The Detention of Palestinian Children and Its Impact on Their Education and Development

Leo Wiggen-Bush.

Posted on Jadaliyya on January 3, 2018.

This article shows how the detention of Palestinian children by Israeli occupation forces impacts education and development. It explores children’s experiences in detention, and how these impact on subsequent life chances. It also looks at child responses to the continued occupation by Israel. This is done in the context of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and Israeli violations of international law. The primary research on which this article is based focuses on Israeli human rights violations and military detention of minors. This negatively affects a child’s development within their community, and their legal right to an education.[i] Data is collected from ex-detainee experiences and accounts from open-ended questionnaires and interviews.

The 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was ratified by Israel in 1991.[ii] International laws and the CRC protect Israeli citizens, however Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and, unofficially, those living in annexed East Jerusalem are governed by Israeli military law (IML).[iii] Israeli military law has been in place in the OPT since their occupation in 1967,[iv] and allows a maximum administrative detention period of six months, subject to indefinite renewals,[v] as well as the interrogation of children without lawyers or family members present.[vi] Ninety-seven percent of children detained did not have a parent present nor did they have access to a lawyer during their interrogation.[vii] The lack of legal representation and independent oversight of the interrogation process means there is no protection against the mistreatment of child detainees.[viii]

The mistreatment of children in Israeli custody amounts to a breach of article 37 of the CRC, which states that children should not be subjected to degrading treatment and should be treated with respect and care.[ix] An average of 500-700 Palestinian children are detained every year[x], and eighty-six percent of children suffer some form of physical violence following their arrest.[xi] Children are shackled during interrogation in pressure positions e.g., being forced to stand and sit in awkward, unnatural positions. The physical pain this causes can lead to permanent nerve damage.[xii] Children are also verbally and physically abused, kept in solitary confinement for extended periods of time and have their families threatened.[xiii] Both pressure positioning and solitary confinement are practices international human rights agencies recognize as torture.[xiv] Under IML children as young as twelve years old are criminally responsible,[xv] contravening international law. The CRC recognizes those under the age of eighteen as children[xvi] and argues that detention can only be used as a measure of last resort.[xvii] This is one example of how IML does not adhere to the standards of international law.[xviii] Israel, however, rejects the applicability of international human rights law and humanitarian law within the OPT. It asserts that they are not an occupying power, and therefore have no legal responsibility for the wellbeing of Palestinians.[xix] The international community does not legitimize IML, though the pressure asserted on Israel does nothing other than rhetorically announce international legal guarantees and protections.[xx] The lack of concrete action against Israel’s abuses shows how international law does not have an effective enforcement mechanism, thus creating an issue of Israeli military accountability and impunity.[xxi]

The continued breaches of international law by Israel when dealing with Palestinians, coupled with the absence of a Palestinian Authority political resistance to the occupation, has led to Palestinian youths taking it upon themselves to fight for their self-determination. This resistance is what leads to their detention.[xxii] At the end of August 2017 Israel was detaining 331 Palestinian minors; seventy-four were younger than sixteen years old.[xxiii] The Palestinian Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs (CDA) recorded 1384 child arrest cases in 2016 with 505 detentions.[xxiv] Ten of these children were administratively detained and twenty-nine children were arrested after they had been shot. Two hundred and five children were placed under house arrest after their detention and hence deprived of access to education.[xxv] Education is clearly important for all aspects of a child’s life chances and in many contexts is a tool for self-liberation;[xxvi] the detention of Palestinian children by the Israeli authorities denies this access to self-liberation.[xxvii] Israel’s detention of Palestinian minors also subdues a future generation’s attempts to effectively resist the occupation.[xxviii] It does this through a policy of degrading and unlawful treatment of its child detainees, a tactic that is the sole driving force for Israel’s unrivalled child detention campaign. This article evidences this with the presentation of the deleterious impacts to education and development, as well as physical and psychological health, being detained in Israel’s detention facilities has on a child.

Impact of Child Detention

Table 1: School Locations and Key Impacts

Table 1 indicates the results from questionnaires with Palestinian teachers of children detained by Israel. Twelve questionnaires were completed, five in Beit-Sahour and Bethlehem, and two in Beit Jala. The rows indicate the stated impacts referring to child detention.

