Children’s Rights Abuses In The West Bank And Gaza

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Editor’s note: Jerusalem Institute for Justice prepared an alternative report for the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, called Sons of Violence – Violations of Children’s Rights under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Read the executive summary below:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (UDHR) main principle is that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and security of person, including the right to education, freedom from torture or cruel treatment and punishment, freedom to peacefully assemble, and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.

With the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state to the United Nations (UN) in April 2014, the Palestinian Authority (PA) agreed to comply with 13 international conventions of human rights and humanitarian law. As such, the PA is obligated to comply with international human rights law (IHL) and implement all provisions laid out in the conventions. Complying with IHL requires Palestinian leadership (the PA and Hamas) to be bound by international laws protecting children’s rights.

In 1991, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), under Chairman Yasser Arafat, signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC); however, as the PLO was not a state, the PLO was unable to formally ratify the convention, thereby failing to have full legal impact in the territories. Despite this, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) issued a report into the implementation of the CRC in the territories, which was received and reviewed by the CRC. This report examines the current violations of children’s rights in the West Bank and Gaza by the Palestinian government, and suggests that the PA and Hamas have failed to implement, nor do they intend to fulfill, their international promises. All information in this report was obtained through news sources, PA government materials, and interviews with individuals living and working in Gaza and the West Bank. All names have been withheld.

This report looks at Article 29 of Palestinian Basic Law, and how it applies to IHL and the CRC. It states that children have the right to:

  • Comprehensive protection and welfare.
  • Not to be exploited for any purpose … and not to be permitted to perform work that might damage their safety health or education.
  • Protection from harmful and cruel treatment.
  • Not to be subjected to beating or cruel treatment by their relatives.
  • To be segregated… from adults, and be treated in a manner that is appropriate to their age and aims at their rehabilitation.

Palestinian Child Law No. 7 (2004) defines a child to be any human being under the age of 18, “including the unborn.” Palestinian law agrees with the CRC in the belief that young people under 18 years of age are considered more vulnerable and therefore require certain protections under the law.

With 47.5% (2014) of the Palestinian population under 18 years of age, the implementation of proper children’s rights protections is crucial. However, due to its foundations in traditional Sharia Law, Palestinian civil law lacks many of the democratic, secular, and egalitarian principles that are espoused by IHL and the CRC.

General Principles

The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) monitored multiple cases of rights violations against children in 2015, reporting that large numbers of detainees in Palestinian jails were children between 16 and 17. Detainees were subjected to different forms of torture, including beating, kicking, punching, flogging, cold water dousing, and being forced to strip.

For young girls and women, honor killings are carried out when these girls are believed to have transgressed cultural norms (this includes issues of modesty, career choice, marriage, and relationships). Honor Killings, usually carried out by members of the girl’s family, do so in an attempt to restore the family’s reputation. Individuals in both the West Bank and Gaza confirm reports on the continuation of this practice, with one JIJ source explaining the prevalence of honor killings in Hebron (West Bank) where he heard of at least ten cases in 2014. Unfortunately, reliable data on the total number of child victims of honor killings is unavailable. This is, in part, due to the Palestinian government considering 15-year-old girls (West Bank) and 17-year-old girls (Gaza) as eligible for marriage, and therefore not victims. In the territories, Sharia Law dictates that those who reach puberty are considered adults and are thereby subject to the full force of the law. This directly contradicts the international definition of the ‘child’ as stated in the CRC, and as reiterated by Palestinian Basic Law.

Civil Rights and Freedoms

In the West Bank, many children are denied the right to legal existence. Under Palestinian law, extramarital sex is illegal, therefore women who give birth out of wedlock are punished. Honor killings play a role here, where families beat or kill girls or women who find themselves pregnant outside of marriage. Women are thus forced to give birth in secret in an effort to ensure their safety, abandoning their babies. One institution in the West Bank reports that on average 50 to 80 undocumented babies are born each year. The consequences: these children are denied a family name or an ID card, preventing them from establishing an identity in society.

