Israel turning UNICEF criticism into concrete progress

What sets UNICEF apart from other watchdog groups on Israeli treatment of young Palestinian suspects? Close interaction with IDF, Foreign Ministry.

A Palestinian boy plays near the ruins of his family house that witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during the past summer's war in Gaza (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian boy plays near the ruins of his family house that witnesses said was destroyed by Israeli shelling during the past summer's war in Gaza
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Reviewing UNICEF’s report on the IDF’s treatment of Palestinian minors suspected of crimes, released late Thursday, gives the reader only a partial view into the unusual discourse currently going on between the IDF and UNICEF.
Meeting with the UNICEF team, however, some additional layers of that relationship become clearer.
The UNICEF team says it has a different and unique mission from some other groups that review Israel’s record on the issue since its goal is “not merely to criticize,” but also “to translate criticism into concrete progress.”
To that extent, UNICEF has engaged in close and extended dialogue with the IDF and the Foreign Ministry on the issues in dispute – as opposed to some groups which collect most or all of their evidence from the Palestinian side.
UNICEF believes the dialogue is positive and welcomes it, while also looking for Israel to implement all 38 of its recommendations from its March 2013 initial report so that Palestinian minors’ rights are protected from “the time of arrest through interrogation and while in detention” after interrogation.
At the same time, UNICEF said that “Rome was not built in one day” and that it knew it would “take time to get all of the recommendations enforced.”
In certain areas, the report highlights issues on which UNICEF believes Israel can make easy progress if it has the will to act and that there are no real obstacles to implementing its recommendations.
For example, UNICEF recommended that when Palestinian minors are arrested, they should not be blindfolded; they should have their hands bound by three plastic ties in front of their body; and be accompanied to interrogations by their parents. This in contrast to what the report says is the current practice of blindfolding minors (viewed as unnecessary); binding their hands with one hand tie (viewed as painful or uncomfortable) in back of their bodies; and interrogating them without their parents.
It alleges that the IDF legal division has agreed to the one-hand-tie policy and that the IDF lawyers have admitted that there are commanders on the ground not following the new rules on the issue.
UNICEF also said the IDF had indicated that the obstacle to having parents accompany their children to interrogation was that it did not have room for the parent in the transporting vehicle due to budgetary limitations.
It rejected this argument, saying the IDF could overcome these limitations.
Also, told by The Jerusalem Post that the IDF is claiming that 70 percent of interrogations of Palestinian minors are videotaped with the other 30% having transcripts in Arabic presented to the minors, UNICEF asked why the IDF could not pay to tape 100%, saying the taping could be done at a low cost and did not need to be professional.
There are also some unspoken issues with some of the criticisms, which UNICEF admits to.
The organization was one of the main parties pressing to replace night arrests of Palestinian minors with the issuance of summons.
Aside from praising the IDF for progress on this issue, pressed on whether it would back the IDF returning to night arrests if the summons program does not work (though both the IDF and UNICEF say clearly they hope it will), UNICEF admitted it would never endorse night arrests.
This implies that it would view suspects remaining free as a lesser evil.
This is an outcome the IDF has been adamant that it would not accept.
Next, UNICEF said Palestinian minors should not be tried in military courts, juvenile or otherwise (the IDF prides itself on having created special juvenile courts for Palestinians in 2009).
But it has no answer for what alternative to employ, admitting that it would be a blatant violation of international law to try Palestinians in Israeli civilian courts.
Finally, UNICEF criticizes the IDF for allegedly frequently not having a lawyer present when minors are interrogated.
It said that the absence of lawyers could explain one reason Palestinian minors frequently confess and are convicted in plea bargains.
Aside from some complex issues of instances in which even Israeli minors do not always get to have lawyers present, UNICEF later added that even when lawyers were involved, they also advise minors to cut a deal because they believe the chances of winning in Israeli military courts are low and could lead to longer detention periods.
But, if that is true, the criticism regarding having Israeli lawyers may be less poignant and UNICEF may want to stick to a more general criticism of perceived unfairness in the system (though it is a well-known fact that most criminal cases in most democratic countries end in a plea bargain.) There is significant disagreement about how to view Palestinian complaints of abuse, with UNICEF claiming the numbers are much higher than the IDF’s statistics and the IDF complaining that it cannot address those statistics since no one will give it specifics (many NGOs are reluctant to share specifics because of confidentiality commitments they make to get data from Palestinians.) Still, there are several examples where UNICEF respects IDF positions on a pragmatic basis, such as admitting that the IDF cannot be expected to bring minors’ parents to an interrogation with the many minors arrested “in the act” of committing a crime like stone throwing, simply since the parents are invariably elsewhere.
Overall, the UNICEF report is certainly not complimentary of Israel and has its share of criticisms that have some of their own internal logic issues or do not fully respond to Israel’s security concerns.
But the IDF also clearly has made changes and reforms in response to the UNICEF criticism.
The report will probably have few huge fans.
Some will view it as more fair to the IDF, while still ignoring some of the IDF’s dilemmas where the criticism ignores that there are no real alternatives.
Others will say the report was too soft on the IDF.
Ultimately, though, the report and the dialogue are an unusual example where the IDF and one of its critics are moving closer to new ways to address issues.