Table 2 highlights evidence from social workers of detained Palestinian children. Seventeen questionnaires were completed in the West Bank, ten of which were collected from social and NGO workers who worked throughout occupied Palestine.

Table 2:  Location of Social Work and Key Impacts

The overwhelming response from social workers when asked about the behavior of former child detainees was that they showed aggressive and violent behavioral changes. The behavioral change of these children results from aggression and physical torture experienced in custody.[xxix] Former detainees are often violent towards their classmates, exhibiting aggressive classroom behavior which disrupts teaching, impacting on pedagogy and having a knock on effect on educational attainment. Behavioral change also impacts the community, with respondents stating that children clash with authority figures as they struggle to deal with community life. Their mood is often sporadic; they are short-tempered and noticeably more aggressive. This behavior isolates children from their peers and community as they often become stigmatized. Parents of other children fear that the bad behavior of former detainees negatively influences the behavior of their own children, possibly leading to their own child’s detention (Respondent interview, 2016). Reactions like this within the community affect the child’s social integration and development. Aggressive behavioral change is a direct result of mistreatment and unlawful practice by the Israeli state when dealing with child prisoners.[xxx] One of the respondents in Table 2 is a leading medical counsellor. They stated in their questionnaire that after detention, children have difficulties coping with friends, becoming less active in their social life as they feel less able to cope within the community. An example being a respondent’s friend who became more reserved after they were released from detention.

Social phobia, the exhibition of anxious behavior in social environments, can lead to some children also becoming depressed. Of the seventeen social worker respondents, sixteen mentioned depression and anxiety as an impact of detention. The symptoms of social phobia are similar to those of communication problems, which were mentioned by eight teacher respondents. Links are drawn between these two impacts; when dealing with children some teachers “help them to be more sociable” (Teacher, Beit-Sahour, 2016), combating the child’s communication problems, but also possible social phobias. Social workers engage with children in social environments to help them overcome uneasiness and anxiety within larger social settings. This fear is indicative of the solitary confinement children are usually subject to in detention,[xxxi] and how solitary confinement increases the rate of self-harm and suicide in former child detainees.[xxxii] Suffering from social phobia hinders social development as children become unwilling to interact with their peers and refuse to attend school, limiting their time spent in education.

The educational attainment of child detainees drops. A senior social worker links this to the effects of social phobia and psychological issues. A respondent recalled how in high school his classmate was arrested and detained. Upon returning, the pupil who was formerly one of the most academically gifted in the class, became withdrawn, and eventually dropped out of school aged thirteen to seek employment. This incident dates to 1990, but incidences like these have continued as a trend with the majority of former child detainees dropping out of school.[xxxiii] Children struggle to reintegrate due to mental health issues and being behind with schoolwork.[xxxiv] Many children feel ashamed to return to school as they must re-sit the year if they miss thirty percent of the 185-day school term,[xxxv] a common occurrence with average detention times of three to twelve months. There are limited educational services for Palestinian child detainees, with restrictions on what inmates can study.[xxxvi] Subjects not taught include: religious studies, geography, history and the sciences. These subjects are seen by Israel as to threaten their security.[xxxvii] It can be evidenced now that there is a correlation between detention and a negative impact on a child’s education.

When children exit the detention system, they suffer from increased psychological health issues and trauma, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases growing in number.[xxxviii] Eleven social workers questioned support this, mentioning a high number of psychological issues among children who have been detained. The main symptoms of PTSD are: nightmares, flashbacks, bedwetting, eating disorders, and social phobias such as becoming introverted and socially withdrawn.[xxxix] These symptoms correlate with other impacts I have noted. This suggests that a lot of the affect seen to result from child detention, such as problems with communication, social phobias, and behavioral changes are in fact, symptoms of PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is therefore one of the most important and devastating consequences of child detention, leading to other issues perhaps not recognized within the local communities as being psychological. The incidence of PTSD is supported by the literature surrounding Palestinian child detention,[xl] with its prevalence a result of continued abuse throughout the period of arrest, interrogation, and detention.[xli]

Social workers explain how children who have not been detained show characteristics of being more socially integrated, being more comfortable in social scenarios. Children who have been detained are “un-confident, scared, and violent” (Social worker, Al Nabi Saleh Village, 2016), illustrating not only the link between PTSD and the detention process, but also the link between the other key impacts of detention and PTSD. The well-documented methods of arresting children in night raids (00.00-05.00) and interrogations involving physical and psychological torture can cause tautological damage to a child’s well-being and development.[xlii] These practices are therefore strongly linked to the psychological deterioration of child detainees.[xliii] The prevalence of PTSD cases among child detainees, presents a picture of gross child mistreatment at the hands of an Israeli government in full disregard of international laws.

