|"The Sin of Hardening Our Hearts"|
|Written by Tamara Symonds|
By Rotem Ilan
Think of a little boy or little girl you know. Add uniformed men around the child, some armed with M16 rifles. Imagine the child in a room 2.5 meters long, behind a bolted door. There are tens of similar rooms, containing families with children who wake up every morning for roll-call. All this is surrounded by barbed wire to keep people out and, more to the point, to keep the prisoners in.
Scores of innocent children are in this situation, simply because they were born to the "wrong" parents – labor migrants we brought here to care for our elderly and infirm, or refugees escaping one bad future by coming to another.
Why am I being so dramatic? Do we really need the graphic details? I'm afraid we do. Because in Israel, on the eve of the year 5774, not even a child behind a bolted door can shock us. As a well-known media personality told me recently, "that's old news, tell me something interesting." It seems that an item about children in jail is not interesting any more. The daily dose of pain we cause, and which impacts us as well, has made us emotionally desensitized; we are willing to swallow the daily dose of suffering we are doled out without question or protest. We're used to it.
In Israel, we tend to think that we're the only ones facing immigration problems, though in fact this is a global problem with implications for the entire Western world. Countries in the West are implementing alternatives to imprisoning children; putting a child in a jail will always be the very last resort, if it is done at all. Reports show that alternatives to child imprisonment are not only more humane, they are also more cost-effective than keeping children in detention facilities.
The International Charter of Children's Rights, which Israel has signed, states that "no child may be denied his freedom unlawfully or arbitrarily; detention or imprisonment of children shall be in accordance with the law and shall serve only as a last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period of time." But here, in Israel, child detention is not a "last resort" but the default. We enthusiastically signed the charters for children's rights and for refugees, without taking into account that we would also have to assume certain responsibilities.
The arrests are made every week; at any given moment there is a child behind bars. As of August 2013, there are 14 minors being held in Saharonim prison; 6 unaccompanied girls who were kidnapped from their village in Ethiopia are being held in Givon prison for the past year. Just this week, 3 children were detained at Ben Gurion's Yahalom detention facility, with their mothers.
This isn't taking place far away: most of the children of labor migrants are rounded up in Tel Aviv. Sometimes in the early morning hours, when they are still in bed; sometimes they are taken right from the nursery school. Life is abruptly cut short, without a chance to say goodbye to their friends, sometimes to their fathers; their classmates, the teacher, the only home they've ever known. They are taken to the only detention facility in Israel that is not run by the police or the Prison Authority but by officials of the Ministry for Interior Affairs. The center lacks medical and educational services.
The law against infiltration stipulates that a person entering illegally the country at one of its borders can be imprisoned without trial for three years. (Editor's note: Just yesterday, this law was finally invalidated by Israel's Supreme Court.) The law does stipulate that special humanitarian circumstances should be taken into account, but the Ministry of Interior Affairs has decided that imprisoning a foreign child does not count as a special humanitarian circumstance. Once in the detention center, the family is separated – mother and small children to the women's wing, fathers to the men's wing, and children over 12, to the youth wing. They might be allowed to meet once a week, they might not.
Unaccompanied minors who entered the country on their own are held in a "special" facility, supposedly an alternative to a prison, opened in 2010. In that year, according to the Prison Authority's report to the Knesset, there were 19 suicide attempts by minors in that facility.
My grandfather used to tell me that, as a child, he would go from house to house on Yom Kippur eve, to ask forgiveness of anyone he thought he had insulted. He had learned in the heder that one must first ask forgiveness of others, then of God. But, he says, it will be harder for us to ask forgiveness this year; we don't have access to prisons where children are kept.
So I hereby ask forgiveness, on my grandfather's behalf and my own:
Rotem Ilan founded the Israeli Children Association for children of migrant workers, and heads the Israeli Children project at the Association for Civil Rights.
Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Friedman