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The Law That Put This 12-Year-Old Girl In Prison For 75 Days

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Photo: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/Getty Images.
The mother of Dima al-Wawi, 12, who is believed to be the youngest female detained by Israel, greets Dima in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, upon her release from Israeli prison on April 24.
In the photos, she looks like any 12-year-old girl. Dima al-Wawi smiles, her hair pulled back with a bow, and balloons blanket her bed. But the snapshots aren’t from her birthday party or the celebration of a good report card. Dima and her family were celebrating her release from prison.

Dima, who is Palestinian, was arrested just outside a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. Like east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting for decades over control of the West Bank. And on February 9, Dima became one of the youngest victims of that conflict when she was taken into custody after she was found with a knife on her, and accused of intending to stab a security guard, according to The New York Times.

For more than a week after her arrest, Dima was not permitted to see her parents, and she was forced to wear shackles to her court hearings. She was ultimately sentenced under military law to four and a half months in prison for possession of a knife and attempted manslaughter of a guard.
At 12, Dima was among the youngest prisoners in the Israeli system, but far from the only child. According to information provided by the Israeli military and the Israel Prison Service, there were 414 Palestinian children in Israeli military detention as of April 30, three of whom are either 12 or 13 years old. Human rights groups say these children are far too young to be imprisoned this way, and have called for reforms, but authorities say the law is necessary to punish serious crimes, like murder or terrorism committed by children.

At the heart of this debate is the recent controversial amendment to the civil law known as the Youth bill. The Youth bill was proposed last fall as a response to a wave of ongoing violence known as the “knife intifada.” Since mid-September 2015, there have been 211 stabbings of Israelis, plus 83 shootings and 42 deliberate car crashes. Of the 2,000 Palestinians detained in relation to these attacks, one-fifth were children. On August 3, 2016, the Youth bill was formally passed by the Israeli Parliament and became civil law.
The bill lowers the age at which children can receive a prison sentence from 14 to 12, for involvement in “acts of terror,” which are described as “murder, attempted murder, or manslaughter.” The children are to be held in a youth facility until the age of 14, and then transferred to prison. As justification, the Youth bill also references the recruitment of children by terrorist groups like ISIS to “[chop] off people’s heads.”

“This law was born of necessity. We have been experiencing a wave of terror for quite some time. A society is allowed to protect itself. To those who are murdered with a knife in the heart, it does not matter if the child is 12 or 15,” the politician who proposed the bill, Anat Berko, said in a statement after its passing.

The bill is an amendment to Israel’s youth law, which ensures that the treatment of minors reflects the provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as Israel’s human rights law on human dignity and liberty. But human rights advocates say the amendment violates international standards.
Since it was approved last month, the new legislation has also been criticised by Israeli human rights groups.

“Rather than sending them to prison, Israel would be better off sending them to school where they could grow up in dignity and freedom, not under occupation,” B’Tselem, one such group, said in a statement.

Beth Miller, the U.S. advocacy officer at Defence for Children International Palestine (DCIP), said that although the law theoretically applies equally to Palestinian and Israeli children, that’s not the case in practice.

Our documentation shows Israeli authorities implement the law in a discriminatory manner, denying Palestinian children in east Jerusalem of their rights from the moment of arrest to the end of legal proceedings,” Miller told Refinery29.

But the Israeli Ministry of Justice denied accusations of discrimination and told Refinery29 via email that the bill is “important legislation, which will improve the legal framework for coping with the most severe cases of youth crime.”
Miller, however, said she is concerned that the new legislation is just the latest in a series of policy changes “almost exclusively applied to Palestinians” that Israeli lawmakers have been pushing since the recent violence. She said other amendments include imposing a decade-long prison sentence for stone throwing, one of the most common charges against detained Palestinian children, and decreased judicial discretion.

A child can spend up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of throwing a stone, in addition to paying an average fine of £300, according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report. If his or her family cannot pay the fine, the child is detained longer.

Sari Bashi, director of Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories at Human Rights Watch, said the Youth bill damages the future of all children, Palestinian or Israeli.

“We don’t want this law to be applied to any child…this law gives judges discretion to impose prison or to not to impose prison sentences,” Bashi said.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch and UNICEF have met with military and police officials to address these concerns. They have also recommended practical measures to improve the protection of children, and some progress has been made. The work of DCIP, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and other organisations have also helped educate the global community about these issues.

In April, Dima was released, six weeks early, after an appeal by her parents that was bolstered by a public campaign. In her hometown, she’s seen as a hero. Since her release, Dima has told reporters that she did intend to stab the guard and “be martyred.” But, whether a 12-year-old can truly comprehend what that means, and the consequences of her actions, are at the crux of the debate over the law.

For their part, her parents said they are outraged at how she was treated.

“I was angry the day she was arrested, and on every one of the 75 days that she was in Israeli prison,” her mother, Umm Rashid, told +972 magazine. “Maybe she had a knife when they arrested her, but she is just a child.”
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