An additional issue relates to the abandoned child’s religious identity. Regardless of where the child is found (Christian or Muslim communities), the child is automatically assumed to be Muslim. The implications of this are that, under Islamic Law, adoption is forbidden, therefore depriving ‘Muslim’ children the option of official adoption. These roadblocks to establishing legal identity and existence are in violation of the CRC; the PA fails to assist in the registration of these abandoned children, thus reneging on its obligations to protect the most basic of children’s rights.

Regarding access to information, the PA and Hamas fail to protect children with regards to information sharing and education. Instead, Palestinian leadership engages in indoctrination and incitement to violence through social networks, national TV children’s programs, basic education curriculums, and children’s magazines. Children in the territories are encouraged to become martyrs, to think of Jews as “barbaric monkeys,” and to spill blood in the name of the Koran. In addition, propaganda campaigns directed by both Fatah and Hamas promote and encourage child soldiers, with images depicting children dressed as soldiers, handling weapons, and promoting death and martyrdom. In many of these programs, the children are no older than 6 or 7 years of age, directly violating the CRC’s objectives of seeking to ensure safe and secure access to information that promotes the child’s “social, spiritual, and moral well-being, and physical and mental health.”

Family Environment and Alternative Care

According to the Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA) in the West Bank and Gaza, the Ministry is entrusted with the care and protection of disadvantaged children, who include children with unknown parentage, those in social care institutions, and children with divorced or separated parents. MoSA’s guidelines for child care include the supervision of governmental and non-governmental children’s institutions, and the regulation of procedures for admission into institutional care. Yet, lack of resources leads to a lack of supervision and regulation.

Regarding foster care, with adoption being illegal under Islamic Law, MoSA is developing a ‘religiously acceptable’ foster care process called kafalah. Another roadblock to the system — foster care is only available for Muslim families in the West Bank, thus excluding non-Muslims from getting the help they need. Yet, despite legal requirements for foster care and foster families being outlined by MoSA, it has been found that there are no identifiable mechanisms in place to enforce routine and review of placement, and to ensure the wellbeing of the child.

Regarding issues of abuse and neglect, MoSA implements the National Child Care and Protection Protocol (2007) and defines conditions that place children at risk. These include violence, abuse, neglect, exploitation, incest, and assault — all of which are grounds for removal of a child from the family setting. However, according to Article 62 of the Jordanian Legal Code 1960, corporal punishment is deemed lawful “in the home,” with forms of discipline being permitted according to “general custom.” While Article 42 of Palestinian Child Law (2004) and Article 29 of the Amended Basic Law (2003) both state that children are to be protected from violence and abuse, these provisions fail to protect children in practice. A survey conducted by PCBS found that 9 in 10 children in the West Bank and Gaza reported being hit, beaten, or abused, with primary offenders identified as family members. Yet it is also significant to note that reporting abuse is an obstacle in and of itself: one JIJ source purports that, while it is required by law to report abuse when suspected, most refrain from involving police out of fear of the abuser exacting revenge on the child.

Regarding rape and sexual abuse against women and girls, reporting abuse is not easy and poses a threat to the women’s safety. Cultural taboos surrounding sex in Palestinian society make it difficult to acquire real statistics of rapes and sexual assaults, but it is believed that sexual violence within the family is not infrequent. According to one JIJ source, a girl 16 and under cannot seek help without a parent present, and there is no regard for confidentiality of a minor. Should the police take action, the victim faces a greater threat regarding her damaged reputation in her community, while the law commits the abuser only to a maximum of one day’s imprisonment.

Basic Health and Welfare

In its agreement to comply with the international conventions on human rights, the PA also acceded to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006), which holds that those persons with disabilities “must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Yet, it has been found that disabled children suffer from discrimination and degrading treatment in both the West Bank and Gaza. For example, one 2011 PCBS report found that 37.6% of children with disabilities 15 and up had never been enrolled in an educational institution, with 53.1% being reported as illiterate. According to a 2013 UNICEF report on the ‘state of the world’s children’, disabled children are regarded as “pitiable” and not as equal individuals. This is due largely to a “dominant perspective” that puts able-bodied individuals at a superior status than disabled individuals. This perspective is reflected in both national policy, regulations, and language used.

