In West Bank, teen offenders face different fates
Beit Umar, West Bank • The boys were both 15, with the crackly voices and awkward peach fuzz of adolescence. They lived just a few minutes away from one another in the West Bank. And both were accused of throwing stones at vehicles, one day after the other.
But there was a crucial difference that helped to shape each boy's fate: One was Israeli, and the other Palestinian.
The tale of the two teens provides a stark example of the vast disparities of Israel's justice system in the West Bank, a contested area at the heart of the elusive search for a lasting peace.
While Israeli settlers in the West Bank fall mostly under civilian rule, Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law. Israeli and Palestinian youths face inequities at every stage in the path of justice, from arrests to convictions and sentencing, according to police statistics obtained by The Associated Press through multiple requests under Israel's freedom of information law.
The results can ripple for years.
"Jail destroyed his life," said the Palestinian boy's father.
Only 53 Israeli settler youths were arrested for stone-throwing over the past six years, the data shows, and 89 percent were released without charge. Six were indicted. Four of those were found "guilty without conviction," a common sentence for Israeli juveniles that aims not to stain their record. One was cleared. The sixth case was still in court as of October, the most recent information available.
By contrast, 1,142 Palestinian youths were arrested by police over the same period for throwing stones, and 528 were indicted. All were convicted. Lawyers say the penalty is typically three to eight months in military prison.
Israel's Justice Ministry said more than five Israeli stone-throwers were indicted in the past six years, but declined to provide examples. Itzik Bam, a lawyer who represents Israeli settler youths, said he knew of 20 Israeli minors in the West Bank indicted for stone-throwing in recent years, including six who pleaded guilty and six who were cleared. He said the other cases are still in court.
The police numbers are not comprehensive, because the Israeli army also arrests Palestinian youths, and because the state prosecutor also issues indictments against settlers in more serious cases. However, the gap between the numbers for Israelis and Palestinians is clear and wide.
Israel's Justice Ministry said the numbers reflect the fact that Palestinians threw more stones than Israelis, rather than unequal treatment.
"Though the legal systems are different — military court versus civil court — the relevant law is implied impartially," said Yehuda Shefer, a deputy state prosecutor who is head of a Justice Ministry committee for West Bank law enforcement.
The Israeli Justice Ministry says it would like to rehabilitate Palestinian youth, but ends up jailing many offenders because their parents and leaders support their crimes. However, critics accuse Israel of dismissing Israeli crimes as youthful indiscretions, while treating Palestinian youths like hardened criminals.
"Everyone knows there is a problem with the treatment of minors in the West Bank, a systematic discrimination between Israeli minors and Palestinian minors," said Michael Sfard, an Israeli attorney and Palestinian human rights defender. "Now you have the figures to prove that."
Stones have become an iconic weapon in the West Bank, an arid land where they are plentiful. In the past six years, more than half of all arrests of Palestinian youth have been over stone-throwing, which Israel claims can be the first step toward militancy. Extremist Israeli settlers have also adopted the tactic.
On Feb. 20, 2012, the Israeli boy joined a group of youths pelting a bus with rocks at the entrance to Bat Ayin, according to police reports. The settlement, located in the southern West Bank between Jerusalem and the biblical city of Hebron, is known for its hardline population.
Police said they targeted the bus because the driver was Arab. The rocks damaged the bus but did not harm the driver.