Israel to prosecute 12-year-old stone-throwers

Army hopes to deter Palestinian children from roadside assaults

August 20, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli army has reduced from 14 to 12 the minimum age for prosecution of stone-throwers in the West Bank, a move aimed at deterring Palestinian children from carrying out the roadside assaults.

The change in the military regulation will not affect Jewish youngsters living in settlements in the West Bank because, as Israeli citizens, they would be tried in an Israeli court, an army statement released yesterday said.

Israeli law provides for a special court to handle juvenile offenders. But the Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank are subject to military law, which makes no special provisions for juvenile offenders.

Until now, army policy on the West Bank had limited arrests to stone-throwers 14 and older. Parents of younger stone-throwers were required to pay fines if their children were involved in a second incident.

But a high-ranking army official said Palestinian children as young as 8 are throwing stones at military vehicles and Jewish settlers on West Bank roads. Noting an increase in injuries resulting from stone-throwing by younger children, the Israeli army chief in the West Bank decided to cut the minimum age for prosecuting stone-throwers, the statement said.

Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon ordered military prosecutors to draft regulations to permit the arrest and trial of 12-year-olds, "which will come into effect shortly," the statement said.

Palestinian children will be tried in a military court. Punishments can range from fines to six months in jail "in exceptional cases," the statement said.

Although a few Palestinian 14-year-olds have been convicted of stone-throwing in the past three years, none has served time in an Israeli prison.

"The Israel Defense Forces takes injuries caused by stone-throwing very seriously. These injuries can be critical and life- threatening as in the case of a 3-year-old girl who was injured by a stone half a year ago and remains in a coma," the army statement said.

The policy change was ordered even though Israeli military officials have noted a steady decline in the number of stone-throwing incidents in the West Bank. In July, army officials recorded the lowest number of monthly stone-throwing incidents in several years -- 240, compared with 1,300 in December, the military official said.

The official attributed the decrease to the desires of Palestinian officials and the political climate surrounding Israeli elections in May. Palestinians opposed the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a hard-liner who suspended the peace process. Unrest or terrorist activity would likely have benefited his campaign.

Labor leader Ehud Barak, who pledged to revitalize the stalled peace process, won the election, to the relief of Palestinian officials.

Stone-throwing teen-agers became a hallmark of Palestinian resistance when they faced off against armed Israeli soldiers during the five-year street uprising known as the intifada. The campaign of street violence against Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ended in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians. But stone-throwing continued to be used as an expression of protest.

Under the 1993 peace agreements, Israel has ceded control over the major West Bank cities to the Palestinians. But in times of conflict over the peace process, Palestinians have often taken to the streets. Stones are thrown at Israeli soldiers who respond by firing tear gas and rubber-coated bullets.

Israeli military officials believe the leadership of the Palestinian Authority supports such activity to pressure Israel to stop building settlements on land occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and to withdraw completely from it.

Although terrorist attacks have subsided in the past nine months, military officials say "organized incitement" persists. This includes stone-throwing.

"Stones can kill," said Maj. DiNor Mizrahi, a spokesman for Ya'alon. "Most of those who throw stone in the areas are under 14. When the family knows the kids are going to be punished, the picture will be different."

Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists criticized the army's decision to prosecute children younger than 14.

Tomer Feffer of the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, said he recognizes the harm caused by stone-throwers, but he raised concerns about the prosecution of 12-year-olds.

"They need to look for other ways to solve this problem without violating human rights or children's rights," Feffer said.

Bassem Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, suggested that only 12-year-old Palestinian children would be prosecuted. "If that child was Jewish, he would never be prosecuted," he said.

Shlomo Lecker, a human rights lawyer from Jerusalem who has represented Palestinians in Israeli courts, said military law can be applied to Jews and Arabs in the West Bank.

But "99 percent of the time" they try the Jew in the Israeli court, he said.

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