In December 2018, 17-year-old Palestinian teen, Ayham Sabah, was sentenced by an Israeli military court to 35 years in prison for his alleged role in a stabbing attack targeting an Israeli soldier in an illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Sabah was only 14 years old when the alleged attack took place.
Another alleged attacker, Omar al-Rimawi, also 14, was reportedly shot by undercover Israeli forces in the Shufat refugee camp, in occupied East Jerusalem. He later succumbed to his wounds.
Although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a “child” as “every human being below the age of eighteen years”, Israel chooses not to abide by that definition. In Israel, there are two kinds of children: Israeli children who are 18 years old or younger, and Palestinians children, 16 years and younger.
In Sabah’s case, he was detained for years to ensure that he was tried as an “adult” per Israel’s skewed legal standards.
According to research conducted by the Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, by the end of August 2019, 185 Palestinian children, including two younger than 14 years old were held in various Israeli prisons as “security detainees and prisoners.”
Thousands of Palestinian children are constantly being rotated through the Israeli prison system, often accused of “security” offenses, which include taking part in anti-Israeli occupation protests and rallies in the West Bank. The Palestinian Prisoner’s Association estimates that at least 6,000 Palestinian children have been detained in Israeli prisons since 2015.
In a statement issued last April, the Association, revealed that “98 percent of the children held had been subjected to psychological and/or physical abuse while in Israeli custody” and that many of them were detained “after first being shot and wounded by Israeli troops.”
While Gazan children are the ones most likely to lose their lives or get shot by the Israeli army, the children of occupied East Jerusalem are “the most targeted” by Israeli troops in terms of detention or prolonged imprisonment.
In 2016, the US and Israeli governments signed a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding, whereby, the US “pledges” to grant Israel $38 billion in military aid. The previous agreement, which concluded in 2018, gave Israel over $3 billion per year. Most of the money went to finance Israeli wars and security for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. A large portion of that money was, and still is, allocated to subsidize the Israeli prison system and military courts located in occupied Palestine - the kind that regularly detain and torture Palestinian children.
Aside from the US government, which has blindly supported Israel’s ongoing violations of international law, many governments and rights groups around the world have constantly highlighted Israel’s criminally reprehensible treatment of Palestinian children.
In a written submission by Human Rights Watch to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on the State of Palestine last March, the group reported that “Palestinian children aged between 12 and 17 years from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, continue to be detained and arrested by Israeli forces.”
“Israeli security forces routinely interrogate children without a guardian or lawyer present, use unnecessary force against children during arrest, which often takes place in the middle of the night, and physically abuse them in custody,” HRW reported.
While the US government, lawmakers and media often turn a blind eye to such violations, Congresswoman Betty McCollum does not. The representative for Minnesota’s 4th congressional district has taken a stand against the prevailing norm in American politics, arguing that Israel must respect the rights of Palestinian children, and that the US government should not be funding Israel’s violations of human rights.
On April 30, McCollum introduced House resolution H.R. 2407 - “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act”.
“I am introducing legislation to protect children from abuse, violence, psychological trauma, and torture,” she said in her statement to the Congress.
“The legislation I am introducing is expressly intended to end U.S. support and funding for Israel’s systematic military detention, interrogation, abuse, torture, and prosecution of Palestinian children.”
By introducing H.R. 2407, McCollum has broken several major taboos in the US government. She unapologetically characterizes Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights with all the correct terms - “torture”, “abuse”, and so on... Moreover, she calls for conditioning US military support for Israel on the latter’s respect for human rights.
As of November 17, H.R. 2407 has acquired 22 co-sponsors, with Rep. Mark DeSaulnier being the last Congress member to join the list.
This is not the first time that McCollum has taken such brave initiatives. In November 2017, she introduced the “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act” (H.R. 4391). Then, she pushed the bill with the same vigor and moral clarity as today’s campaign.
The 2017 bill was not enacted in the previous Congress. McCollum is hoping to change that this time around, and there are good reasons to believe that H.R. 2407 could succeed.
One public opinion poll after another points to a shift in US perception of Israel, especially among Democrats and even US Jewish voters.
Eager to exploit the political chasm, US President Donald Trump accused Jewish Democrats who don’t support Israel of being “disloyal”.
“The Democrats have gone very far away from Israel,” Trump said last August. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel."
In fact, it seems that an increasing number of American voters are now linking their perception of Israel to their perception of their own polarizing President and his relationship with the equally polarizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The above reality is now widening the margins of criticism of Israel, whether in the US Congress, media, or other facets of American life which have historically stood on the side of Israel despite the latter’s dismal human rights record.
While one hopes that McCollum’s congressional bill pays dividends in the service of human rights in Palestine and Israel, one hopes equally that the current shift in American political perceptions continues unhindered.