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US State Department: Human Rights Report (March 2021)

[12 April 2021] – On 30 March 2021, the US State Department published its annual country report on human rights for 2020 (the Report). The Report is mandated by Congress and documents human rights conditions in nearly 200 countries and territories. Staff in US embassies around the world compile the information contained in the Report. As in previous years the Report highlights human rights violations by multiple actors in the region and considers the treatment of Palestinian children held in Israeli military detention.

The State Department again confirmed that Israel applies two legal systems in the West Bank depending on whether a person is Palestinian (military law), or an Israeli settler (civilian law). While military law technically applies to both Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the practice of applying two separate systems violates the principal that no State is permitted to discriminate between those over whom it exercises penal jurisdiction based on race or national identity. 
The State Department also confirmed that 80 percent of Palestinians arrested by Israel in the West Bank are detained in prisons inside Israel. This violates provisions in the Fourth Geneva Convention and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court prohibiting the transfer of prisoners from occupied territory. The argument that the West Bank is not occupied territory is inconsistent with Israel’s own assertion that it is occupied for the purposes of prosecuting Palestinians in military courts. The US has imposed sanctions on Russia for similarly transferring Ukrainians out of Crimea to prisons in the Russian Federation.
In relation to child detention, the State Department notes that:
  • Evidence including 450 testimonies collected from children arrested between 2016 and 2020 shows widespread physical mistreatment by Israeli authorities including: physical abuse, strip searches, threats of violence, hand ties and blindfolds. 
  • The majority of children are arrested at night which appears to be the default position rather than issuing a summons for the child to attend a police station during daylight hours. 
  • While the Israeli military stated their policy was to provide written notification concerning the arrest to parents when the child was arrested at home, evidence suggests this policy is ignored in 81 percent of cases.
  • 80 percent of Palestinian children detained by the Israeli military in the West Bank are denied their right under military law to consult with a lawyer prior to interrogation.
  • In cases where children do consult with lawyers, the consultation occurs via brief telephone calls often on speaker phone overheard by the interrogator. 
  • While Israeli military law does not require the presence of a parent during a child's interrogation (a discretionary right), this right is generally afforded to Israeli children. 
  • The majority of detained Palestinian minors are shown or made to sign documentation written in Hebrew, a language most Palestinian minors do not read, at the conclusion of their interrogation. 
  • Military court proceedings are conducted in Hebrew with complaints about the availability and quality of the Arabic translation. 
The Report notes that in 2019, in response to a petition to the Supreme Court regarding the blindfolding of detainees, the state prosecution clarified that “military orders and regulations forbid the blindfolding of detainees, and action to clarify the rules to the troops acting in the region has been taken and will continue to be taken on a continuous basis.” The government of Israel stated this policy applies to all detainees and blindfolds are only to be used as a rare exception. However, as of October 2020, more than 90 percent of detained children continue to report being blindfolded. 
The Report notes that in 2019 the Israeli Prison Service introduced a programme to permit Palestinian child detainees to have telephone communication with their parents while in detention, but that issues relating to regular communication persist. The effective implementation of this programme became essential during the Covid-19 Pandemic as family visits were cancelled. 
The Report notes that a 1967 Israeli military order stipulates that a “political” gathering of 10 or more persons requires a permit from the regional Israeli commander, which commanders rarely granted. The penalty for conviction of a breach of the order is up to 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine. Israeli military law also prohibits Palestinians from insulting a soldier, participating in an unpermitted demonstration or march consisting of more than 10 persons, and “incitement” (encouraging others to engage in civil disobedience).
It is relevant to recall that the legal basis for Israeli military law in the West Bank is the Fourth Geneva Convention. Paradoxically, Israel continues to rely on the Convention as the legal basis for prosecuting Palestinians in military courts, while at the same time ignoring prohibitions in the Convention relating to settlement activity.  This selective application of the law only serves to undermine the credibility of arguments based on a "rules-based" international order, whether applied to the region or beyond.  
Finally, while the Report relates to issues arising in 2020 during the Trump Administration, it was released in March 2021 under the Biden Administration. The Biden Administration appears to have adopted the previous administration's positions and titled the report "Israel, West Bank and Gaza" as opposed to the formulation used by previous US administrations - "Israel and The Occupied Territories".
·      2016 Country Reports (Israel and The Occupied Territories)