By Patrick Moser
OFER MILITARY CAMP, West Bank – Mohammed, 14, barely glanced at the Israeli military judge as he was led shuffling into the cramped courtroom, his legs in shackles.
The Palestinian boy had eyes only for his father, and mouthed the traditional Arabic greeting: Salaam Alaikum” – peace be upon you. Seven minutes later he was sentenced to four months in prison.
The prosecutor said the boy had hurled rocks at a watchtower and at Israel’s separation barrier in the occupied West Bank. Upon his attorney’s advice, the boy pleaded guilty to avoid spending even more time behind bars.
Human rights groups say Mohammed’s case is typical for alleged child offenders under the military law Israel imposes on the Palestinian territory.
As of March 31, 324 Palestinian children were held in Israeli prisons, according to the Geneva-based Defense for Children International (DCI), an international rights group. With conviction rates above 95 percent, Mohammed didn’t stand much of a chance, said his lawyer, Iyad Misk.
“The Israeli military trials are a sham. As a lawyer, I’d prefer not to take part in this charade, but I still try to help the children. For a lawyer, it’s a moral dilemma,” Misk said outside the trailer at the Ofer military camp where his young client was sentenced. The trials, conducted in Hebrew and translated into Arabic, generally last just a few minutes. Lawyers are at times denied access to documents, when military officials classify the evidence as secret.
Some of the children never get a trial, but are held without charges under “administrative orders” that can run up to six months and be renewed indefinitely.
“Everything in military courts is designed in favor of the occupation,” said Khaled Quzmar, who coordinates DCI’s legal unit in the West Bank.
Lawyers say as many as 50 percent of jailed Palestinian children are held for throwing rocks. The favorite targets are security forces in watchtowers or armored vehicles, and the walls, barbed wire and fences that prevent free travel to Israel and within the West Bank.
After an apparent stone-throwing incident earlier this month near the Al-Arub refugee camp, several Israeli soldiers brandished their assault rifles and yelled at passers-by but eventually drove off without finding the culprit.
Shehab, 15, watched the Israeli troops nervously from a distance. “Since my release, I try to avoid any contact with Israelis, with the soldiers,” he says.
He was sentenced to four-and-a-half months in jail last year, accused of hurling a petrol bomb at a huge concrete watchtower from which Israeli forces keep an eye on Al-Arub, near the West Bank town of Hebron.
Shehab says security forces showed up at his house at two o’clock in the morning, handcuffed, blindfolded and beat him before taking him to a military camp for interrogation.
“They broke several of my teeth and my nose. They put a heater beside my face. They pinched me on the stomach and chest with pliers. They kicked me.” He finally broke down and signed a confession. He insists he is innocent and says he sees nothing wrong with hurling stones at the occupiers.
Watchdogs say the arrest and detention process of Palestinian children violates the international Convention on Human Rights of the Child, to which Israel is signatory.
“A central aspect of the interrogation phase is the use of particular forms of torture and ill treatment,” says DCI.
Meanwhile, in Courtroom 5, where a picture of the symbolic scales of justice hangs in a corner, Mohammed respectfully asked his father to “say salaams to everyone in the family” before an Israeli soldier led him out to serve his sentence.
(Agence France Presse, via Arab News – www.arabnews.com – April 12, 2008)