By Rob Harris
The UK Independent carried a story on the 1st of January, by one Adam Withnall, charging that Arab-Palestinian children are tortured and caged. Similar accounts of the story have also been carried by a number of other mainstream media outlets, such as Russia Today (RT), GulfNews and Al-Arabiya. The article, entitled “Israel government tortures Palestinian children by keeping them in cages, human rights group says”, charged that Israel was keeping Arab-Palestinian children “caged” in public outdoor areas, over a period of months, in severe winter weather:
“An Israeli human rights organisation has accused the government of torturing Palestinian children after it emerged some were kept for months in outdoor cages during winter.
The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) published a report which said children suspected of minor crimes were subjected to “public caging”, threats and acts of sexual violence and military trials without representation.” [original published version]
Such claims would of course be shocking to most readers. To place children (as distinct from late-adolescent teenage ‘youths’), within highly confined outdoor cage-like structures, in appalling weather, over a period of months, would indeed be rightly deemed an act of extreme (if not extraordinary) cruelty, one that would cause a calamitous impact to anyone’s health, let alone that of children. Furthermore, such actions would be highly traumatising, constituting of a degrading form of treatment.
Adam Withnall wrote that a non-governmental organisation, called the ‘Public Committee Against Torture in Israel’ (PCATI), reported the claims. Moreover, the article claimed that PCATI accused the Jewish State of unspecified forms of torture, and sexual abuse, against Arab-Palestinian children.
However, a sceptical response would have been justified, prima facie, for several reasons. Firstly, why would children be kept for several months at a “transition facility in Ramla”, when it is merely a transitional point for the processing of prisoners through the Israeli courts system? Moreover, considering the large number of anti-Israel NGOs criticising Israel’s reputation, which are highly-active in the region, why would this account of appalling cruelty have come to light so late in the day?
The prejudicial inaccuracy of Withnall’s article’s is exemplified by the fact that it failed to note that the relatively little-known Public Committee Against Torture in Israel is an anti-Israel NGO. Whether PCATI is right or wrong, its politicisation means it has less credence than balanced impartial sources.
PCATI advocates for Israel’s delegitimisation, which is outside of its relevant NGO prisoner-rights remit. The frequent publicising of accusations, of Arab-Palestinian prisoners being ill-treated by the Israeli authorities, without substantive proofs, demonstrates an extremely one-sided politicisation. NGO Monitor notes that one PCATI attorney, Majd Bader, publicly described Arab-Palestinian terrorists, who died for their cause, as “martyrs”. The group receives substantive funding, including monies obtained at an EU level.
Notably, PCATI takes very little interest in Arab-Palestinian abuses of its prisoners. One rare exception is a collective public statement, in 2011, by numerous anti-Israel NGOs, calling for Gilad Schalit to receive better treatment. However, PCATI’s contribution was to a statement made by an NGO collective that largely thought Schalit’s imprisonment by Hamas was justified, morally and legally.
CIFWatch published an excellent rebuttal, pointing out that the “caging” charge is extremely dubious. The issue concerned detainees, of unspecific ages, being held outdoors, for a number of hours in a particular Ramla facility, until the arrival of guards to transfer prisoners to the Israeli courts system.
CIFWatch asserted that the claim children were caged “for months”, actually relates to the fact that the practice began at the detention facility some months ago. Moreover, PCATI’s report does not refer to the period in which children are kept outside, suggesting that the claim of imprisonment, in an open public space, for months, has been entirely made up by the Independent.
There are no details of specific instances of sexual abuse and torture provided in the PCATI report, making it impossible to substantiate any evidentially. However, the Independent presented these related claims as being of an equivalent substance to the issue of the detention of prisoners in open-air areas.
Prompted by CIFWatch, the Independent has made some corrections to the article, the most significant being the removal of the claim that Israel was keeping children caged in the open for months. The revision now states instead that the practice has existed for months.
However, Withnall’s article remains problematic, for it continues to present PCATI’s perspective with absolute credulity. Additionally, the article fails to note the significant corrections made, or even of there being a revision date, which likely helps facilitate the continuation of the previous months-of-torturous-caging narrative, which has been reproduced on countless anti-Israel websites, blogs, and forums.
It is noteworthy that open-air detention was stopped, prior to the story’s exposure in the international media, after senior Israeli authorities became aware of the practice, in which the matter was brought to light at an Israeli parliamentary hearing, by the Public Defender’s Office. The Jersusalem Post, presumably borrowing from PCATI’s lexicon, describes these minors as children:
“The children were to be held outside for a number of hours overnight after their arrest until they were to be brought to court in the early morning. Livni’s office confirmed that she had personally intervened.
