The Israeli Knesset has advanced a controversial bill that would allow children as young as 12 to be given prison sentences for "nationalistic-motivated" offenses. The proposed law, which passed a preliminary vote in Israel's parliament on Wednesday, is drawing criticism from children's rights advocates, who say it violates those rights.
"This law contradicts international standards when it comes to juvenile justice," Brad Parker, with Defense for Children International, said. "International law makes it clear that for children under 18 the emphasis should be on reintegration, not on criminalization."
The bill was introduced by Knesset member Anat Berko from the ruling right-wing Likud party, who said it was meant to beef up Israel's response to violence perpetrated by Palestinian youth. "Palestinians recruit minors while knowing that Israeli law does not have a real response," she said.
Over the past few months, several Palestinian children have been accused of stabbing Israelis, in a wave of violence that's included the torching of Palestinian homes in the West Bank, and an uptick in attacks within Israel itself.
Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is a strong supporter of the new proposed law, and says it's a way to signal that "youths who engage in terror will not be shown mercy. "
"We have been witness to many cases where serious crimes, including murder, attempted murder, and manslaughter were carried out by minors under 14," Shaked said. "This must end." For children aged 12 and 13, the sentences would be deferred until they child turns 14.
Palestinian human rights advocates say the law is too harsh. "This proposed bill will make Israel one of the few countries in the world that basically enables sentencing and imprisonment of minors as young as 12," said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer with with the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. "What's more, it is clear that such a bill is racially motivated, and intended to target Palestinians minors."
Zaher is especially concerned that imprisoning 12-year olds would deny them the opportunity to rehabilitate, basically condemning preteens to a life behind bars. "Children should be provided another chance, and opportunity to change," she said. "That should be the guiding principle of juvenile justice."
Under current Israeli law, children under 14 cannot be given prison sentences, and are instead housed within specific juvenile detention facilities that are less punitive and more focused on reintegrating children back into society. Children living in the occupied West Bank, however, are not afforded those rights, and are regularly imprisoned already— at least 320 Palestinian children are already behind bars, according to a Palestinian NGO, Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association. Israel arrested 177 children as part of a crackdown on demonstrations and alleged terror attacks in October.
Pressure to take a more punitive posture towards children has been building inside of Israel, as a number of Palestinian youth have been arrested for stabbing Israelis in recent months. In October, Israeli police apprehended Ahmed Manasrah, a 13-year-old Palestinian who tried to stab an Israeli boy. A video of Manasrah's interrogation by Israeli police — where he can be seen crying as a policeman yells at him to "shut up"— went viral in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Justice Minister Shaked has explicitly linked the new proposed law to Manasrah's case, and said it was necessary to make sure children like him were adequately punished.
Parker, with Defense for Children International, countered that the appearance of an uptick in crimes committed by youth doesn't absolve Israel of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty Israeli signed in 1991. He accused Israel of using the current tensions to push through a series of laws that don't pass muster under international human rights norms. "As violence has escalated in the past few months, we see policies and practices that contravene international law being codified by the Israeli government," he said.
Over the past few months, Israel has enacted harsher penalties for Palestinians caught throwing stones, and moved to deny pensions to the parents of children arrested in the ongoing demonstrations against Israeli occupation. Zaher, the human rights lawyer, called these new provisions a "chain of laws intended to single out and punish Palestinians." That view was echoed by Palestinian members of parliament who tried to block the bill in the Knesset.
"[They] aren't asking to put other young offenders in prison, but when a Palestinian youngster throws a stone you want to put him in prison," said Osama Sa'adi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset as the the law was being debated on the floor. "This is part of the continued incitement against the Palestinian public."
Anat Berko, the law's sponsor, shot back that lowering the age for imprisonment was necesary to deter terrorism. "Today children are being used [in terror], and we see children in the Islamic State group cutting off people's heads, and Palestinian terrorists aged 11, children inducted at the entrances to schools," she said. "This law offers deterrence and prevention. This law will give greater security to the citizens of Israel, Jews and Arabs alike."
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that 12-year olds can be sentenced to prison terms under the new law, but they will not actually be imprisoned until they turn 14.