Education, Leisure and Cultural Activities

Article 37 of Palestinian Child Law stipulates that every child has the right to be educated until the age of 18, and that the government should take all necessary measures to prevent school drop-outs. While the PA has attempted to provide a secure educational environment for children in the territories, they struggle to provide children with safe environments conducive to learning. Official Palestinian sources attribute high dropout rates to the low quality and weak promotion of education throughout the West Bank and Gaza, as well as to various cultural and societal factors that affect school enrollment.

Following the issue of violence against children, it has been found that the schooling system in the territories primarily uses violence to discipline students. A 2010 UNICEF report found that over 50% of students in West Bank schools were subjected to both physical and verbal abuse. The same study found that over 50% of teachers believed physical beatings were an “acceptable means of punishing students.” This phenomenon can be explained by the lack of educator skills and qualifications. PCBS reported in 2011 that only 29.3% of Palestinian teachers had Ministry of Education level qualifications. Also contributing to this issue is the fact that, as shared by professionals in the field, educators are simply “burned out.”

The issue of overcrowding also contributes to high dropout rates and, possibly, rates of abuse. One source explains how each of his classes in Gaza had nearly 50 students. Official Palestinian sources corroborate this claim, explaining how student numbers are increasing while classroom numbers are lacking, unable to absorb the many incoming students. Another source explains how teachers (according to his experience in Gaza) do not know how to “deal” with students in both government and UNRWA schools — teachers will “banish you…hurt you, they talk to you like you’re an animal.”

One factor that contributes to sexual harassment of girls is the government enforced gender-segregation of schools. All schools in Gaza are now gender-segregated at 9 years of age. Most government schools in the West Bank also enforce gender-segregation, with the exception of some private or UNRWA schools that remain coeducational. This separation has led to boys harassing female students, which some officials attribute to the lack of exposure to one another in safe, neutral environments.

A review of Palestinian school textbooks and curricula reveals a number of human rights violations. Recurring topics include the rejection of the State of Israel and denial of its right to exist, the demonization and incitement of violence against Jews, and a downplay of peace advocacy in favor of incitement. The hate speech and incitement to violence that educators run their classrooms with stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the CRC and IHL.

Special Protection Measures

Article 93 of Palestinian Labor Law bans the employment of children under the age of 15 in the West Bank and Gaza, with children between the ages of 15 and 17 being permitted to work under certain controlled conditions. However, these laws are not carried out in practice, for child labor is still prevalent in the territories. For example, while the law includes children who work with relatives, many under age children are found to be working on family farms due to agriculture being a central aspect of Palestinian life. One 2010 report on Palestinian households shows that 4.1% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 worked for their families; 2.9% of this age group worked outside their household. To connect to the issue of school dropout rates, child employment is deemed a significant factor for students failing to attend school.

Recommendations

Regarding civil rights and freedoms, Palestinian leadership should ensure official registration and citizenship at birth and should step up their efforts in supporting institutions working with abandoned children. Furthermore, there should be an immediate cease to all promotion of martyrdom and incitement of violence through media and the education system. Finally, a just and effective punishment should be enforced on those who perpetrate honor killings.

Regarding family environment and alternative care, adoption practices and processes should be secularized, and religious freedom among children should be put into practice. MoSA should enforce a more efficient follow up care system for children in the foster system and ensure that the child’s rights are both protected and respected. Children should be protected from cruel and degrading punishment at home, in the workplace (if they are working), and at school through the development of protective legislation and installing penalties for use of corporal punishment. Moreover, the age of legal marriage should be raised to 18 so as to protect young girls and enable them to continue their studies in a healthy environment.

Regarding basic health and welfare, the rights of disabled children should be upheld and protected through developing educational programs and raising awareness on the subject of disability.

Regarding education, more classes should be opened to accommodate the increasing number of students and address the issue of overcrowding. Teachers should receive specialized training with information on education and discipline from a human rights perspective, in addition to having a selection criteria enforced for hiring education staff. All textbooks and curricula should be revised to remove message of incitement against Israel and the Jews. Finally, formal programming to foster gender equality should be implemented throughout all schools in the territories.

Regarding special protection measures, Palestinian leadership should establish a system that allows school personnel to report cases of children dropping out of school in favor of employment in an effort to promote learning and personal development of Palestinian children.

This article originally appeared on Jerusalem Institute of Justice, July 26, 2016, and reposted with permission.