A group of officials from the United Nations on Monday called for the release of Palestinian children held in Israeli jails, in particular during the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the B’Tselem watchdog, citing data from the Israel Prisons Service, there were 194 Palestinian children held as of the end of March, the vast majority of them in pre-trial detention. Two of the minors were in administrative detention and a further five were detained for being in Israel illegally.
There were no further details on the crimes the majority of the minors are accused of.
Monday’s statement was signed by Jamie McGoldrick, who coordinates the UN’s humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians on the ground; Genevieve Boutin, a UNICEF special representative; and James Heenan, head of the UN Human Rights Office in the West Bank.
“The rights of children to protection, safety and wellbeing must be upheld at all times. In normal times, the arrest or detention of a child should be a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time,” the statement read. “During a pandemic, States should pay increased attention to children’s protection needs and children’s rights, and the best interests of children should be a primary consideration in all actions taken by Governments.”
The officials also expressed concerns that social distancing measures, the closure of the court system for non-urgent cases, and the lack of visits, could cause psychological hardships for the imprisoned minors.
“Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in Israel, legal proceedings are on hold, almost all prison visits are cancelled, and children are denied in-person access to their families and their lawyers. This creates additional hardship, psychological suffering, and prevents the child from receiving the legal advice to which they are entitled. For children awaiting trial, these pressures could put them under increased pressure to incriminate themselves, pleading guilty to be released faster,” the officials said.
There have long been concerns about an outbreak of the coronavirus in the prison system, and it is often cited as a reason for the reports of recent progress in talks between Israel and the terror group Hamas for a prisoner swap.
In March the cabinet approved a measure to release some 500 inmates to house arrest for the final month of their terms to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in jails.
The measure applied only to Israeli residents serving time for criminal activities, and not for security or terror inmates, sex offenders or perpetrators of severe violence. They have to have been serving less than four-year sentences and due for release in less than 30 days, the Israel Prison Service clarified.
On March 17, Israel’s prisons were shut off from the outside world with prisoners not able to receive visits, meet with their attorneys or go on furloughs, according to the IPS.
More than 5,000 Palestinians are currently detained in Israeli jails. The International Committee of the Red Cross has urged that those over 65 or with health conditions be released.
The IPS said last month it had “prepared for months to prevent the entry and spread of the coronavirus in its facilities.”
Each prisoner was given two multi-use facemasks and new prisoners are isolated for 14 days, it said, condemning what it called “false reports” in Palestinian media and elsewhere.