked—given that former foreign minister Kevin Rudd had instructed our diplomats in Israel to attend juvenile military courts—whether this had occurred. I got an answer—quite a timely answer, in fact—that said no; in the time since that was reported in 2011—some six years ago—no Australian diplomats had attended Israeli military courts as observers. That is the context for Senator Ludlam's question—which was a follow-up to my question from December. His question was, given that it was reported that foreign minister Rudd had directed our diplomats to attend these military courts, could the government explain why this directive was not followed; was there a counter-directive; and, if so, who issued this counter-directive? That is the question that we are still awaiting an answer to. The fact that we have had no response so far is a big concern.

I visited Israel and Palestine last month. I met with people who have been very concerned about this issue of abuse of human rights of children. They told me that diplomats from other countries regularly go and observe Israeli military courts. There are diplomats from the UK, the US, the European Union, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Cyprus and the UN. But not Australia. When I was in Israel and Palestine we spoke to many people. We spoke to Israelis and Palestinians, people who were working to end the illegal military occupation of Palestine by Israel and to remove the illegal Israeli settlements. We spoke to the Israeli human rights organisation, B'Tselem. We spoke to the New Israel Fund. We spoke to the lawyer Gerard Horton, an Australian lawyer who heads up the organisation Military Court Watch, which has a particular focus on trying to get justice for these Palestinian children and trying to make sure that even what is set out in Israeli law is being followed.

When I was in Israel and Palestine, I observed the massive impact of the military occupation of Palestine: the huge military presence, the illegal Israeli settlements, the massive number—50,000—of demolitions of people's homes, the huge number of arrests of children and adults, the harassment, the control, the violence. The jailing of Palestinian children fits into that. I was particularly interested, given these questions that I had asked through the Senate, in what was actually happening in these Israeli military courts, so I took the opportunity to be the first Australian federal parliamentarian to visit one of the Israeli military courts—the Ofer military court, which is near Jerusalem—because there has been no former Australian federal politician and, as I said, not even a diplomat who has visited these courts.

I met there with the families of some of the children that had been arrested and were serving time in jail. In fact, I met with a number of mothers of children who were there, waiting for the trials of their 12- or 14-year-olds. They described to me the process that they were going through. First of all, the process was that they were there awaiting the trial of their child. They had been there since six o'clock in the morning because they were not given any particular time when their child's trial was going to be heard. Sometimes, if the weather was bad in these circumstances, they would have to wait out in the boiling sun or the pouring rain because of the inadequate facilities for the families of these children.

We talked to these mothers—there were about half-a-dozen of them—and we heard the same story from all of them. They told of their teenage sons being arrested at gunpoint at around two o'clock in the morning. That arrest occurred with 10 to 15 Israeli soldiers bashing down the doors of their home, coming into the house with their machine guns pointed at all members of the family and saying that they were going to arrest this young person. In many circumstances, they told us they were not even being told what this young person was being charged with. One of them said that all they were told at that stage was that he was a troublemaker, and she was admonished: 'Why don't you stop your son being a troublemaker?'

What then happens is that, given half the chance, these soldiers would drag off this 12- or 14-year-old in their pyjamas. Often, the parents have to struggle to even get their child properly dressed before they are dragged away in the middle of the night. They are then taken off—in often very violent ways—in the back of a truck to be taken into detention. The two charges that we heard about them then being charged with were throwing stones or incitement on Facebook. They were being charged with putting a comment on social media that was critical of the repressive regime that the Israeli government was keeping them under—of the oppressive military occupation that is recognised internationally as being unacceptable and that needs to end.

We were at the military court and attended one of these trials. In fact, we attempted to attend the trial of one of the young people and we were barred from doing so. Even though the Israeli standing orders for these trials say that, if there is support from the family, the trials of juveniles can be open and observers can be present. But the judge at that stage said no. It was his ruling that, because it was a juvenile, we were not to be there, so we were barred from attending that juvenile's trial, but we did manage to attend the trial of a 23-year-old.

The story of this 23-year-old was typical of the story of what young people in Palestine are up against. This 23-year-old had already served six months in prison, and his six months had been served because of incitement on Facebook. He had served his time and had managed to get back to studies and do his exams. He was studying accounting at a local university. And then he was arrested again, and the charge this time was that he had been talking to some friends—not even accused of leading the conversation. He was just talking with some friends who, it was alleged, had been talking about acquiring weapons. That was enough for him to be arrested again in the middle of the night and taken off to prison, and he was now there shackled in this military court.

Because we were there in the court hearing, I think it actually had a significant bearing on the trial. We heard that these Israeli military courts have a 99.7 per cent prosecution rate. That is because if you are a 14-year-old or 23-year-old who is being accused of something like incitement on Facebook, you are encouraged to plead guilty. If you plead guilty, you are likely to get a prison term of three to four months. But if you do not plead guilty and if you contest the charge, you are likely to be in detention for over six months. But we were there, and the judge, I think, knew there were observers in that courtroom, and there was what seemed to be a blue moon miracle—the 0.03 per cent of circumstances where the charges were dismissed. The family was extremely happy for our presence there as observers in that military court. That is the context of why it is so important for observers to be present, to actually let the Israeli government know that the world is listening and that their human rights abuses and complete abrogation of international law are being seen and watched. It is something that Australia can do.

Australia is seen as being one of the very strongest allies of Israel in the world. So, as one of Israel's very best friends in the world, we are in a position where we can do what other nations cannot—that is, to be honest with our best friends and to tell them when something they are doing is not appropriate and that it should cease. I think it is of critical importance that our diplomats do take up that opportunity, like the diplomats of other countries all around the world, to be there as observers. It is something very practical that Australia can do to help keep the pressure on Israel, to actually be serious about their expressed intent. They say that they are interested in a two-state solution. My visit to Israel and Palestine showed that the only way that Israel is going to be serious at the negotiating table, negotiating for a two-state solution, is going to be through international pressure. Australia has a critical role to play in that international pressure.

In responding to this issue today, I acknowledge the interest that our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, has in the issue of Israel and Palestine. Indeed, as Senator Brandis said, she met with my colleague this morning. I call upon this government to take our responsibility as international citizens seriously, so that we try to get improvements in the human rights and get at least, in some small way, improvements in the life conditions that are being faced by Palestinians in Palestine today.

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