Mobilization: Viterbo’s Problematizing Law, Rights and Childhood in Israel/Palestine

by | 13 Apr 2022

In this monumental study, Viterbo investigates the practices of violence and control against Palestinians in Israel’s occupation including abuse, killing, imprisonment, food quotas, surveillance, and mobility restrictions. The focus of my review is on Israel’s military courts, as a major site where Viterbo explores his argument. Israel’s military courts, the judicial arm of the bureaucracy of Israel’s occupation, are the beating heart of Israel’s control regime in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The military courts as a site for this exploration provide a timely link between the contemporary lives and experiences of young Palestinians with the connected histories of colonial containment and confinement. 

Viterbo uses Palestine not only as an empirical case, but as a place to make theory from, in order to understand how colonial and imperial methods of control, such as the construction of childhood, and with it the depoliticization of Palestinian resistance, are embedded into the racialized practices of liberal counterinsurgency. 

Viterbo’s unique method of investigation of the military courts, modestly discussed, but present throughout the chapters, is a rigorous reading of archives of the state (many revealed for the first time) against and through reports of human rights organizations and international bodies, that shows the co-dependence and mutual constitution of the practices and classification, created by and through the negotiations between the Israeli legal system and its critics. The empirical rigor is enhanced by the fact that Viterbo does not rely on the documents for their historical content, only as a point of reference in an ongoing discourse. Viterbo shows how state and military lawyers, form a “juridical field” that includes the human rights organizations (see Hajjar 2019).

While the role of human rights organizations in entrenching and normalizing Israel’s colonial practices is an ongoing debate, Viterbo offers us an analysis of how this process actually works, showing us how the category of childhood is constructed, through the mutual interests of the Israeli legal system and human rights organizations. This is a major contribution of the book, not only for the case of Palestine, but for understanding the mechanisms that create the co-dependence and mutuality between human rights organizations and states. In the book, the practices in military courts, as spaces of containment and confinement of colonized populations, serve as the arena to understand how the international community, and by extension, local human rights organizations, legitimate and perpetuate the technologies of occupation, through the struggle to reform it. 

Childhood and the depoliticization of resistance 

Chapter four focused on legal practices of segregation, both through the confinement of young Palestinians and their separation within detention facilities. These practices of segregation, separation and confinement of Palestinians historically (Feldman 2019) and in the present (Salamanca et al 2012) are entrenched within the colonial histories of ordering movement through racialized legal categories, creating spaces of confinement and containment to varying degrees in order to control population through mobility restrictions (Sa’di 2019; Berda 2017; Pettit 2019), and prevent insurgency while remaining within a performance of liberal rule of law (Khalili 2012). Viterbo contributes a new understanding of the role of age segregation in the contemporary Palestinian context, and the role that human rights organizations and the construction of young Palestinian as “children” as depoliticizing a major component of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s control. Viterbo’s explanation of the mechanisms of legitimacy and normalization that work through the struggle of human rights organizations and legal defense work, present a political dilemma, that many critics of the human rights regime face. 

The strongest argument about this appears in the fifth chapter, linking the mental health and trauma discourse to individualist and neo-liberal agendas, that both decontextualize the role of Palestinian youth in the collective effort for freedom, and delegitimize their participation in the Palestinian liberation project. 

Wining legal reform, Losing the bureaucracy 

How do human rights organizations and the Israeli legal system mutually constitute the law? The most striking example is the story about the legal reform to create the juvenile military courts that succeeded, yet its success was a hollow and performative one, for it did not end the grave human rights violations that initially brought about international protest. The reform was rendered hollow by the categories and definitions created by the human rights organizations themselves. While gaining legitimacy from the international community for the legal reforms, Viterbo shows us how Israel’s recurrent prioritizing of symbolic amendments that it portrays as mending the childhood boundaries, did not change it’s handling of young Palestinians and the inconsistent application and outright breach of some provisions and the incorporation into the amended statutes of broad qualification or exemption clauses that render the reform cosmetic. 

Viterbo shows us how the hollow definitions and categories are created through the incorrectness of formal Israeli statements and the gap between practice and statutory Israeli law and human rights critics’ misrepresentation of the state of affairs due to their insufficient awareness of these issues. One especially cynical token reform was the attempt at shortening significantly the sentences of minors, when what they actually did was keep detention periods flexible and potentially unlimited. 

Critique and the crisis of political mobilization 

This book is an academic project, and as one, some of my critique is unfair, for it moves into the realm of prescription and policy. And yet, as law and society scholars have always straddled the divide between research and the imperative to provide critique that is relevant and useful for the people on the ground – young Palestinians, their families and lawyers, and their political communities – the more convinced I was by the rigor and analysis of the book, a single question haunted me: what effect does such critique have on lawyers and activists? And how can this crucial analysis serve not to create further desperation and feeling of deadlock but encourage thoughtful and educated engagement in which people both question and reflect about their practices, but do not stop dead in their tracks because they realize their complicity with oppressive state practices and their role in the entrenchment of harm. 

One possibility is to read the book from three different perspectives, as scholar, as practitioner, and as activist, and see what happens when each of us reads it, when it could not be timelier, and could not matter more. 


Berda, Y. (2017). Living Emergency. In Living Emergency. Stanford University Press.

Feldman, I. (2019). Elimination politics: Punishment and imprisonment in Palestine. Public Culture31(3), 563-580.

Hajjar, L. (2019). The Counterterrorism War Paradigm versus International Humanitarian Law: The Legal Contradictions and Global Consequences of the US “War on Terror”. Law & Social Inquiry44(4), 922-956.

Khalili, L. (2012). Time in the Shadows. Stanford University Press.

Peteet, J. (2017). Space and mobility in Palestine. Indiana University Press.

Sa’di, A. H. (2016). Thorough surveillance: The genesis of Israeli policies of population management, surveillance and political control towards the Palestinian minority. Manchester University Press.

Salamanca, O. J., Qato, M., Rabie, K., & Samour, S. (2012). Past is present: Settler colonialism in Palestine. Settler Colonial Studies2(1), 1-8.


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