Minors in detention

Minors in detention

29 Apr 2012
10 Aug 2016

Soldiers detain Palestinian youth in Hebron. Photo: Manal al-J’abri, B’Tselem, 1 January 2012.As of May 2013, there are approximately 220 Palestinian minors aged 12-18 in Israeli prisons (Click here for detailed figures). Minors have more difficulty than adults in dealing with the law enforcement system. The separation from their families, the interrogation, the punishment – all are much more intense and have more significant and longer term impact on the lives of minors. Thus, most judicial systems in the world, including Israel’s, have created separate enforcement systems for minors. Yet Israel’s military law enforcement system, where Palestinian minors are tried and sentenced, treats minors as if they were adults, and apart from a few aspects does not acknowledge that they have rights by virtue of being minors.


The various Israeli agencies responsible for arresting and incarcerating Palestinians – the military, the Israeli Prison Authority (IPA), and the police – do not have data on the total number of minors detained and incarcerated annually on suspicion of security offenses. According to data from the IPA, during 2011 some 200 Palestinian minors a month from the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) were being held in custody by the security forces. The number of minors held in prisons has been continually declining. For comparison’s sake, in 2008 some 320 minors were being held on average in any given month.

These data do not include minors taken into custody for interrogation and/or released without having been tried, about whom the authorities have no quantitative data. According to data from the military courts, in 2010 charges were brought against 650 minors. In about 40 percent of these cases, the minors were accused of rock throwing without additional offenses. Others were accused of throwing Molotov cocktails and belonging to banned organizations, among other things. According to data from the IDF Spokesperson’s office, in 2010 eight minors were convicted of serious offenses, among them attempting to attack a soldier. In 2011, one minor was convicted for the killing of the Fogel family from Itamar. The court sentenced him to five consecutive life sentences, and five more years due to the other offenses of which he was convicted. The court sentenced him to five consecutive life sentences, and five more years due to the other offenses of which he was convicted.

Video: No Minor Matter

Without defense: From arrest to indictment

Under Israeli law, anyone under 18 years of age is considered a minor. This rule has been applied to Palestinians in the West Bank only since September 2011. Prior to that date, Palestinians were considered minors only until age 16.

However, the raised age bar is virtually meaningless to Palestinian minors, as the military law applied in the West Bank still denies them the protections accorded to minors under both international and Israeli law. Arrest and incarceration are still the only means used for dealing with offenses committed by Palestinian minors, rather than serving as a last resort. The presence of parents at the interrogation – a right granted to Israeli minors – is not mentioned at all in the relevant military law, and Palestinian minors are often interrogated alone without even having had an opportunity to talk to a lawyer. Furthermore, military law has no appropriate rules for the arrest and interrogation of minors. In addition, the army typically hauls these minors out of bed in the middle of the night to arrest them, even when the interrogation is not deemed urgent. And contrary to Israeli law, which requires that every detainee who is a minor must be brought before a judge within 24 hours – and for those under age 14, within 12 hours – the rules in the territories permit postponement of a minor’s appearance before a judge until the eighth day of his detention, precisely the same as for an adult detainee.

The age of criminal responsibility in Israel and the West Bank is 12, and criminal charges cannot be brought against minors under 12. However, Israeli law – which also applies to residents of East Jerusalem – provides additional special protections to minors under 14 – such as the prohibition on holding them in detention or prison, and limitations on indicting individuals younger than 13. In July 2016 stipulations were added to some of these protections when the Israeli Knesset passed an amendment to the Juvenile Law (“Prison sentences for minors convicted of terrorism, even under 14 years of age”). Under the amendment, judges can henceforth impose a prison sentence even on minors not yet 14 years old who were convicted of murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter, albeit the minors will only begin serving the sentence once they turn 14, subject to renewed examination by the court.

This amendment does not apply to Palestinian minors. They are tried in military courts in the West Bank under military law, which affords no special protections to minors under the age of 14, apart from stipulating that they not be sentenced to a prison term greater than six months.

Until April 2013, military law did not distinguish between the rights of minors and those of adults, as regards the length of time they can be held under arrest prior to sentencing. By contrast, Israeli law requires that minors be brought before a judge no more than 24 hours after being arrested, and no more than 12 hours in the case of minors under the age of 14. Relevant amendments were introduced to military law only in April 2013, after human rights organizations petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice on the matter. The amendments set a maximum length of time permitted for holding minors under arrest without bringing them before a judge, although it is still double than that allowed under Israeli law. Also, the length of the arrest period can be doubled if a police officer deems it necessary for security reasons.

Israel’s military court for minors: Only partial improvement

In November 2009 the first military youth court was established at the Ofer prison camp. The judges in this court are trained as youth judges, and the deliberations are conducted behind closed doors. Since its inception, this court has handled the cases of minors up to the age of 18, despite the fact that under military law at the time, youths 16 years of age and older were considered adults. The military youth court conducts only key deliberations. Hearings on extending a prisoner’s confinement take place in the regular military court, and appeals take place in the military court of appeals, whose judges are not necessarily youth judges.

Since the military youth court was established, efforts have been made to handle cases more quickly. According to data from the IDF Spokesperson’s office, before the youth court was established, the handling of some 10 percent of cases involving minors – who are kept in prison until the end of the proceedings – took more than nine months. In 2010, this figure dropped to only 1.5 percent.

B’Tselem has found that some 93 percent of minors convicted of stone throwing between the beginning of 2005 and the end of June 2011 were sentenced to some prison time. Since the establishment of the military youth court, the treatment of children under 14 has improved. In the first half of 2011, no minors younger than 14 were convicted of stone throwing. Furthermore, the youth court significantly shortened the period of incarceration for minors under 14 who were convicted. In 2010, the longest period of imprisonment for a minor in that age group was nine days. This is compared to sentences of up to two months in prison during the period before the youth court was established. Within Israel, minors under 14 years of age cannot be imprisoned.

Among other age groups, no substantive change occurred in the extent of punishment following the establishment of the military youth court. The median period of active prison time (excluding any suspended sentence) for minors aged 14-15, from the beginning of 2005 through the end of June 2011, was two and a half months, and the median for minors aged 16-17 was four months.