Defense for Children International – Palestine calls on Israeli authorities to take immediate action to release all Palestinian child detainees in Israeli prisons due to the resurgence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
This week an Israel Prison Service official at Israel’s Ofer prison located in the occupied West Bank reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. After the announcement, Palestinian detainees at Ofer prison were tested for the virus, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club. At least 29 children were detained at Ofer prison at the end of June, according to the latest data released by the Israel Prison Service (IPS).
After initially containing the virus in May, cases began to rise in June in Israel and across the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. To date, Israel recorded at least 59,475 cases with a total of 32,230 active cases, including over 1,000 new cases per day, according to Haaretz. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there have been at least 12,412 total cases, including over 500 new cases recorded on July 24, and 73 deaths, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
“Israeli authorities must release all Palestinian child detainees immediately,” said Ayed Abu Eqtaish, Accountability Program director at DCIP. “There is no way that Israeli authorities can guarantee the health and wellbeing of Palestinian children amid a resurgent coronavirus outbreak.”
At the end of June, 151 Palestinian children were detained in Israeli prisons and detention centers, an increase of six percent from May, according to data released by the IPS. 48 percent of Palestinian child detainees were held in pretrial detention, according to IPS data. Israeli authorities held 79 percent of Palestinian child detainees at prisons and detention centers inside Israel, which amounts to unlawful transfer in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Palestinian children imprisoned by Israeli authorities live in close proximity to each other, often in compromised sanitary conditions, with limited access to resources to maintain minimum hygiene routines, according to documentation collected by DCIP. COVID-19’s impact is exacerbated by these living conditions making Palestinian children in Israeli prisons and detention centers increasingly vulnerable.
On March 19, Defense for Children International – Palestine called on Israeli authorities to immediately release all Palestinian child detainees in Israeli prisons due to the rapid global spread of COVID-19.
In May, three UN officials also called on Israeli authorities to release all child detainees and to end arrests during the pandemic, declaring in a joint press statement, “[t]he best way to uphold the rights of detained children amidst a dangerous pandemic, in any country, is to release them from detention and to put a moratorium on new admissions into detention facilities. We call on the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to do so immediately.”
During the original outbreak earlier in the year, Israeli authorities prohibited attorneys from visiting prisons and detention centers for in-person meetings with children and Israeli military courts utilized a video link between the courtroom and prisons for court hearings. While attorneys are currently able to conduct prison visits and meet with their clients, the resurgent coronavirus outbreak will likely soon end access for lawyers representing Palestinian child detainees.
Palestinian children in Israeli prisons and detention centers have no right to regular phone calls. However, following a recent petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice Israeli authorities announced during an April 2 hearing that the IPS issued a temporary order allowing Palestinian child detainees to talk with their families by phone for 10 minutes once every two weeks for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, according to the Israeli human rights organization HaMoked.
Despite the order and in the weeks since children in Megiddo prison have only been able to call their families once on April 8, and children in Ofer prison were never allowed to use the telephone, according to HaMoked. In May, HaMoked appealed to the High Court of Justice demanding that Palestinian child detainees be allowed to immediately contact their parents. The court is due to issue an opinion on July 26. At the end of June, 89 children were detained in Israel’s Ofer and Megiddo prisons, according to IPS data.
Globally, the World Health Organization, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN human rights experts have all issued guidelines and statements highlighting the need to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in detention settings.
Israel ratified the CRC in 1991, obligating itself to implement the full range of rights and protections included in the treaty, including that the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in all decisions affecting children, and detention must only be used as a measure of last resort for the shortest period necessary.
Israel has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world that automatically and systematically detains and prosecutes children in military courts that lack fundamental fair trial rights and protections. Israel detains and prosecutes between 500 and 700 Palestinian children in military courts each year. Nearly three out of four Palestinian children detained by Israeli forces experiences some form of physical violence, according to documentation collected by DCIP.