Defending children’s rights

Evaluating the decision by the Ministry of Defence to declare DCI-Palestine a ‘terrorist organisation’
In 1988 I founded the Israeli-Section of Defence for Children International (DCI) and struggled 17 years to get funding and run the organisation. We successfully lobbied for Israel’s signing and ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. After ratification in 1991 we started to monitor its implementation.

DCI-Israel promoted legal representation of minors in the Israeli (juvenile) courts and started pilot projects of lawyers representing minors. The focus on juvenile justice made us special as a child’s rights NGO. We worked in cooperation with the juvenile probation service and they referred cases. In addition DCI-Israel conducted monitoring visits to Jewish and Israeli-Palestinian young people in youth wings of jails and the Sharon youth prison. We also did such visits to monitor the situation of Palestinian youngsters in military detention facilities. DCI-Israel also operated walk-in legal aid centres for children and adolescents, for instance in Haifa and Ashdod.

For our activities, DCI-Israel was awarded the Knesset Speaker’s Quality of Life Prize in 1995. Some lawyers representing children on behalf of DCI-Israel later became Israeli judges.

We wanted to start a pilot project in the West Bank, to show that legal representation is important for all minors, also in military courts. Operating there independently, without the cooperation of a Palestinian NGO seemed wrong to us. An Israeli-Palestinian lawyer from East-Jerusalem, on the board of DCI-Israel, suggested we speak to the YMCA in East-Jerusalem where a rehabilitation project for wounded youngsters was located. They became enthusiastic about representation of minors in the military courts and formed a new Section. This historical fact is important, since DCI-Palestine started as part of a joint legal representation project with DCI-Israel and it was not initiated by the PLFP. I was happily surprised that our Palestinian colleagues did not raise the argument that Israeli and Palestinian NGOs’ working together would constitute ‘normalisation’ and therefore cooperation would not be possible. For the context it was 1991: only in 1993 the Oslo negotiations started. Our cooperation was one of the first civil society joint projects.

In 1992 a small office in the Bethlehem Paradise Hotel was opened for the joint project. A Palestinian lawyer was trained and introduced to the principles of juvenile justice by an experienced Israeli lawyer, after which the Palestinian lawyer started to represent minors in the military courts. In joint weekly meetings we reviewed the cases the project represented. This lead to several interventions by the Israeli-Section with the IDF Judge Advocate General.

I actively helped the Palestinian Section get recognition as a Section of Defence for Children International, headquartered in Geneva. Later, in 1997, as executive director of DCI-Israel, I was elected President of the DCI International Executive Council with the support of DCI Palestine.

During the cooperative project, I heard allegations that some people in DCI-Palestine were active in the PLFP. I always responded maybe naive ‘I am in children’s rights, not in the security services.’ But indeed in the first years of the joint legal representation project, I saw a genuine motivation to help young people, mostly in detention.

At some point, the DCI-Palestinian Section decided to end its participation in the joint project. Israel was of course not considered a developing country and the Palestinian Section decided (with success) to apply alone for funding under this heading.

In 2002 DCI-Israel together with the Minerva Centre for Human Rights of the Law Faculty of Tel Aviv University, organised, an International Conference Protection of Children in Armed Political Conflict. We were principally concerned with the security forces’ use of lethal force, including rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition, in disturbances involving Palestinian youngsters. The organising committee of the Conference invited international experts in riot control from countries where non-lethal force was used.
We invited representatives of the IDF and the Israeli police to attend. To my surprise DCI-Palestine called upon the public to boycott the Conference. I have never understood this decision of DCI-Palestine and it became a turning point for me. We wanted to prevent Palestinian children from being wounded and killed, what was wrong with that. I thought they were maybe not only part of the solution also part of the problem, but terrorists? In the Palestinian society, there are only a few people like Mubarak Awad, who promoted peace education and nonviolent action. Even he was expelled in 1988.

What is not helpful is that the Director of DCI’s international office in Geneva ‘retaliates’ by calling the Israeli government in an international statement “the Israeli apartheid regime.” The DCI Director is not unique: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International used these terms before. Terminology like ‘terrorists’ or ‘apartheid regime’ prevent both sides from understanding each other.

For UNICEF and UN international human rights treaty-bodies, DCI-Palestine became a trusted partner and regularly submitted statistics on wounded and killed young people. They also documented mistreatment of Palestinian minors in military detention. These reports were probably ‘not pleasant’ for Israeli authorities, as they should be, but again this does not make their authors terrorists.

Now it is claimed that DCI-Palestine is an arm of the PLFP and has been funnelling money to the PLFP. A forensic accountant could easily investigate whether this is true and also can examine whether all people on the payroll indeed work(ed) for children’s rights. For many years well-known foundations have been funding the Palestinian-Section and they must have received annual financial reports or an audit. The IDF has confiscated their computers but did not come with proof on this issue.

On the basis of (the little) information now presented, the accusations are hard to believe. I recognise that security concerns of the Israeli government are different than for instance the Dutch or the Swiss government. If the Defence Ministry has proof that individual Palestinians working in this children’s rights group are involved in terrorist activities it should reveal the evidence and charge them with security offenses and bring them to court. But if there is no proof the Minister should revoke the decision to label a whole organisation being an arm of a ‘terrorist group’. The same arguments Judith Karp, former Israeli deputy Attorney-General (1978-2002) and former UN Committee on the Rights of the Child deputy-chairperson and rapporteur, was raising in an Op-ed in Haaretz of 6 December 2021. Some Knesset members, UN Special rapporteurs, different diplomats and lawmakers abroad came with the same arguments.

It looks therefore that the Minister of Defence has shot himself in the foot by not coming public with proof. Because of this the civilised world will see him as a Vladimir Putin silencing human rights NGO’s especially at this time when the need for a children’s rights organisation is enormous.