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Israel's detention of Palestinian children is 'completely preventable', says US congresswoman

Betty McCollum is rallying support for bill that would stop US aid to Israel from being used in abuses of Palestinian minors
Israeli military arrests as many as 700 Palestinian children each year (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

The Israeli army's mistreatment of Palestinian children is "completely preventable", a United States congresswoman said, as she urged other lawmakers to support a bill that would prevent American military aid to Israel from being used to abuse Palestinian minors.

"The Israeli system of military detention of Palestinian children is immoral, and not a single dollar of US taxpayer funds should be allowed to support what's in explicit violation of international humanitarian law," said Representative Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, at an event on Wednesday at the US Capitol building in Washington.

McCollum introduced the legislation, HR 2407, in late April, and since then it has gained 22 co-sponsors - mostly progressive members of the House of Representatives.

Several Christian faith leaders on Wednesday called on other lawmakers to back the bill. Wednesday's event coincided with the United Nations' International Children's Day, which was established in 1954 "to promote international togetherness, awareness among children worldwide, and improving children's welfare".

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Reverend Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary for action and advocacy at the National Council of Churches, a Washington-based, cross-denominational Christian group, recalled a recent visit to a family in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

'The Israeli system of military detention of Palestinian children is immoral'

- Betty McCollum, US congresswoman

There, she said she observed an 11-year-old boy - who had been detained and injured by Israeli forces - doing his homework in the background of the meeting as the adults spoke about the challenges of life under Israel's occupation.

Alexander said the suffering of Palestinian children must be taken "out of the background".

"The intimidation and terrorising of children is immoral and unconscionable," she said.

"Children are being used as pawns to get their parents and those fighting for the liberation of the Palestinian people. But it's also a means for conditioning these children to believe that they are not worthy of respect, that they are less-then, that they are not entitled to basic human rights."

Widespread arrests

The proposed legislation aims to prevent US assistance to Israel - which receives about $3.8bn in US aid annually - from supporting "the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment" of Palestinian children.

The Israeli military arrests as many as 700 Palestinian children between the age of 12 and 17 every year and prosecutes them in military courts that lack "fundamental guarantees of due process in violation of international standards," the bill states.

HR 2407 (MEE)
Several Christian faith leaders spoke in favour of HR 2407 at an event in Washington on Wednesday (MEE/Ali Harb)

The legislation also points to the different legal systems that Palestinians and Israeli settlers living in the occupied West Bank are subjected to - a disparity that critics say amounts to apartheid.

"In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, there are two separate legal systems, with Israeli military law imposed on Palestinians and Israeli civilian law applied to Israeli settlers," the proposal notes. 

Although supporters of the bill say calling for an end to the abuse of children is an intuitive, apolitical issue, critics say the legislation singles out Israel and does not serve peace.

In September, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, withdrew her support for the legislation, calling the bill "ultimately counterproductive to a peaceful, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict".

Last month, leading Democratic presidential candidates, including senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, said they are open to using US assistance to Israel to pressure the Israeli government to respect the human rights of Palestinians.

'Simple' bill

Joyce Ajlouny, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker advocacy group, said opponents of the bill have politicised it because it's difficult to argue against protecting the rights of children.

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"That's not the courageous leadership that we're looking for," Ajlouny told MEE of the US lawmakers who "can't take the heat" and come out in favour of HR 2407.

"We need courageous leaders who put morals and principles above all else," she said.

Earlier this week, 26 faith leaders - including the speakers at Wednesday's event in Washington - wrote a letter to Congress urging legislators to back McCollum's bill.

"Our faith commitments call us to pay particular attention to the rights of those most vulnerable, including children," the letter read. 

"Wherever children are languishing in detention camps whether in our US context or in Israeli military prisons, we pray that leaders do their utmost to protect the humanity and dignity of all and prevent the violation of children's rights."

On Wednesday, McCollum said the legislation is about basic human decency.

"The bill is simple; it says we value the lives of Palestinian children living under occupation, and therefore US military aid to Israel must be prohibited from supporting the military detention, interrogation and abuse of Palestinian children," McCollum said.

"This bill is about our values as Americans."

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