Child detention can be linked to the wider context of Palestinian resistance. A respondent noted that the experience of children witnessing their older family members, detained for political reasons, in some examples can drive those children to become active themselves in resisting the illegal Israeli occupation. This resistance can take the form of stone throwing, which leads to the children being detained. Mostly however, children are arrested on suspicion of throwing stones.[xliv] A respondent explained how this occurred with his brother, who had not thrown stones but was nonetheless arrested on the way home from school. His brother was made to sit on the floor of the jeep while being intimidated and verbally abused during transport. He was physically abused in the detention center. There are similar cases documented whereby children have been denied access to food, water, and the toilet while others have been tied to chairs and left outside overnight, others have been strip-searched.[xlv] I would argue therefore that Israel’s detention methods are counterproductive, with children exiting detention “seeking revenge” (Social worker, Bethlehem, 2016) for the abuse they have received. The arbitrary detention of children, guilty or not, creates a generation of Palestinians with greater contempt towards the Israeli authorities and the occupation, further perpetuating the conflict and mobilization against occupation.[xlvi]


The arbitrary detention of children, guilty or not, creates a generation of Palestinians with greater contempt towards the Israeli authorities and the occupation, further perpetuating the conflict and mobilization against occupation.


The impact detention has on a child can depend on their families and social support networks, as these tend to vary. Their robustness, stage of development and the coping strategies they have in place also all play a part. However, two respondents explained how violence towards child detainees, whether physical, sexual, or verbal are not isolated incidents, and in many cases are the one constant in many children’s lives. Children are often released with broken hands or legs, injuries to their heads and bruises on their bodies. The physical injuries heal, though the psychological impact of their harrowing experiences persists throughout their life. The primary data analyzed in this article, combined with the respondent testimonies explains how detention is causing psychosocial disorders and developmental issues in children. These affect a child’s education and how they develop at school and at home. The generational difference between the two interview respondents, both evidencing the history of child detention and its abuses, alludes to how the issue of child detention and the impacts it has on Palestinian children’s lives and development, has long been endemic in Palestinian society under occupation.


The impacts of child detention discussed and analyzed in this article are interlinked. While the two datasets are small, they do offer indicative results showing that the detention of children affects education and a child’s broader social life, causing disruptions in the family and communities. Aggressive behavioral changes, social phobias, communication problems, reduction in educational attainment, and negative effects on classroom pedagogy all hinder the educational progress and social integration of previously detained Palestinian children. However, PTSD has become the most notorious symptom and impact of detention, being a leading cause for the prevalence of the previously noted impacts. All of the impacts of detention, including PTSD, are direct results of the psychological and physical abuse children receive during arrest, interrogation, and detention by the Israeli military.

This article draws on data used in an undergraduate dissertation. For each of the eight months it took to plan, collect, and compile data for that, B’Tselem have shown that there was a consistent average of five hundred Palestinian children detained. Israel is the only country in the world that routinely detains children on such a large scale. The reason for this I believe is because the detention of Palestinian children by Israel has become a political tool to subdue any current resistance against the occupation. The use of physical and psychological torture on Palestinian children whilst they are being detained serves to reduce the capacity of a generation to effectively provide any future resistance to the illegal occupation of their land.

Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem told Haaretz news agency after his UNSC speech on 14 October 2016: “There is no chance Israeli society, of its own volition and without any help, will end the nightmare.”[xlvii] His words, most poignant perhaps when discussing the treatment of Palestinian children, express the growing need for Israel to respect international law and for there to be an end to their occupation of Palestine.

For references see Jadaliyya

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