It was unclear who within the Prisons Service initiated the practice, why it was initiated or who decided to continue it despite the adverse weather conditions, but the service responded that since it had received criticism the situation had been improved.”
Despite the fact that the Israeli authorities began the intervention to stop this practice, unprompted by outside groups or institutions, which relates to just one detention centre, the overly dramatic claims of PCATI, and various media institutions, have been used to justify assertions that Israel is ethnically cleansing the Arab-Palestinian populace, or that it constitutes further proof that Israel is an “apartheid” state, as claimed by the likes of Annie Robbins, editor of Mondo Weiss, an individual who agrees with the Palestinian Authority stance that murderers are “freedom fighters”, and forwarded Palestinian Authority propaganda that the shocking savagery of the 2011 Fogel family murders were perpetrated by foreign workers, rather than Arab-Palestinians. No wonder concern and sympathy is afforded for the plight of prisoners, over that of their many probable victims.
CIFWatch followed up with another article on the controversy. It affirms that the Public Defender’s Office report, as cited by PCATI, and the PDO’s letter of complaint to the Ministry of Justice, only relate to certain Israelis arrested during night-time periods, who were detained in the open, until transported to court the following morning. There is no mention of Arab-Palestinian children in these communications. CIFWatch report that they contacted the Israel Prison Service, which confirmed that the complaint only refers to Israeli prisoners, some of which were adolescent youths, rather than children.
Clearly, the practice of placing prisoners, for several hours, in open-air areas for transfer, constitutes a harmful activity, if weather conditions are poor. It is not harmful if weather conditions are clement. As the time-periods roughly coincide, the policy may have been instituted, for prisoners, irrespective of the particularities of national identity, due to space issues, with the substantially increasing level of violent incidents in recent months. Matters have become so bad that some commentators believe it may herald the beginnings of a Third Intifada.
Furthermore, it is hard to see how such treatment constitutes torture, which relates to the application of very intense pain or severe mental distress, such as mock executions, unless prisoners were exposed to poor weather conditions for extended periods of time, perhaps as a coercive measure. The Syrian regime has rightly been criticised for torturing men, women and children since 2011. Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, a thirteen years old boy, was one such torture victim:
“The boy’s head was swollen, purple and disfigured. His body was a mess of welts, cigarette burns and wounds from bullets fired to injure, not kill. His kneecaps had been smashed, his neck broken, his jaw shattered and his penis cut off.
What finally killed him was not clear, but it appeared painfully, shockingly clear that he had suffered terribly during the month he spent in Syrian custody.”
Of course, the horrific torture al-Khateeb was subjected to, represents a extreme case. Any one of the many acts of violence, to which he was subjected, would have been sufficient to demonstrate a case of torture. Black torture (physical) and white torture (psychological) are acted upon with an explicit intent, which is typically systematic in its structure, to degrade the mental orientation of a given individual, and push him or her in a coercive fashion, towards a particular objective. Conflating torture with that of neglect, does a disservice to genuine victims of such violence.
Rather, the level of discomfort caused to prisoners, at the Israeli detention centre, would constitute instances of poor prisoner treatment. Treatment that may be deemed neglectful or callous, and, as such, worthy of enquiry. Moreover, it was by no means systematic within the Israeli prison system. Little wonder the claims by PCATI et al, had to be exaggerated out of all proportion to the validated facts.
Children are routinely, and cynically, used by radical NGO’s, such as the Defense for Children Palestine to demonise Israel, often by resurrecting notions of blood-libel. It has been common tool of Arab-Palestinian leaders in recent decades, resulting in the promulgation of libels, e.g. the spreading of AIDS to 300 Arab-Palestinian children, Israeli’s distributing poisoned sweets etc. These stories seek to utterly dehumanise enemies, making them ripe for destruction by reducing any moral compunction. By emphasising and exaggerating similar claims, which, prima facie, were of a dubious nature, PCATI, Electronic Intifada, Mondo Weiss, the UK Independent etc., further this aim.
This story may constitute another example of a Western media complicit in forwarding what can justly be described as “conflict-propaganda,” for which the British Independent has considerable pedigree, being second only, in the British Media, to the Guardian newspaper, in terms of a manifest bias toward Israel. Thus, the newspaper still employs Robert Fisk, who has published extraordinarily vitriolic claims against Israel for many years, which have been undermined on so many occasions, he has become of a figure of amusement for some within the journalistic profession.
Rob Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He blogs at eirael.blogspot.com. He lives in Ireland. For all the exclusive blog entries by Rob Harris, go here.
 One of today’s leading newspapers in the Arab World. On 26 January 2009, President of the United States Barack Obama gave his first formal interview as president to Al Arabiya, retrieved January 8, 2014.